America’s Who’s-Who On Display in New Portrait Gallery Show

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On the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery, a new exhibit examines who we are as a nation in the 21st century. Americans Now notes the notable people who are making an impact on our cultural landscape—be it in the form of entertainment, sports, the arts or business—and accentuates American creativity and achievement. But the show is not only about the personalities, but about the changing face of portraiture and how artists are pushing the boundaries of this age-old genre.

One of the more traditional offerings on the walls is a photograph (left) of domestic diva Martha Stewart shortly after her much-publicized turn in the Alderson Federal Prison Camp (more affectionately known as "Camp Cupcake). She's one of those hot-button personalities that generates a lot of strong emotions—both wildly positive and negative. But no matter your opinion of the person, it is impossible to deny that she is one of the most successful businesspeople of our time. When the photograph was taken, there was much speculation over whether or not Stewart would return to her former prominence.

"The ever-resilient Martha Stewart proved them wrong," said curator Ann Shumard during a press preview of the show. But reading the whole image isn't as simple as capturing a moment of triumph. Martha was primed and ready to poke fun at the publicity surrounding her trial. Schumard drew the crowd's attention to a brown leather bag innocently sitting on a countertop in the background of the image. It's the infamous Hermes Birkin Bag—whose price tag makes it an item available only to the fabulously rich. When Stewart—known for her typically budget friendly projects and K-Mart product lines—walked into the courtroom to face allegations of insider trading armed with this symbol of extreme luxury, causing a bit of a scandal. "And here she is," Shumard ays, "out of prison, looking to re-establish her public image. And there she is. Martha and the bag."

Other pieces not only capture famous personalities but expand the boundaries of how we consider portraiture. Case in point is a video installation by Lincoln Schatz, where video recordings of human behavior act as the portrait—such as LeBron James playing a basketball video game or Craig Venter, the biologist known for mapping the human genome, mapping out a sailing trip.

Then there are artists like Chuck Close, who has been toying with our notions of portraiture since the 1960s. He is perhaps best known for his large-scale portraits composed of splotchy "pixels" of paint. He puts a fun twist on the genre once again with the anamorphic self-portrait on display. A hodgepodge of Close's characteristic splotches lay flat on a wood base, arranged around an upright, stainless steel cylinder.

At first glance, I wasn't sure what I was looking at. But as I started moving around the piece, I finally noticed the reflection in the cylinder: through optical illusion, the reflection smooshed and morphed the splotches to create a perfectly recognizable self-portrait of the artist. As curator Wendy Reaves pointed out, "It's a way of challenging the authority of the frontal gaze."

I know, it's all a little hard to visualize and sadly, I don't have the rights to post that particular artwork here. But the same piece was covered in Princeton University's arts blog and can be seen here. I do, however, recommend you come out to the Portrait Gallery and see it in person. The experience of this piece of art is a lot of fun.

Americans Now is on view until June 19, 2011. You can see a selection of the pieces on display in the online version of the show here.

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