Portraits that aren't: continued

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Re-painting the portrait

Claire Pestaille, contemporary portrait painting
The Antiquarian © Claire Pestaille

The invention and portrayal of fictive or partly fictional personalities is a dominant theme in the work of UK artist Claire Pestaille

While artists such as Peyton or Kilimnik choose to incorporate aspects of historical / art-historical fact into their practice, Pestaille creates unique hybrids through references to old master paintings and other period material.

Adapting sources such as Rembrandt or Velasquez, for example, the artist frequently introduces subtle new elements that hint at mysterious narratives - a brooch might be replaced by a scarab beetle, a hand smeared with blood.

Claire Pestaille, contemporary portrait painting
© Claire Pestaille, Bronzino's Bluebird

Although her work adopts visual characteristics of period painting such as dramatic chiaroscuro, it is simplified and condensed in a way that causes her images to vacillate uneasily between the familiar and unknown.

Whether adapting iconic faces or resurrecting forgotten visages from the pages of fine art auction catalogues, her editing of crucial details and incorporation of carefully chosen additional painterly elements results in portraits with an entirely new history and multiple interpretative possibilities.

Kehinde Wiley, contemporary portraiture
After George Romney © Kehinde Wiley

US artist Kehinde Wiley likewise turns to art's prestigious past masters in order to create new histories, although his revisions consist of substitution rather than the additions favoured by Claire Pestaille (above).

Adopting the idiom of European heroic portrait painting - including specific compositions, such as Van Dyck's Prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy-Carignano (below) - Wiley replaces their white, male, often aristocratic subjects with quintessentially urban Afro-American men.

In this way, the artist's imposing, meticulously crafted paintings "quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of 'power'", an act of re-articulation that also provides a subtle counterpoint to the well-known appropriation of traditional African iconography by modernist masters such as Modigliani, Brancusi and Picasso.

Although Wiley invariably depicts males, many of his recent works complicate masculinity by alluding compositionally to classic portraits of women. He has also begun to work with photography, and one such portrait in particular conceals a series of extraordinary subterfuges.

Kehinde Wiley, contemporary portraits
© Kehinde Wiley

After George Romney (Elizabeth Warren as Hebe), 2009 (above left) seems to replace the protagonist of the original 1775 portait with a contemporary male subject. Nevertheless, the 'youth' portrayed is not actually male at all, but a heavily disguised Mickalene Thomas, another successful New York artist.

The resulting layers of identity are worthy of Shakespearean comedy: a woman posing as a young black male assuming a pose originally adopted by a young white female (who, in turn, was also masquerading as the Greek goddess Hebe).... In this work, Wiley's already fascinating portraiture takes on a riddling new depth.


Facial reconstruction

Recent graduate Phillip Gurrey - who has already generated a buzz by winning the 2008 PULSE Prize in New York - also works with an amalgam of appropriated imagery, but rather than indulge in strategies of subterfuge or concealment, ensures that his constructions are made immediately evident.

Phillip Gurrey, the modern portrait

Piecing together faces from an array of sources - Enlightenment portraits by the likes of Reynolds and Tonks in particular - Gurrey's Frankenstinian approach results in disquieting, strangely beautiful portraits that mirror acts of surgery, a fact made explicit by the incorporation of imagery taken from photographic records of facial reconstruction to WW1 soldiers.

In this sense, Gurrey's hybrid portraits force a very immediate reflection on the theme of identity, appearance, and ways in which it can be altered - not only in art, but in life itself.

While Kilimnik, for example, employs fantasy to fuse her own personality with that of others, and artists such as Sherman and Morimura don elaborate disguise for similar purposes, Gurrey's references to facial reconstruction provide a frank reflection of the fact that now, more than ever, we pursue surgical means to alter our own appearance.

Identity, clearly, is not necessarily something we can depend on in the portrait, but neither can we guarantee physical authenticity in those around us. The subterfuge and revisions practiced by artists for centuries are an ever-growing reality.

Mike Brennan

Phillip Gurrey, contemporary portraits
images © Phillip Gurrey
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