Arts Desk

Five Portraitists Who Deserve a Spot in the National Portrait Gallery

Hank Willis Thomas, "Basketball and Chain"

Martin Sullivan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, announced this week that he will step down, leaving a leadership gap at the museum. That isn’t the institution’s biggest problem, however. It has long suffered under its self-imposed conservative mission, one that assembles artworks as so many images in a celebrity slideshow. Granted, the Portrait Gallery mounted “Hide/Seek,” the first major museum exhibition to focus on queer themes in portraiture—and for its trouble got censored by the Secretary of the Smithsonian himself. It’s unlikely the museum will be in an adventurous mood any time soon. Still, it wouldn’t exactly take a revolution to get past portraits of sports stars and Ronald Reagan. One sophisticated step would be to mount a show of artists, not a show organized around a simplistic theme (like “Twentieth-Century Americans”). Here are five portrait artists the National Portrait Gallery needs to show post-haste.

Tracey Emin
Because she’s an artist who says “yes,” the National Portrait Gallery is bound to say “no.” One of her most important works, My Bed, is exactly that: an installation complete with condoms, stained underwear, and self-Polaroids. The photos are redundant, as the installation’s a plenty revealing self-portrait. Sure, Emin’s British, so she earns a technical disqualification—but she’s had an enormous impact on American artists, and has never shown in D.C.

Hank Willis Thomas
D.C. viewers had a chance to see some of Willis’ photography recently in “30 Americans” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. But Thomas deserves the Smithsonian imprimatur, and Smithsonian viewers deserve to see his lyrical photos about African-American identity. They’re works about portraiture more than portraits themselves—and they speak a hell of a lot better to the black experience than that Timothy Greenfield-Sanders show of black celebrities that’s currently up.

Jenny Scobel
Jenny Scobel could be the reincarnation of Romaine Brooks—an artist who had one of my favorite portraits in “Hide/Seek”—and that’s good enough for me.

KateModern
The Powers That Be might object most vociferously to Tracey Emin’s statements about sex and desire. But the most transgressive entry I’m proposing is KateModern, a sister videoblog to the influential lonelygirl15 that devises, through self-portrait-ish video entries, its own murder mystery. Art-credentialing bonus: She’s named after the Tate Modern.

Zoe Crosher
This Los Angeles–based photographer is engaged in one of the more conceptual ongoing photographic series out there: She’s rephotographing an archive of ’70s and ’80s photos of Michelle duBois, a prostitute who liked to have herself photographed as Mae West. All the brainbending has the feel of Cindy Sherman by way of Richard Prince, but the execution and approach is distinctly West Coast. It might not even be portraiture, when it comes down to it—a question that would be worth investigating at the National Portrait Gallery.

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  • Winston

    "The Black List" came down last month, just FYI. And as for Tracey Emin, this says it all: http://www.vice.com/read/i-dont-get-art

  • Capt. Obvious

    It's worth noting that the Portrait Gallery's mission -- defined by a little outfit called the United States Congress -- calls them to collect and display portraits of Americans who've made an important mark on the country's history and culture.
    Call it a celebrity sideshow if you like, but there's a reason you're going to see ten portraits of Mae West (or LL Cool J as Rockefeller) before you see 'Michelle DuBois as Mae West'.

  • Kriston Capps

    Sure, right, an important mark on the country's history and culture. That's where innovative artists fit in. Quite arguably, Tracey Emin has had a more pronounced effect on American culture than Judith Sargent Murray, but there's plenty of room within that flexible mission statement for both.

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