Every three years, a set of fresh faces enters the halls of the National Portrait Gallery. This year, 48 faces made it. One was covered in glitter, another composed of rice, but all offered a “fresh and provocative way of looking and thinking about portraiture,” according to the museum’s interim director Wendy Wick Reaves. The national Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition brought more than 3,000 submissions, of which Reaves and a panel of six other jurors selected seven short-listed artists, including the grand-prize winner Bo Gehring of Beacon, New York. His Jessica Wickham pairs a video portrait of a woman with her favorite piece of music, Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” to record her emotional response as she listens to it once more.
Check out a slideshow with all the winners here.
“Unlike other Portrait Gallery shows,” says Dorothy Moss, director of the 2013 competition, “this exhibition is really about the artist.” Indeed, each work is accompanied by a brief statement from the artist and the exhibit’s accompanying app includes in depth written materials from them as well. Moss says the pieces were chosen not just for their mastery of a medium, but also “because they convey the resiliency of the human spirit.” From a group portrait of an artist’s cousins in Kansas who have fallen on hard times to a drag queen from the Dirty South projected as video against glitter, the works all depict people working through a certain confusion of existence, according to Moss.
Some of the works navigate the confusion in deft and intriguing ways, like Gehring’s video installation, whose slow pan of a woman lying on the floor transforms a body into a landscape and sonic experience all at once. By the time the camera, which hovers just above the subject, moves from her orange Crocs to her hands resting on her rising and falling faded jacket and finally meets her eyes, viewers share her gaze for a split second before she looks away. Gehring told Reaves that when she turned away, he wept.
Others deal much more directly with metaphor or history, referencing the practice of portraiture throughout time.
It’s a collection of subjects as diverse as the approaches of each artist to portraiture.
First prize includes an award of $25,000 and a commission from the museum to be included in the permanent collection. Jennifer Levonian’s digital video animation Buffalo Milk Yogurt won second place, while third prize went to Sequoyah Aono for his self-portrait sculpture carved in wood. Commended artists include Paul D’AMato, Martha Mayer Erlebacher, Heidi Fancher and Beverly McIver. Each received a cash prize.
The jurors included Reaves, Moss, chief curator Brandon Fortune, critic Peter Frank, artist Hung Liu, art historian Richard Powell and photographer Alec Soth.
The winners of the competition will be on display March 23, 2013 through February 23, 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery.