Do take it personally and emotionally
Let’s say you are at a museum strolling through their collections. Do you take your time at a typical portraiture painting section or, like me, tend to pay only a brief visit? The wall full of portraits doesn’t particularly attract me because it reminds me of a similar-looking wall of a school principal’s office where I was scolded for hours about my innocent mischief. Regardless of the unwelcome memories, certain types of works can fascinate me, which conveys the timeless narration of the model or the artist. Their unignorable presence does stop me from walking passed them.
In my case, the fascinations are in portraits of common people because they often connote the engaging drama. For example, the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring, even inspired Tracy Chevalier to write the same-titled novel, which sold more than five million copies and made its way to the successful movie. Whereas just as hard it is to hold conversations with those rugged faces of American presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore, the privileged appear in the beautiful orthodox portraits rarely communicate with me.
Good paintings should lure the viewers into the love triangle between them, the model, and the painter. Don’t be afraid to feel too attached to it. Tracy wrote a book out of it.
Some modern-day portraits on TRiCERA feature ordinary people, specifically those who reside in the distorted social dimensions. Before jumping into there, fasten your seatbelt, please. It’s going to be a very personal and emotional flight!
“I want my work to scream.” – James Earley
James Earley from the U.K. is a most promising hyperrealism painter and the first prize winner at The London Biennale 2019. He often represents the troubled so that he can “raise awareness of issues such as homelessness, mental health, and war.” Unexpectedly, the impressions of his unusual models are overwhelmingly personable and peaceful. What screams at us, “the normal,” is that these “unfortunate” people are no different. We all have our share of problems in life. Although, theirs are more apparent than ours because they do not have the socially crafted disguise to cover it up. The hardships and dirt of life, which may look just like this man’s feet, evokes the awkwardness that we try to hide.
This pungent sensation from Earley’s paintings is familiar to me and is the reason why I have such strong attachments to them.
The saturated homelessness was a shocking sight when I moved to Vancouver, Canada, known as one of the world’s most livable cities. Even the most touristy street is only a block away from the largest homeless neighborhood. I lived surrounded by them, and they did never harm me.
But downtown life grew painful day by day since I noticed many of those men and women were young, around my age. Paying for the rent, food, and expensive tuition from my modest savings and paycheck from the part-time job, I was barely making my ends meet. Then, one of my Canadian friends shared her secret past with me that she had fallen from the same circumstance as I was, become homeless for a few months, and stayed at a shelter. She was hiding it beautifully underneath her disguise. From that point, homelessness was not an entire stranger anymore. This realization and fear kept me upright but eventually removed me from downtown.
One day, years after escaping from the dire reality, a homeless guy named Jean-Mark from Montreal asked me to buy him something from a store – usually, they only ask for changes. So I did because he was talkable and reasonable, and about the same age. He happily shared his life story while we walked down a couple of blocks. A few nights later, I saw him again on the street and had small chats. I couldn’t offer much assistance for him but still wonder how he is doing. In these intimate portraits, I felt like I saw Jean-Mark’s shy smile, and shed tears. Earley must have a heart full of sympathy and compassion, and the strength to bear their sorrow. It is not a charity but the genuine care that brings out such smiles on their faces, which you can see in his paintings. He gives back life to them, momentarily in reality and permanently in art.
More portraits that reflect the distortion of society
There’s more and more pressure to be “unique (like others)” in younger generations. They struggle to find their identities between the value of intrinsic uniqueness and the popularity of socially manipulated ones. Rafa Mata accurately points out this contradiction with his art and words.
Zeng Chao portrays the conflicts of ideologies in modern Chinese society as a person. One group is driven by Chinese socialism, and the other is influenced by ancient philosophy, Taoism. He clothes this human in the iconic socialist attire and transforms the head into his thematic motif from Taoism, Kazan-seki. The dynamic contrast of his brush works with oil paint is astonishing.
Is the person who you see in the mirror yourself, or is it someone who others see? To confront the uncertainty of what we see is the theme of Ryo Shimizu’s artworks. We understand and define ourselves with the images shown by others. Thus, others are our mirrors. This self-portrait is a mosaic image of various selves found on diverse social mirrors.
What a portrait painting expresses is not as easily understandable as, for example, landscapes. But for its ambiguous nature, you can also feel free to read between the lines. What do you feel? How did the artist interpret the model? And what do you see in the model’s eyes? Let’s enjoy the personal and emotional take on portraiture paintings!
My colleague writes another article about portraits, “why do people draw faces?” He analyzes many more works with a technical viewpoint. Don’t forget to subscribe to our ArtClip newsletter!