Portraits have always been more than straightforward representations of the sitter. Historically, as tools of the elite, they’ve conveyed wealth, power, beauty, virtue and thereby legitimized the ruling class.
More modern images of people, for which the sitters do not pay, also convey meanings other than essential truths about the sitter. Think of journalistic images used as propaganda, or film stills that take on icon or meme status. The audience places cultural values onto pictures of people all the time.
Blue Star Contemporary’s current exhibition “The Sitter,” poses questions. Can the sitter play a more active role? Can we expand the definition of the sitter? And what all are today’s sitters saying?
Exhibitions Curator Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray assembles 13 artists working in a variety of media whose work acknowledges the sitter or human subject as part of a collaboration. These artists don’t just elevate sitters. They push them into new relationships, and agendas, that reveal cultural context, and identity constructs, as well as confronting social issues and difficult narratives.
La Vaughn Belle demonstrates how through portraiture an artist can undermine stories and build new ones. Her investigation of the sitter’s role in narrative is particularly provocative.
On view are several Polaroids of individuals posing in the same chair. The artist’s statement explains that this piece of furniture is a planter’s chair, where a slave master sat, invoking the colonial plantation system. We learn its throne-like design even facilitated the removal of the master’s shoes by his servant — the power dynamic is clear, or is it? These casual images along with the video “Somebody’s Been Sitting in My Chair Somebody’s Been Sleeping in My Bed,” (2011) which reimagines the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” fairy tale, allow Belle’s sitters to subvert history – reinventing the owner, how property (chair and “Great House”) is used, and what they represent.
Concerned with domesticity in a different way, Loc Huynh’s portraits of family members at home beguile with their bright cartoonish style. Huynh’s sitters reflect elements of his artist’s own life and Vietnamese culture in an intimate way. “Mom Making Pho” (2021) depicts the artist’s mother ladling broth, as four squiggly lines indicate steam rising from the bowl. Limes, Siracha and soy sauce sit on the ledge behind her.
Huynh’s graphic and curvy figural style is echoed in two painted cardboard sculptures of his grandparents’ heads. “Bà ngoại va Ông ngoại (Grandma and Grandpa)” set on the ground while whimsical, also refer to home altars honoring deceased relatives.
Sarah Fox’s relationship with the sitter might be tricky to understand without some artist- biography. In a digital video (2021), Fox’s sitter is a puppet fashioned as a hybrid (nude) female – rabbit, named “Bad Bunny,” that smokes cigarettes and drinks Lone Star beer. The Bad Bunny character represents a combination of the artist’s self and her sister growing up in a dysfunctional household, alluding to some hidden trauma. Whether the anthropomorphic bunny possess qualities that allow for catharsis is not for me to say. It is pretty creepy though.
Natan Dvir’s series of photographs originating as part of a documentary project “Eighteen” (2009) addresses coming of age in a hostile environment in a more direct way. Each image of an Arab teen is accompanied by a written first-person account of their everyday lives and struggles, making a place for audience empathy and dialogue. The youthful sitters are compelling and given a potent voice, during what is already a universally a tumultuous time, made more so by the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Another artist who inserts her sitters’ voices into her work is Madison Cowles Serna. Cowles Serna’s massive installation of painted portrait heads with red backgrounds is called “Withstand. (2021) It’s the result of a project in which the artist invited sexual assault survivors and allies, to contribute photos of themselves for Cowles’ to paint. Breaking the confines of “sitting” for a portrait seems right in this case as does the artist’s inclusion of personal hand-written letters from each participant, concerning their experiences. The portraits were intermixed with the text to offer anonymity but still lend each individual agency, empowering those who so often remain silent.
Whether written in text or heard through clues such as puppets and props, “The Sitter” gives its artists and it subjects a voice.
“The Sitter” is on view at Blue Star Contemporary through Sept. 5 bluestarcontemporary.org