About Face

About Face

Jaws dropped in February, 2018 when the official portraits of former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The Obamas’ selection of the artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald represented a number of firsts: the painters were the first African- Americans commissioned to create official presidential portraits, and the first to take a non-traditional aesthetic approach to the task. (Most official presidential portraits are sober, realistic likenesses with few artistic flourishes.) But there was another “first” about the Obama paintings when they were first revealed, unfolding on cable news and online: people all over the world were talking about the meaning of portraiture. Observers lavished praise on the paintings and singled them out for criticism, adopted them as lock screen images on their smartphones, photoshopped themselves into the graphic gown that Michelle wears in her painting, or into the lush field of greenery that surrounds Barack in his. Were they “accurate”? Were they dignified? Did they reflect appropriately the office? Did they send the right message? It’s hard to remember when an official portrait triggered this kind of conversation in the artworld, much less on Twitter.

Read More

Keeping up with the Eamses

Keeping up with the Eamses

In her 1963 manifesto of emergent feminism, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan identifies the middle class housewife as the “chief customer” of American business, and theorized that it was women’s unmet need for intellectual stimulation, not avarice or keeping-up-with-the- Joneses, that was driving their eager consumerism. She dismisses domestic labor as a non-occupation, a routine of make-work that diverts women from meaningful engagement with the world. Friedan’s point of view assumes that the care of home and family exists in a kind of bizarro world of non-professional work, in which women’s intellect was all but wasted.

Read More

Exposing Time

Exposing Time

Museum visitors all seem to be dedicated photographers these days, navigating galleries as they capture vivid design details and immersive art installations with their smartphones, then sharing their images instantly. To view art and to experience a museum through a smartphone camera’s viewfinder is so commonplace now as to be unremarkable. Such a picture is not so much a portrait of a particular work of art as it is proof—shared with a wide social network—of the photographer’s own encounter with it. What we now think of as “old- fashioned” photography defies the instant gratification and endless reproducibility of a smartphone image. The recent and unintentional specialness of analog image-making may explain its renaissance in current artistic practice. Even the camera obscura—a tool that was used as a drawing aid for centuries before photography was invented—has found an exceptionally patient champion in the person of Vera Lutter, a contemporary pioneer of the ultra-long exposure image.

Read More