The context makes the art.
When you see work on a gallery’s wall you’re more likely to believe that it’s worth several thousand dollars than if you see the same work sold with a steep price tag at a street fair. That’s the power of context.
But context can do more than manipulate the pecuniary worth of art, and it is not simply another word for “presentation.” Context is also what makes the following painting so great.
The Mona Lisa is the most popular painting at the Louvre. Almost everyone who enters that museum will not leave until they’ve seen Leonardo’s mysterious lady. But, whether they know it or not, they’re not seeking her out because of the experience they will have seeing the painting in person.
Exhibited in a protective glass case, perpetually swarmed by a crowd, and rather small, La Joconde tends to be a disappointment when seen in the flesh. The context which lends the work an aura of special is, at this point in her history, completely outside of the painting itself. The work’s allure is in the millions of times a prospective viewer has seen her reproduced, in the thousands of references to her inscrutable smile in pop culture, and in the Da Vinci Code. Even if you could see the painting au naturelle and en tête à tête, she’d still be a disappointment. The enormous context surrounding the Mona Lisa builds unattainable expectations for the piece.
As a rule, portraits can’t have that sort of context for the general public. While the family or friends of a sitter can connect with a likeness because they’ve already connected with its subject, for someone who doesn’t know the person portrayed a certain element of a portrait’s power is lost. The context simply isn’t there—unless the subject is famous and we all think we know her-him better than we actually do.
This aspect of portraiture is something that I struggle with perpetually. While I refuse to make blandly figurative work with no concern for the who-ness of the subject, I do strive to make portraits that matter to more than just my sitters and their circles. That’s why I create series of portraits grouped around a theme. For example, with my last conceptual show Apple Pie I combined real people—first and second generation Americans—with US icons as a way of honoring the subjects’ histories and individuality while also giving the viewer an access point into the portraits.
Though giving my paintings a broader context is always the goal of my conceptual work, I think I’ve been most successful at it in my upcoming series. For Subjective, my collaborator and I are providing a context for twenty portraits of ten people simply by teaming up. In this case the context doesn’t require references to general culture: it only takes looking the paintings that Becca and I have produced. Our paintings lend each other context.