Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada is a big artist with big ideas. Standing a wiry 6-foot-5, he is rethinking the concept of portraiture: Instead of capturing an individual on canvas, he portrays universal man in giant “face-scapes” tilled into the ground.
Born in Cuba, raised in the United States and based in Barcelona, the 48-year-old earth artist has received international renown for monumental face-scapes he’s done in Belfast, Amsterdam and two sites in Spain. Now the National Portrait Gallery has commissioned his first such work in the United States, a face-scape that will appear on the National Mall for a month, beginning October 1.
“I want to expand the idea of what a portrait is,” says Kim Sajet, the director of the Portrait Gallery, who sought out the artist after seeing his earth portrait of a girl in Belfast. “The Portrait Gallery commissions paintings, video, photography and drawings all the time. This is about pushing the boundaries of portraiture outside the walls of the museum.”
In late summer, Rodríguez-Gerada was preparing to construct his portrait of an anonymous male on five acres of prime parkland between the Lincoln Memorial and the World War II Memorial. Titled Out of Many, One, it presents a single face that is a composite of 50 men between the ages of 18 and 24, both Anglo and African-American. The artist picked them pretty much at random in Washington, D.C., photographed them and selected elements of each face—“the glint of an eye, edge of a mouth, someone’s lip texture”—for an image he created using Photoshop. Then he turned that image into a line drawing.
“Diversity is the backbone of the nation, and this piece embraces that fact,” he says. “I decided to create the face of a young adult male because I want to talk about the reality of this demographic group in the U.S. Nothing affects us more than the arbitrary nature of identity. We are judged immediately by preconceptions about how we look and where we come from. For minorities, the reality is still harsh.”
His medium is organic: approximately 2,300 tons of sand and 800 tons of soil. His work, he says, “will avoid any negative impact on the environment.” (That’s a requirement of the National Park Service, which will install soccer fields on the site next year.)
Just how does Rodríguez-Gerada, a skilled draftsman, draw on a piece of land that is 840 feet long and 230 feet wide? Using GPS, he maps the ground with 15,000 pegs to indicate facial features. He then links the pegs with string to form a template for placing pale sand and dark soil.
The project was projected to cost about $500,000, which was raised privately. Rodríguez-Gerada has proved to be a pied piper, attracting donations and volunteers. Topcon Positioning Systems of Livermore, California, lent GPS instruments to survey the site. “We like to see art and technology joining up in a creative way,” says Mark Contino, a Topcon vice president. Clark Construction is providing project management and construction logistics. Three Maryland firms are contributing time and materials: Contractor Stancills Inc. is coordinating the project with sand provider Chaney Enterprises and soil donor A H Hatcher. Bulldog Group of Washington promised to haul more than 100 loads in its dump trucks. Once the materials arrive, Rodríguez-Gerada will direct hundreds of volunteers in tilling the soil into a male visage.
“The kind of people who come together to get these projects done are part of the story,” Rodríguez-Gerada says. “My idea is not to sell a product, but to start a dialogue.”
Of course, visitors will experience the portrait only partially by walking through it. Passengers coming in for a landing at Reagan National Airport and tourists atop the Washington Monument will be able to see it whole. The work will also be recorded in photos and video—and then it will disappear. Which is kind of the point.
“The importance of the piece is the whole process of creation, destruction and memory,” Rodríguez-Gerada says. “It’s about reflection. Finding the protagonists, how the city comes together to create the work, the narrative, the memory. The piece is all those things combined.”
"Out of Many, One" by Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada opens on the National Mall on October 1 and will be on view through October 31. The installation is located between the World War II and Lincoln memorials.