Portraits?: A Broad Perspective On Living Subjects

Portraits?: A Broad Perspective On Living Subjects

The term ‘portrait’ conjures up a range of associations, from paintings of wealthy figures posed amongst their possessions to yearbook photo day at grade school. A rigid definition would confine portraiture to images of people from the shoulders upward. In this exhibition, we have selected a group of works that speak to a broader definition of portraiture; a work that captures the expression of the living form, both human and animal.

"Portraiture continues to be popular to the extent that we see aspects of ourselves, or our foibles, presented by artists drawn to these subjects they wish us to know."

“The intent of portraiture is to provide insight into one or more aspects of the subject. The artists wish to acknowledge the significance of their subject choice for any number of reasons whether they are political, historical, emotional, symbolic, or purely descriptive,” explains owner and director Sam Davidson. "Portraiture continues to be popular to the extent that we see aspects of ourselves, or our foibles, presented by artists drawn to these subjects they wish us to know."

Gaining insight into our self and others is a timeless human fascination that has made portraiture an enduring practice; however, limitations on resources to produce portraits has meant that historically, portraiture was accessible mainly to the privileged. Fortunately this has begun to change over time. 

Christie Tirado's 'Dolores Del Rio.' Portrait of a woman wearing green and yellow clothes in front of a purple background.

According to collections manager Paige McCray, “If a portrait is in fact meant for posterity, then it is an idea of whose memory, history, and life deserves to be preserved. Portraits were formerly a luxury for those who could afford to commission them. But they have transformed to include people of all backgrounds, giving value to those whom history has overlooked (such as Christie Tirado's Dolores Del Rio), and those who have made their own history. This is one of the most exciting aspects of the exhibition, in my opinion.” 

Kirsten Flaherty's 'Pit Bull II.' Image of the snout and face of a pit bull in black and white.

Just as portraits have evolved to be more inclusive of human subjects, they have also more prominently featured animal subjects. Formerly included as background details in a human’s portrait, animals have now become the primary focus of their own portraits - their likeness and expressions worthy of documenting in their own right. Our interest in animal subjects, as Paige points out, is based in our tendency to empathize with animals; “There is something to their expressions that reminds us of ourselves, and yet remains distinct (demonstrated in Kirsten Flaherty's Pit Bull II).” 

Tomiyuki Sakuta's 'Bjorn & Kiki.' Black and white image of produce-like forms representing two human faces side by side.

In the process of capturing the subject’s essence, “Contemporary artists don't limit themselves to a literal description of the eyes, mouth, etc. but prefer to employ various contextual details. Sometimes hiding parts of the face reveals more than including it all. And sometimes a portrait doesn’t need any facial features to represent a person (for example, Tomiyuki Sakuta's Bjorn & Kiki).”

Both contemporary and antique artists have more than likely been drawn to self-portraiture at some point, for several reasons. One is that for an artist or student seeking to practice human likeness, their own face is a readily available (and free) model. Even more compelling is the fascination with the self; in the same way that portraits aim to reveal insight into a subject, the artist may also seek to gain insight into themselves. 

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Marketing & Communications Manager Emma Scherer
Marketing & Communications Manager Emma Scherer