The Tacoma Art Museum is the first stop in the first-ever tour of the winners of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin portrait competition, one of the gallery’s most popular shows. This Outwin group is alive with empathy and connection.
Amid our current boiling debates about identity and inclusion, an exhibition of intimate, diverse portraits is a welcome chance to feel warm connections between artist and sitter, viewer and viewed. We can sense the interior states of the individuals portrayed, and their awkwardness, pride, or even indifference at being captured in paint, on film, via sculpture.
Every three years, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., holds The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, an open call for recent American portraiture in any medium. The competition is named for Virginia Outwin Boochever (1920-2005), who volunteered at the Portrait Gallery for 20 years and endowed the program.
For the 2016 contest, 2,500 artists submitted works and 43 were chosen. And this year, for the first time, the show is going on the road, giving more people a chance to see one of the Portrait Gallery’s most popular exhibitions.
‘The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today’
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (5 p.m.-8 p.m. Free Third Thursdays) through May 14, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave.; $13-$15 (253-272-4258 or tacomaartmuseum.org).
The Tacoma Art Museum is the first stop in its tour and the only West Coast location (as of this printing; more locations may be announced).
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There are many bold, arresting images in the show. It’s easy to see why the first prize of $25,000 dollars and a commission for the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection went to Amy Sherald. Her painting, “Miss Everything,” portrays the artist’s friend against a vivid turquoise background with mottled undercurrents of red. The blend of realism and abstraction creates an aura of fantasy, hinting at the absurd expectations of propriety surrounding race and gender.
And there are quieter moments. A large photograph by Rick Ashley draws us in with its balanced composition and lush darks and lights. Peacefully reclining on a spotlit couch, Ashley’s adult brother-in-law, Michael, who has autism, is dressed in his favorite outfit, a Superman costume. The warm, familial narrative that seeps from this moment is deeply pleasing to witness.
At first, Naoko Wowsugi’s installation of yearbook-portrait-style photographs seems quirky and funny, which it is. With further exploration, we get a sense of how language, identities and relationships are intertwined. Each photograph shows someone the artist has known since moving from Japan, someone who helped her learn unfamiliar words. In “Jennifer, Thank you for Teaching Me ‘Gynecologist,’ ” for example, we can instantly imagine how these language lessons bubbled up out of ordinary exchanges between friends.
Wowsugi’s piece represents a handful of conceptual projects in the show. Overall, it’s not an edgy, experimental exhibition. There’s a strong emphasis on realism and the familiar portrait mediums of painting and photography.
Dorothy Moss, the Portrait Gallery’s associate curator of painting and sculpture and the competition’s director, said that the Outwin jurors gravitated toward respectful, empathetic portrayals. The panel included Dawoud Bey, artist and professor of art at Columbia College, Chicago; Helen Molesworth, chief curator at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York Magazine; and L.A.-based artist John Valadez.
One of the stipulations of the competition is that the portraits result from direct encounters between artist and sitter. But this year, in particular, the jurors returned again and again to works that exude a feeling of closeness. Yes, there are some subjects that seem isolated or fearful, but the connection between viewer and viewed is almost always palpable.
Artists used various means to evoke these bonds: “direct address” (the sitters often gaze right at us); scale (many works are life size or larger); and an emphasis on naturalism (not much abstraction here). Also, the settings are usually downplayed, forcing our attention onto the person portrayed.
While the entries were submitted in 2014, and date back from as early as 2011, there are many works that seem to confront today’s concerns.
Rigoberto A. Gonzalez’s large-scale painting “La Guia” (“The Guide)” presents a teenage girl smuggling two people from Mexico into the United States. In full chiaroscuro grandeur, the immigrants’ anxious faces are highlighted during a moment of treacherous crossing, and, perhaps, imminent capture.
The exhibition’s insistence of diverse representations of cultural, economic, racial, and gender identities and experiences feels authentic and compassionate. Evan Baden’s gorgeous photograph “Florence and Daniel” brings us up close with two transgender teens in a simple moment of snuggling.
With charcoal and graphite, self-taught artist Joel Daniel Phillips beautifully rendered a frank and gracious portrait of Eugene, a homeless man Phillips met outside his San Francisco studio.
While the images are timely, there is less outrage, less overt cultural critique than we’ve seen in the last few weeks. Instead, the focus is on closely grouped figures, deep links between individuals, and trusting, even tender, exchanges.
These kinds of representations are no less powerful than an angry yell. They whisper of a desire for connection, a commitment to understanding another person and the power of empathy.
Information in this article, originally published Feb. 8, 2017, was corrected Feb. 9, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated a portrait subject had autism and misstated the title of a curator.