It used to be that portraits were only for the rich. Even when private patronage was superseded and portraiture went out of fashion for a century, the faces you saw on museum and gallery walls weren’t exactly diverse.
So to have the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin competition come to Tacoma isn’t just a bonus for those who can’t travel to Washington, D.C. It’s a smart, thoughtful breath of fresh air for this genre and for America, capturing not only a diversity of media and style, but telling all our stories: all ages, all races, all genders, all experiences.
Well, 43 of them, anyway. The triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, open to all U.S. artists except those who have previously won a prize, is now in its fourth iteration and last year attracted more than 2,500 entries, of which the jury chose 43. It’s one of the museum’s most popular shows — but this is the first time it’s traveled. The Tacoma Art Museum is the first stop, and the only one on the West Coast, another triumph for our local museum that’s rapidly becoming a national player.
But it’s not the number that’s important, although the show does take up two of the museum’s galleries. It’s the faces — or bodies — in the show. Because despite judging without any knowledge of artist identity or backstory (those are there, fascinating, on the wall), the jury has managed to select an inclusive sweep of the human race that throws an empathetic, skilled, even tender artistic spotlight on stories that traditionally haven’t gotten much play.
Like fat. Clarity Haynes’ “Janie” is actually part of the artist’s long-term “Breast Portrait Project,” and yes, the breasts are there in this immaculate, photorealistic oil. But so are the pale pink stomach and rib rolls, an expanse of sagging flesh that, with the subject’s face cropped out, takes on an identity of its own, challenging us as to what is beautiful and real.
Or age. Ray DiCapua’s “Phyllis,” her charcoal wrinkles and ropy veins secondary to her curious gaze, her hands.
Or gender. Jess Dugan’s photographic self-portrait, the strong sideways light and tough pose (and cut-away muscle shirt) making us look, really look, at what is female and male, and throwing our own gaze and questions back at us. “Lucy, 15 Years Old” by Carolyn Sherer (whose “Family Matters” series shines a light on LGBTQ youth in highly prejudiced Alabama), glows with fragility. A teen in a polka-dotted dress, hunched, arms nervously shielding chest and crotch, this was a transgender girl who wore a dress for the first time ever in this photo — and soon after ran away from home, not seen again.
There are plenty of portraits that span racial boundaries, from Amy Sherald’s delightful first-prize winner “Miss Everything,” a petite African-American girl in a garden-party dress, gloves and oversized tea cup, to Adrián Román’s innovative box portrait of his great aunt Constancia (the People’s Choice winner). On a 4-foot plywood cube, Roman has drawn in charcoal the four sides of Constancia’s head — deep wrinkles, knowing eyes, a huge bulbous nose — like a cubed Old Master sketch. It’s suspended high, so you can literally walk inside Constancia’s mind and see her memories: pinned photos, tickets, letters and hear her voice on audio, all describing her life as a black Puerto Rican immigrant in New York.
Other works portray language learning, class divides, family expectations, friendship.
Then there’s diversity of human experience — the things life throws at us, not often seen on museum walls. Like being a twin, expressed by John Ahearn (himself a twin) in his subtle plaster diptych of two imagined versions of fellow artist Devon Rodriguez (not a twin). Or homelessness, given a complex and human face by Joel Daniel Phillips in “Eugene #4” (third place), who’s masterfully drawn with grizzled face, defiant look and brilliant foreshortening. There are portraits of disability, of sickness, of dashed hopes.
As Smithsonian curator and juror Dorothy Moss explained, the museum has “been delighted to discover that the exhibition selection is truly representative of our nation in all its diversity,” despite being judged on quality alone. This, much more than any specialized group show, truly reveals America’s breadth of humanity. If you don’t see yourself on the walls at the Outwin, just look a little longer.
The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today
Who: From the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays through May 14.
Admission: $15 adult; $13 senior, student, military; free for 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays.
Events: Noon-4 p.m. March 5, Portrait Party free community festival; 5-8 p.m. March 16, artist talk with Amy Sherald; 7-10 p.m. March 25, Teen Night.
Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org.