Face Making

Le blog de l’artiste peintre franco-américaine Gwenn Seemel. Les articles sont en anglais et en français, et souvent ils sont bilingues.

This (for example) is a real person.

2008 . 03 . 04 - Comments / Commentaires (12)

And her name is Andrea. She sat for me as part of my series, Swollen

portrait by Oregon artist

Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on bird’s eye
30 x 30 inches

I can’t count the number of times that someone on the business end of art has told me that the one thing that I love most about my work is precisely what makes it unsalable in a commercial gallery setting.

It just looks too much like a real person.

Then, as if I haven’t heard it a million times before, they add: no one is going to want someone they don’t know hanging on their wall, and that severely limits the potential buyers for the work.

So what about Kehinde Wiley’s paintings? Or Chuck Close’s? These two so-called “portrait painters” have no problem selling their work to people who don’t know their subjects. It must be more than their Yale MFAs and my lack thereof that causes this gap between my more modest marketability and their runaway success. I have a little theory about just what these artists’ work has on mine, and it’s deceptively simple.

These two “portrait painters” aren’t actually painting portraits.   

Close and Wiley are making paintings from specific models; they’re making figurative work. Conversely, the people portrayed in my work are not just happenings that inspire my paintings: they’re the very reasons for the paintings. Unlike my would-be peers, I actually care about the people in my work and, more importantly, I show it.

Kehinde Wiley's painting Sebastian II

Kehinde Wiley’s St. Sebastian II 2006

The work that Wiley is most famous for are paintings of African American men between the ages of eighteen and thirty or so. The models are selected based on a certain “look” by the Kehinde Wiley team which then proceeds to dress the model to further push that certain je-ne-sais-quoi. Finally, the model is asked to pose for a camera like some dead white man from a Renaissance painting, and Wiley paints from this photograph.*

The concept behind the work is stunning. I love it. But I still wish Wiley would bother to meet his models if he’s going to label his works “portraits.”

Close’s faults, as I see them, are similar. His trusted formula—centered and mostly neutral faces—drains the personality out of all of his models and a quick search online of images by him proves as much.

Close’s work is driven by questions of color and composition. He chooses photos to paint from based on which image calls out to him for formal reasons, regardless of whom it happens to be.** It’s a decision which doesn’t acknowledge the humanity of the model in the least. While technically beautiful, Close’s work manages to make a human face so neutral that it might as well be a particularly pleasing wallpaper pattern.

Chuck Close's painting of President Clinton

Chuck Close’s President Bill Clinton 2006

As further proof of his lack of interest in his model, his portrait of President Bill Clinton hardly deviates from his formula. Even for such an important and potentially interesting model, Close won’t modify what he does. The only two concessions made, so far as I can tell, are poorly chosen. In his painting, Close allows the President to smile and also to angle his shoulders and head out of the straight-on centered pose which is prevalent in the artist’s work. In other words, Close ended up Close-ifying the average press head shot of the President, showing us nothing new of this curious and enigmatic world leader. 

None of which is to say that I don’t like Wiley’s or Close’s work.*** I admire their oeuvres, but I do object to them being called “portrait painters.”

Which leaves just one question: if I’m so sure that the respect I show my subjects is what is holding my work back, why don’t I reform my ways?

I can’t. I refuse. I will care about the people I paint, even if the finished painting is only really interesting to me, the subject, and the subject’s circle.

Most artists can’t be certain that they’re touching anyone with their work (and a lot of them aren’t even trying!). I’m lucky. I know that each one of my paintings has a fascinated audience of no less one. A portrait is, at the very least, a personal revolution. And I happen to think that there’s something to be said for that.


*Information taken from the lecture that Wiley gave at the Portland Art Museum in August 2007.

**Information taken from the Men’s Vogue interview “Chuck and Bill” from 2007.

***It’s true, I think Wiley should choose his team a little better. When I saw some of his work in person, the background elements (which his assistants paint) were unforgivably bad. It led me to think that Wiley’s team didn’t have enough paint to cover the pencil tracing of the floral curlicues! But, the work looks good in reproduction, which is, I think, its purpose. And my only regret for Close’s work is one which doesn’t conflict with his ideas at all. Techno-types have made a filter of his style now, allowing the user to make a Close-like mosaic out of any image. Because there’s nothing else to his painting but technical skill—because he doesn’t care about his models—the filter does a rather good job at Close-ifying a photo, though, of course, without the hand-painted grandeur of Close’s colossal works. 

- Being a person before a portraitist / Être une personne avant un portraitiste
- Why portraiture / Pourquoi le portrait
- In search of specificity

CATÉGORIES: - English - Featuring artists - Philosophy - Portraiture - Reviews -

Gwenn Seemel sur Liberapay     Gwenn Seemel sur Patreon

(12) Comments / Commentaires: This (for example) is a real person.

