Monday, March 17, 2008

Response 5 - Varieties of Portraiture

What is a portrait?

The relationship between the participants in a portraits-- the subject, the artist, and the audience-- is largely dependent on the context for both the creation and viewing of the portrait and the intended function of the portrait.

According to Brilliant and Shearer, portraits serve both literal and abstract functions, personal and documentary, aesthetic and scientific. In each function, the relationship between portrait participants shifts appropriately. This can also run backwards-- if the relationship between the participants shift, the function of the photograph can change.

For example, this video tells the story of a photo album created by a Nazi officer at Auschwitz. It primarily documents leisure time-- the officers and their female "helpers" vacationing at lodge just outside of the death camp. Many of the photographs qualify as "portraits."

Karl Höcker, the SS officer who owned the album, shows up on almost every page of photographs, but rarely appears in historical records. Because of this previous lack of records, he was not convicted of conspiracy to commit mass murder and served only 7 years for other, less severe war crimes. Today, Höcker's self-portraits are being used by forensic anthropologists to determine his identity in another photograph of the "selection" process at Auschwitz, and thus, his guilt. As Höcker's photographs travel through time and context, their function and the relationship among those pictured in them and those viewing them has changes dramatically. Indeed, if Höcker were alive today, this would change things in an additional way because they would might be used as evidence in a capital trial in addition to historical inquiry.

The need for literal representation in portrait is dependent on to the extent to which the portraits function calls for legibility. A genomic portrait used for scientific purposes must be more overtly legible than a genomic portrait used for conceptual or aesthetic ones. In the case of propagandist portraits, those possessing information that makes the widely illegible legible may be empowered. But, in the case of the Chapmans's series below, those looking for explicit representation are probably missing the point.

All portraiture is interactive in some way. It is usually the collaboration of at least three actors in order to exist as a portrait. But increased, more overt interactivity creates the opportunity for remix and recontextualization. Any image may be used for purposes other than the original function. The level of least-interactivity, a static, untouchable image by the reinterpreted in the mind of the viewer. As demonstrated by the blogs in my second example below, greater interactivity provides for greater ease of appropriation and circulation of these new curatorial visions.

An interactive medium makes the viewer part of the context for understanding the portrait in that it elicits information about the viewers. The blogs below show original portrait sitters, but they also reflect the blogger and the blog readership. What does it mean that one blog has a lot of comments whereas the other does not? Do the commentors seem to be the blogger's personal friends? How do they react to the contents of the blog and the portraits themselves? In this way, the more information is collected about viewers, the more the portrait demonstrate what Shearer calls "occasionality" and the more it functions as a historical document. (This is just one aspect of what happens when viewed things begin to collect information about viewers.)

"Portrait of Andrea Rose (No. 118)" by Jake and Dinos Chapman from Painting for Pleasure and Profit: A Piece of Site-specific Performance-based Body Art in Oil, Canvas and Wood

During the five days of the 2006 Frieze Art Fair in London, brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman set-up a temporary "studio" and painting the portrait of anyone who was willing to pay a fee. Most of the portraits did looked only vaguely humanoid and usually bore only idiosyncratic or subjective likeness to the sitter. The above painting is portrait of Andrea Rose, who is portrayed elsewhere in text as:
Andrea Rose is the Director of Visual Arts at the British Council. She is a Trustee of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle-Gateshead, as well as being the British Commissioner for the International Venice Biennale of Art and Architecture. She was awarded an OBE in 1998 for services to British Art. In 2001 she became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

My boyfriend, who went to Frieze that year, saw a young boy from (as he remembers it) an obviously wealthy, art-collecting family pose for a portrait. The result, as he recounts it, was a painting of "a fly on a pile of shit."

The 125 portraits generated at Frieze were then shown as part of a survey of the Chapmans's art at Tate Liverpool. The paintings were hung in an installation that depicted a fake artist studio, with peeling wallpaper, bad lighting, and creaking floorboards. According to the curator, this was intended to "create an ironic image of what one expects an artist's lifestyle and their practice to be. [...] This image of the artist as a tortured soul makes us question these flimsy presumptions. They are also poking fun at themselves."

This portrait series evoke a playfully/ironically antagonistic relationship between the artist, the sitter/patron, and the larger art world. It can also be read as turning the art fair into a "county fair," where people can be to have their caricature made. This reading interrogates the spectacle of the art world as well the notion of artist-as-gifted-genius. At the same time, the Chapman brother's enfant terrible behavior reinforces their special and privileged position as artists who can insult their patrons and still be admired in spite of (or because of) this behavior.

"Awful" Portraits
from "The Awful World of Glamor Portraits" from

from "Bad Portraits" from
Both of these kinds of portraiture-- glamor shots and tattoos-- are interesting forms in themselves.

The first form represents a have-it-yourself form of fashion photography that morphed into a genre unto itself. A speculative historical argument-- By the 1980s and 1990s, when glamor shots photos were in their heyday, most people knew enough about photography to understand that images of models were manipulated by makeup, good lighting, and photo retouching (see more recent Dove campaign that trades on this sense). The glamor shot offers individuals the opportunity to get the "model" treatment. But, as we can see, the glamor shot does not make every woman into a model look-alike. Indeed, everything about the glamor shot-- the pose, the clothing choice, the materiality of the actual printed photograph-- can only look like exactly what it is.

The second form, the tattoo portrait, is (like several of the portraits mentioned in the reading) is a copy of another portraits. In this case, the images is both intentionally and unintentionally manipulated. The two example above have different functions determined by the relationship of the patron (tattooee) to the sitter. The "In Loving Memory" image of the bride seems to be part of the commemoration/memorial tradition. It bears an even more intimate relationship to the patron than the miniatures that acts as a proxies for the sitter mentioned by Shearer. The other example seems to function as more of avatar signifying the patron while augmenting his body with commentary.

However, I am just as interested in the self-portrait painted by each of these bloggers by the act of collecting this photographs. Both bloggers use the word "awful" to describe what their subject matter. The tattoo blogger is only interested in the technique of tattooing. "One of the most unfortunate tattoos that you can have is a badly done portrait," she writes, "and sadly there are a lot of them out there." Of the memorial portrait, she writes, "This is my favorite bad portrait. It's shark-zombie-bride. I feel so sorry for the guy who got this. Again, note the teeth." The implications of calling a memorial image a "shark-zombie-bride" do not seem to be an issue. The glamor shot blogger displays a tension between what is embarrassing and what is desirable.

Both sets of assemblage and commentary serve to recontextualize the portraits as caricature, as Brilliant puts it, "expressing itself in the deformation of the likeness" while creating a more flattering data-based image of the blogger, who knows better than the original patrons/sitters.

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