With new technologies the art of portraiture has been completely redefined. I look at four interesting portrait artists of this new generation who have bent this change to their will.
Bryan Lewis Saunders
“There’s a lot of truth in media,” says Bryan Lewis Saunders in an interview with the Guardian while discussing a self-portrait of him inhaling lighter fluid. As evident in the interview and from his works, Saunders is quite the avant-gardist. He gained notoriety for Under The Influence, an experiment he devised where he intoxicated himself with a variety of different drugs, and then composed a self-portrait for each one.
Whether it is acrylic paints or metallic crayons, the media he uses are always symbolic of the drug he had taken. From the pleasantly colourful Xanax to the frighteningly abstract bath salts, we get a sense of his emotions under the influence – all of them hermetic, isolated within his modest apartment in Tennessee. To Saunders, portraiture is more of an internal experience rather than a representation of the external.
Over the years, we’ve seen portrait artist’s progress from using oil paints to all kinds of media in their work. Albrecht Dürer himself would be turning in his grave, scoffing with incredulity if he found out that artists of the future could compose a portrait from hand-cut road maps.
Well the emerging talent that is Nikki Rosato manages just that. She encapsulates the fragility of being human through these irregular sequences of road maps, formed on the shape of a body. She creates her pieces by using a Stanley knife to cut away all the landmasses between the roads – leaving behind an intricate system of blood vessels, pumping transport links and points of interests that lead to nowhere.
In the past, the idea of subverting artistic tradition is a bold notion. And to repaint artistic history is an even bolder one. But Kehinde Wiley successfully attempts to do both. When not travelling the world looking for artistic subjects, he’ll be spending his time in his New York studio, acutely detailing monumental paintings.
His subjects? Almost always African Americans. Where does he find them? On the streets of New York, with a camera crew and an attractive woman so as not to incite suspicion. He usually looks for alpha male characters, and paints them in a heroic way – akin to the style of the Old Masters. With the end result, we can discern an intense smorgasbord of different qualities and themes, leaving no surprise as to why he is one of the most prolific portrait artists of this century.
Kumi Yamashita maintains a virtuosic control of light and dark values in all of her pieces. But one particular body of work, Constellation, is like no other. These are constructed by hammering thousands of small nails across a white wooden panel and running one single black sewing thread across all these nails to form an image.
On her site, she describes these portraits as consisting of ‘three simple materials that, when combined, produce the portraits.’ And yet despite such simple ingredients – the portraits look exceedingly meticulous and you are left marveling at how one single thread can represent not only expression but emotion too.