In the Market for Some Portraits
Artist finds her subjects in unusual way—by checking out ‘men looking for women’
How do you paint everyone in Portland, one portrait at a time? If you’re local portrait artist Gwenn Seemel, whose tongue-in-cheek ambition is to paint every denizen of the city, you use a lot of charm, wile and guile. You also troll Internet personal ads for lonely men who are willing to be your subjects.
The result, opening tonight at Concrete the Studio, is a fascinating—if shakily conceptualized—exhibit that reveals a few things about the modern relationship between artist and patron, and a few things about how difficult it is to be a portrait painter in the era of photography and easily reproduced images. “Portraits of kings once commanded respect, but not anymore,” Seemel says of portrait painting’s fall from grace.
But Seemel, a 24-year-old graduate of Willamette University, came up with a way to enliven the old genre—and also to revive the ancient role of art patronage, another casualty of modern media and commercialization. To find subjects for her new show, “Mutually Beneficial,” Seemel sought out men looking for women through personal ads on Craigslist, adding a potentially romantic twist to her search for both subject and financial supporter. “I wanted to flirt with the possibility of playing Starving Artist to their Meal Ticket, Patron, Sugar Daddy,” Seemel writes in a description of her show.
The idea of an attractive, financially challenged young artist ruthlessly exploiting the relationship between patron and artist isn’t new, of course. The most recent and prominent example was New York artist Andrea Fraser’s 2003 performance piece, a 60-minute silent video work that showed the artist having sex with a collector, for whom the encounter served as his commission. Ultimately, though, Seemel didn’t have the courage of her concept. “It’s been done, sleeping with a patron,” says Seemel, referring to Fraser’s project. “That’s boring.”
That said, her project does share at least one trait with the infamous work made by the New York artist, one that serves as advice (or warning) to every ambitious artist who wants to be famous in this media-flooded world: Artists need to go that extra mile to get attention. “Maybe that’s the point. It’s to be titillating,” says Seemel, a short-haired pixie with a penchant for colorfully loud clothes. “It’s all about (getting) attention. The way we manipulate each other.”
If you look beyond the end product in Concrete the Studio, Seemel’s project is really a complex performance-art piece—sort-of real life reality television—that began last year and culminated with the paintings now on view. Last summer, the artist responded to 28 ads by men looking for women on Craigslist. Her criteria included that each ad had to emphasize in one way or another the man’s ability to financially provide for a woman. In her response to the ads, Seemel explained that she was a conceptual portrait artist exploring the relationship between men with money and women without it. About a dozen men replied to the artist, who eventually met with five of them for an interview and photo session. Seemel didn’t promise sex or even the possibility of romance—and she didn’t ask for any money to support her art. She had ended up deciding just to use the men as portrait subjects. “I was totally up front,” she says.
Still, there was tension: A tall, attractive blonde inviting lonely men for coffee and conversation. Was the starving artist, who often brags that she falls in love with every person she paints, rubbing the hopes of these more financially stable yet emotionally vulnerable men for the sake of her latest art project? “I’m not qualified to know what men are thinking when they meet me,” says Seemel. “If they wanted something else, I quickly disillusioned them. ...I did not sleep with any of these men.”
But she was friendly with them. One subject, a 30-year-old lawyer who advertised for a humble, educated, witty woman, has since become Seemel’s good friend and occasional dinner companion. The one suitor who agreed to be interviewed for this story was Ryan Phelps, a 25-year-old computer programmer who thought Seemel was charming, if a little manipulative. “I make one mention in the ad of (having) a good job and it gets blown out of proportion,” he says of her selling the show as a search for a “sugar daddy.”
Seemel may have been selective about some facts about her subjects and used these men to gain attention for her art, but she’s a very good portraitist. During the past few years, she’s had several exhibits at noncommercial venues and painted dozens of local politicians, actors and art-world figures. Her portraits aren’t conventionally beautiful images painted in a clear, realist manner. Instead, they reflect Seemel’s training as a printmaker. They’re full of discernible swathes and marks, and are reminiscent of the coarse, abrupt style of Cubist paintings, which may be one reason why Seemel’s works don’t sell well: Seemel attempts to be a psychological interpreter of people. There’s nothing romantic or idealistic about her portraits. Yet that approach particularly suits her latest portraits. Phelps, for instance, is expertly painted in a way that reflects Seemel’s nickname for him: “Brutally Honest.” The portrait captures a fine-boned, sharp-featured young man, with deep-set eyes that look piercingly at the viewer.
Cynical viewers may want to dismiss Seemel’s painting and focus on the artist’s keen marketing instincts. But the artist isn’t entirely calculating. She was touched by her experience with these men. “The portraits become the record of a moment,” Seemel writes in an e-mail, trying to explain her project. “A connection. A brief and fleeting interaction that makes me feel…and hopefully makes my subjects feel better about themselves. Because one thing I’ve discovered through my work is that people don’t like themselves—and that’s true across the board, no exceptions. That makes my heart ache. It also makes me feel less lonely.”
©2006 The Oregonian