Portrait of the artist as a tangle of yarn
The term “portrait” has not always been linked specifically with the likeness of a human being. In the 17th century, “a portrait” signified “a pictorial imitation of any kind.”* But, whether or not it’s about faces and people, the term “portrait” has always been associated with mimesis of some sort. The Italian word for portrait, ritratto, has its origins in the verb ritrarre meaning “to copy or reproduce”** and, at the most basic level, that’s what portraits tend to do.
Artist Heather Watkins rejects this fundamental aspect of portraiture. With her new series, Character Study, up at Nine Gallery (inside Blue Sky Gallery) through the end of the month, she means to portray without physically imitating at all.
Watkins’ statement reads:
In traditional portrait galleries, images of people—famous and not, young and old, memorable and familiar, similar and varied—are hung in tight arrangements. The interaction between subject, artist and viewer is condensed into the space, an arena for observation, admiration and interpretation.
The twenty-some portraits in this installation, constructed with and mounted on fibers, employ the qualities of the materials themselves to evoke personalities, states of mind, behaviors, roles and social scenarios.
At first, I was provoked by Watkins’ juxtaposition of the term “portrait” with her non-representational work. I didn’t understand Character Study, so I decided to go directly to the source. I contacted the artist to interview her for this blog. Watkins was friendly and graciously answered all my questions.
How did this series come about? What were you looking at, or interested in, or thinking about?
I started working on five of these pieces over two years ago, and have returned to them periodically since then. I had worked with draping, arranging and attaching fibers onto this mesh material for a previous show, but that piece was much larger, and I wanted to try isolating individual materials and working with less—at times, just one material on its own. The way that I work is definitely interpretive; I am reading the material and the gestures I can make with it to see what kind of associations I can create. Most of the associations I see have to do with personality and behavior, especially in social situations.
What was new or different for you in this body of work?
For the Nine show, I wanted to take advantage of both the intimacy and the formality of the gallery space to explore the idea of portraiture that has been emerging in these. What I am portraying is not appearances, but behaviors, group and interpersonal dynamics, familial and social roles, and emotionally-laden scenarios or situations.
Which is your favorite piece in this series? Why?
Favorite piece? It changes all the time. Lately, I’m liking Wanderlust, because I finally worked out the title for the piece. I had various words in mind that were close, but clunkier and not quite saying what I wanted.
Are the materials you chose to work with reminiscent of specific people or scenarios in your life?
The materials are not necessarily reminiscent of specific people. Sometimes, yes, the materials have specific and personal associations. In other cases, I’m thinking of more general personality traits or archetypal behaviors.
What is it about portraiture and its history that attracted you? Why did you decide to recreate the traditional portrait installation with not-so-traditional portraits?
Working with the idea or theme of portraiture is a new direction for me. Aside from the fact that I do not work representationally, I don’t think it would occur to me to make ‘traditional’ portraits with these materials. My interests are more abstract and interpretive: I want to trigger a connection (however open-ended) between a specific material and a psychic state or social scenario. The particular quality of that connection draws as much from the material’s intended function, as well as its texture, color and form.
What kind of feedback have you gotten about the series?
I would characterize comments I’ve received as enthusiastic and interested. Most people seem to want to tell me which ones they like the best, and then what titles they’ve come up with for the untitled pieces. Which was exactly what I had hoped would happen.
While I appreciate Watkins’ focus on portraiture’s ability to capture much more than a physical likeness, I still can’t quite accept what is, to my eye, a casual espousal of portraiture in her statement. Even after chatting with her via email and visiting the work again, it reads to me as one more artist calling her-his works “portraits” in order to give them that something extra—to lead viewers to believe that they can indulge their voyeur selves and learn something about a particular person from the works.
Portraiture has a tangible intent in a way that no other genre (representational or abstract) can have. A portrait wants to show the audience a specific individual, instead of just something in general about humanity. Whether or not it succeeds entirely, a portrait (or a work that is called “a portrait” by its maker) always has that feeling of purpose and truth. Much like fiction writers who publish so-called real-life memoirs and movie-makers who introduce their films with the the phrase “based on a true story,” Watkins seems to refer to portraiture in her statement only in order to imbue her work with the deliberate and conscious quality that is special to the genre.
Which leads me to this piece, the only portrait in the series. This tangle of yarn may not evoke anything for me on its own, but, with the help of the title, I can begin to see a person. I can wonder about the compositional and material choices that the artist made and how they might relate to who Heather Watkins is.
In the end, Watkins has made me a believer: a work does not have to be representational in the traditional sense in order to qualify as a portrait. But, that said, for the show to live up to a promise half-made in the artist’s statement, the works would have to be about real people—not personalities, states of mind, behaviors, roles, and social scenarios. For Character Study to be a full series of portraits, I would have to walk away from it with an impression of individuals portrayed.
*From Norbert Schneider’s The Art Of The Portrait (published by Taschen, New York,1999).
**From Shearer West’s Portraiture (published by the Oxford University Press, New York, 2004).
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