Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art: “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today”
Visiting a portrait show can be like standing in a room full of people you don’t know. But with prolonged contact, artworks, like people, reveal themselves.
A fascination with portraits led Virginia Outwin Boochever (1920 – 2005), a docent at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, to endow a portrait competition at the museum where she led tours for almost 20 years. Since 2005, The National Portrait Gallery has been holding the competition every three years, and this past spring opened the fourth iteration of the companion exhibition, “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today.”
This year, for the first time, the exhibit is going on a national tour, including a stop at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, one of only three venues chosen to present the show.
There’s a bit of back story to the affiliation: In 2010, when Kemper Museum director Barbara O’Brien was the juror for New American Paintings, a bi-monthly juried exhibition in print, she selected Amy Sherald for the juror’s award. The Baltimore-based artist, whose work explores ideas of “blackness,” went on to win first prize in the 2016 Outwin competition, among the 43 artists selected for the show.
Sherald’s prize comes with a $25,000 cash award and an opportunity to create a portrait for the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.
Her winning artwork, “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance),” a three-quarter length portrait of a stylishly dressed young black woman holding an oversized coffee cup in her white-gloved hands, appears on the cover of the catalog for the 2016 competition and exhibit.
The piece continues the artist’s “playful yet sober portraits of black Americans,” curator and Outwin competition director Dorothy Moss writes in the catalog. Moss relates “Miss Everything” to the artist’s upbringing in Columbus, Georgia, where she “was mindful of the ‘appropriate’ behavior expected of her as a young African American girl.”
Sherald’s piece exemplifies the competition’s belief that portraiture can be a forum for looking beyond the personal to the exploration of social and political issues. As National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet observes in the catalog foreword, “When an artist represents someone else, he or she brings a set of cultural influences to bear that is as much about them as it is about the sitter.”
The artists in the 2016 competition look outward. Sajet’s rundown of the exhibit’s themes includes “LGBTQ activism, at-risk youth and teenage vulnerability; refugees, migration and displacement; ethnicity and the Black Lives Matter movement; poverty, illness and healthcare; and the power of families.”
Kansas City visitors to the exhibit may recognize some familiar names, including Naoko Wowsugi, a Kansas City Art Institute alum. Her portrait “Leslie, Thank you for teaching me ‘Phantasmagoria,’” is from a series inspired by the artist’s arrival in Kansas City from Japan, knowing only one word of English. The Leslie of her portrait was one of a number of friends who taught Wowsugi memorable new words; the portrait series honors them and documents each relationship.
Award-winning watercolorist Dean Mitchell was one of Kansas City’s most prominent artists during the years he resided here. Now based in Tampa, Florida, Mitchell continues to paint riveting portraits, including “Artist Bob Ragland,” a longtime friend.
During its initial run at the National Portrait Gallery, the museum offered the public an opportunity to vote for the People’s Choice Award. The 2016 award went to a “walk-in portrait,” created by Adrian Roman, a New York-based artist of Puerto Rican descent. Roman’s “De Memoria Viva II: Constancia Colón de Clemente” zeroes in on the careworn face of a black Puerto Rican woman who came to the U.S. in the 1940s. The charcoal rendering appears on the front of a 4 x 4 x 4-foot wood box that visitors can enter to hear an accompanying audio recording.
“The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today” opens Oct. 5 and continues through Jan. 7 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. For more information, 816.753-5784 or www.kemperart.org. Curator Dorothy Moss and artist Amy Sherald will give an Artist Talk at 6:30 p.m. October 4 at the Plaza Branch Library.