Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Outwin 2016 at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM)

"Outwin"? Ever hear of it? I hadn't until the email from TAM announcing the opening came a while back.

Subtitled "American Portrature Today", it is a triennial competition sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian) and is juried by a panel of curators from the Portrait Gallery and, significantly, working artists. It is open to any artist, professional or Sunday only, working in any medium, in the United States. This, the 4th Outwin, drew over 2500 entrants and was winnowed down to 43 -- a size just about right for two of the north galleries at TAM. This is the first venue after it hung in the Smithsonian.

Why "Outwin"? Virginia Outwin Boucher was a passionate supporter of the National Portrait Gallery and volunteered there for nearly 20 years. She and her children endowed the competition in her honor.

I can't say that I was particularly excited by "Miss Everything", the first prize winner that illustrated the email announcement from TAM but Barbara and I were ready for a brief road trip so we took the arduous journey down I5 to see it yesterday. Three years or so back TAM received a mammoth gift of vintage and contemporary art of the American west from the Haub family (along with the money to build a new wing to house it -- wouldn't it be nice to have the loot to afford to do something like that?) and much more recently a smaller but similarly impressive gift of contemporary Northwest art from the Benaroya family (along with the money to build yet another new wing to house that). But I digress again.

Outwin 2016 includes sculpture -- including a cast glass bust -- drawings, paintings, a good deal of photography and two installations. The skill level and attention to detail throughout is exceptionally high. Most of the works are straight-up representational -- the originality demanded by the jurors achieved through content and approach rather than avant garde technique. 

The work that strayed farthest from strictly representational was the installation Caja de Memoria Viva II. I'm not keen on installations as a rule but I'll make an exception for this one. It is housed in a large hollow cube suspended from the ceiling at a height such that the viewer can walk under it. The front/back/left/right views of a kindly, wrinkled, older man's head are done in charcoal on the sides of the box. As you walk under it you are looking up into the hollow cube that is decorated with snapshots and letters and a soft, nearly unintelligible voice speaks to you -- you are literally "inside his head".

The other installation, "A Moment in Time" is a set of 17 small photographs housed in a large, wall-mounted case -- one portrait for each decade since the invention of photography. They begin with a jewel-like Daguerreotype in a tiny, ornate case labeled "1850" and progress with the technology of photographs through ambrotype, tintype, albumen, silver, polaroid and digital (labeled 2010). Only when I read the wall tag did I realize that all the portraits are self-portraits of the artist -- costumed to match the fictional time of the photograph.

With the exception of the photographs in "A Moment in Time" all the photographs were digital prints and all but two of these were color. One of the latter, “Haints at Swamp II” was a faux toned C-print mounted behind a crystal-clear thick glass that gave it the appearance of wet-plate or even aureotype. 

With no exceptions the pieces in this show stood on their own as portraits apart from the fame or obscurity of the sitter -- David Hockney no more nor less than a homeless African-American man on a San Francisco street corner.

Many of the portraits dealt with social issues -- homelessness, gender inequality, racial tension, transgender acceptance, mental and physical disability -- but the issues were beneath the surface of the portrait that was first and foremost an image of a human worthy of attention and respect.

Many of the artists, in their statements that accompanied the art, commented on their artistic debt to the great portraitists of the past. It was easy to see, for example, Edward Hopper's "Night Hawks" in "Audrey, 2014", Vermeer's use of side light in "Becky, June, Jessica, and Mary" (perhaps my favorite of the show), Sally Mann's ability to show childhood as both idyllic and threatening in "Mavis in the Backseat", August Sanders' respect for his subjects in "Hiede and Lilly"

As for grand prize winner, "Miss Everything" -- it is one of those artworks that I didn't appreciate until I saw it in person. In this painting, a young African American girl in a partly polka-dotted dress, white gloves and a scarlet hat stared fixedly at the viewer while holding an outsized teacup. Her skin is grey (although my eyes obediently saw it as a chocolate brown). At a glance it resembles a "naive" work but, like Jacob Lawrence's paintings, the longer I look at it the more sophisticated and carefully done it becomes.

"Outwin 2016" is on view at TAM until May 14. The small but well-produced catalog is available in the gift shop.

I plan on seeing it again. 

(and as an aside, the blogspot editor is a real pain to use -- this is hardly the format I had in mind but I'm throwing in the towel)

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