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.”