Respect Your Selfie

Respect Your Selfie: Why the Portrait Reigns Supreme, From Van Dyck to Ed Atkins

(art: Still from Ribbons (2014) by Ed Atkins. Image via Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.) Article by:

By Karen Rosenberg June 3, 2016

What does it mean to be a portrait artist today, when portraiture is more of a reflex than an art—a prerequisite for engaging with the world, via a carefully modulated stream of selfies and face-swaps? The current resurgence of the figure in contemporary art makes this question all the more pressing: faces and bodies are everywhere, but few of them qualify as conventional portraits.

Instead, we have allegorical figures (in Nicole Eisenman’s current shows at the New Museum and Anton Kern), composite figures who may be based on several individuals (as in the latest work by Barkley Hendricks), imagined figures (as in the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye), human-alien hybrids (in Jamian Juliano-Villani), meticulously fabricated robots based on pop-cultural sources (in Jordan Wolfson’s outing at David Zwirner), and an assortment of avatars (in the videos of Cao FeiCasey Jane Ellison, and DIS, among many others).

Three current shows in New York, taken together, tell us something about what has happened to the portrait and how it might continue to evolve under pressure from technology and our compulsion to self-present. The superb “Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture,” at the Frick Collection through June 5, surveys the short but intense career of one of the most gifted portrait artists of all time. The Whitney Museum’s wide-angle collection show “Human Interest” reminds us that the democratization of portraiture started more than a century ago, and encourages us to think more broadly about what is or isn’t a portrait. Finally, Ed Atkins’s solo show of videos at the still-under-construction Gavin Brown space in Harlem puts forth a futuristic kind of portraiture that’s as raw as its setting, even if it’s ultra-sophisticated in its use of facial-recognition and motion-capture technologies.