Portraiture has long been a stand-in for political power — from the paintings of kings and nobles hundreds of years ago, to more recent snapshots taken in the struggle for civil rights. The National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin: American Portraiture Today exhibition, on display through January 2017, in part highlights the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and features five artists worth watching.
The exhibition was sourced from entrants to the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, founded in 2006. The Outwin Competition is open to any artist over the age of 18. While a panel of experts selects the pieces for exhibition, the open submission format results in an unusually diverse group of artists for a major museum exhibition.
Riva Lehrer’s portrait of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel was created on top of an image of Bechdel’s mother drawn by the cartoonist. Lehrer’s Bechdel may be haunted by the apparition of her mother, is crouched, perhaps about to spring up as if loosed from a cage.
Bechdel may not be a household name but she’s a celebrated subject, having won a MacArthur “Genius” Award following publication of her Pulitzer Prize nominated graphic novel (that has since been adapted into an award-winning Broadway show.)
Lehrer’s story is less well known. She was born with spina bifida and wrote, “Disability is the fuel of my work and the engine of my career.” In an interview with Allison Meier in 2013 she said, “Keeping biography with the body matters,” and a lot of the Outwin exhibit does exactly that.
Photographer Jess T. Dugan’s image shows her standing with arms raised over her head, drawing the viewer’s eye to the hair on her armpits. Her eyes lock with the viewers and she is confident, vulnerable, and strong. Through a successful Kickstarter campaign Dugan recently published a book of photographs. In an interview about her work Dugan said, “I’m part of trans community; I’m not a lesbian and I’m not a gay man but I hang out in those spaces. I think I’m hyper aware of how my identity changes in different contexts.”
Dorothy Moss, Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture responsible for the Outwin exhibit at the Portrait Gallery, said, “The jurors were pleased to see the ways artists are confronting the complexity of identity, especially work that explores gender identity, including queer and transgender subjects.”
Since 2011, photographer Carolyn Sherer’s work has sought to highlight the beauty and vulnerability of lesbian families, particularly in the South. In a 2015 interview about her “Living in Limbo” series, Sherer said, “People do still lose jobs and child custody because of their sexual or gender identity. I hope that individuals living in liberal areas of the country can remain aware of the implications of making equality a state’s rights issue.” Sherer’s artwork in the Outwin is a bright and stripped down photograph, “Lucy, 15 Years Old,” that shows the subject on her first day as a girl. Central to the photo’s power is Lucy’s gaze: she looks directly at the viewer with the smallest hint of a smile, her arm held protectively across her chest.
Evan Baden’s “Florence and Daniel” similarly invites intimacy with the subjects, depicting two transgender youth in an intimate embrace. Paul Oxborough’s “Harvey and Teddy” commemorates a new marriage in the style of Renaissance masters, in oil on linen. The work folds Harvey and Teddy’s marriage into art-historical tradition.
“The most compelling aspects of the [Outwin] competition and exhibition for me are the open, honest, and often brave depictions of lived experience,” Moss said. “Paul Oxborough, Carolyn Sherer, Evan Baden, Riva Lehrer… [are artists] who embrace their subjects’ willingness to love and extend it to the viewer.”
Throughout our nation’s history portraits have documented the humanity of former slaves, captured resistance to systemic oppression, and even inspired Americans to action in the name of a murdered boy. More recently, in response to the passage of discriminatory legislation regulating the use of public restrooms, artists including Sarah McBride and Canadian Brae Carnes are taking selfies in restrooms as a kind of direct action. “I made the decision to take the photos of myself as a way to show what the potential laws would actually look like in reality,” Carnes said in a statement.
The art included in the Outwin is something other than documentary: it’s beautiful. And the beautification of individual experience is itself a kind of activism, a form of inclusion. Check out the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin exhibit through January 2017 to see the bounty and beautiful vision of all the included artists, including Lehrer, Dugan, Sherer, Baden and Oxborough.