-- Homager X -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

Ever think maybe you’re not selling paintings because they are ugly?

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-- Homager X -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

They’re not all ugly, but this one is.
As for the examples you posted,
Bill is a hero to some and the thug painting
is selling an attitude, which those particular
consumers ravenously eat up to fill the void
of their own lack of identity.

Neither has any artistic merit of it’s own as
far as I’m concerned, and history’s the surest judge. In a way, I think you’re right, though…if you want to push a portrait of a stranger, it’s better to be metaphorical (mythical) or exceptionally beautiful…or better yet both.

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-- jacktwist -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

Methinks homaterx is about 14?
who leaves a remark, and then replies to their own remark? it’s ugly, i mean magical, or somewhat crazical.

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-- Homager X -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

No, I’m not 14, kinda wish I were though.
I replied to my own comment because
I felt that, although honest, it was rude
to leave it at just that.

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-- malvi -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

Very true your painting capture the true essence of the individual, not a commercial way of looking at the subject. I feel a true artist has to seek his own way of expressing the inner feelings of the model and his own self. It is something all together different if you are just looking to sell your work that is just the business of catering to what the public wants or finding your commercial gimmick. working form a photo with no feeling is one thing and painting from the heart is another! You can feel the intensity of Van Gough or Frida Kahlo (not commercial at all).I prefer the heart. I love your work.

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-- Andrea Osterlund -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

Wow Homager X, I never have thought of myself as ugly. . . . I believe this painting was sold.  I think she was referring to others believing these painting were sell able not that they aren’t actually selling.

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-- joshua -- 2009 . 11 . 10 --

Some of MY Problems with Chuck Close and Kehinde W.=
They are not even succeding at there own game=
They throw out the subject, Fine, but then the HANDLING is HORRIBLE.

Off hand, I think of a Luc Tuymans. Hardly a subject, But soft and rich and really beutifull.
Kehinde w. at PAM was horrible. I couldnt believe it. The colors looked straight out of the tube. The modelling looked like It was done by An absolute begginning painter. It almost looked like his “team” just lightened things with white and darkened with black.
Maybe because he’s
Black? (oooops!)
Political? (Yeahhhhhh!....THAT sure doesn’t hurt!)
Appropriating? (ooooooohh….)

Arvie Smith seems to be using the first two (tho I love the man and most of his stuff) with depressing results.

I read novels ‘cause Im sure not going to contempoary art to see everyday life givin’ its due attention.

Of course..there ARE exceptions.
Locally, I recently saw a show of Lli wilburns work and It was shocking.

The shock, I realized was in seeing the actual, real world on a gallery wall. AND they had gorgeous formal value.

Unfortunatly for PORT and WW and Mercury etc. There was hardly any ISSUES to discuss. Nothing Radical. No Ryan Pierce. And hence no “discourse”.

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-- Gwenn -- 2009 . 11 . 13 --

I like political work and work that appropriates culture and work from marginalized artists.  In my opinion, the issues with Wiley are his false claim to the title of “portrait artist” (which I talked about in this post) and his inability to create a finely crafted painting.  Art should be equal parts content and delivery.  While Wiley fails with delivery, the content of his work sparks conversations that I find worthwhile.

Why don’t you like political art?

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-- joshua -- 2010 . 03 . 23 --

Political art?
I’ll speak in terms of your work.
Its strong in its personality portrayal. That is an area that almost nothing NOW and NEW can touch. The rendering and dignifying of subjectivity. The subjectivity of the subject. The dignifying of the subject through a painting. Not many other media do it in just the way painting does. Magazines and websites tend to deal with the Famous or Highly unusual. Blogs and facebook tend to cheapen the subject.
To make political art is to move into places that are better taken care of elsewhere.
It may work, but there are too many painters like Kehide W. for whom the subject is beside the point.
At your subjective show, the issue seemed less intesting to me than the quality of art and the people depicted.
Just my(too long) opinion.

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-- Artist -- 2010 . 09 . 11 --

you’re right, though…if you want to push a portrait of a stranger, it’s better to be metaphorical (mythical) or exceptionally beautiful…or better yet both.

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-- Herschel Copeland -- 2014 . 10 . 25 --

Hi Gwenn,I have been a portrait Artist for 60 years, I do graphite, colored pencil, and oil. I have no negative comment about your work, what I will say is if you are painting what you see and it pleases you, then stay with it. For me, oil portraits is a science, I use a plain white canvas, no primer, and 72 colors which I mix into skin, tone, and value combinations. I do not advertise my work, I do an exact likeness of my subjects and sell only to my clients.

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-- Gwenn -- 2014 . 10 . 27 --

How did you find your clients, Herschel? I’m always interested in other artists’ business models. Thanks for stopping by!

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