About Face

The traditional portrait gets a provocative twist from a new generation of artists.

There's always this marvelous moment at the unveiling of a work of art when no one quite knows what's going to happen," says New York gallery owner Matthew Marks. "The artist is nervous because he doesn't know what the subject is going to think, and the subject is nervous because what's more nerve-racking than seeing yourself through somebody else's eyes?"

Marks is describing the act of revealing a portrait—an act so often portrayed in films, with the artist dramatically flinging back a paint-splattered drop cloth. Just a few years ago, any reference to such a moment would have been greeted with sneers. The commissioned portrait was at best quaint and at worst, for a serious artist, embarrassing. Real artists painted or photographed subjects who intrigued them; only those who had no other options, or desperately needed money, took on commissions.

A few, however, chose to experiment with the genre. Warhol made it cool in the sixties, transforming preexisting photos of stars—Liz Taylor, Jackie O, Marilyn—into silk-screened serial portraits. But he did so with an ironic wink, tweaking the idea of fame even as he celebrated star status. Chuck Close continues to render the faces of the art world, but his large-scale paintings question the realism of the photo rather than explore how it might capture personality. (And Close only depicts the artists and friends he invites into his studio.)

But lately attitudes are changing. During the nineties Elizabeth Peyton picked up where Warhol left off, with her decidedly unironic paintings based on photos that made the celebrities she saw in magazines seem like friends. Her gift is for painting jewellike colors and luscious surfaces. Photographers such as Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans have brought Nan Goldin's intimate and gritty snapshot aesthetic into the mainstream. Daniela Rossell and Jessica Craig-Martin—with their photographs of, respectively, Mexico's and New York's riche, nouveau and otherwise—have drastically updated the genre of the nobleman's portrait. Sam Taylor-Wood captures her subjects, often celebrities, in unexpected settings and moods.

The young British painter Gary Hume followed a 1996 portrait of Kate Moss with one of his friend Stella McCartney. Hume is best known for sleekly gleaming paintings that hover somewhere between abstraction and realism, but the McCartney portrait is a nude, warm and affectionate, all long, looping lines and curves. And Alex Katz and Chuck Close have both portrayed Moss, too, as part of a 17-artist portfolio of the model commissioned by W magazine. That project was inspired by Lucien Freud's portrait of Moss, done in 2002. Perhaps as proof of portraiture's continuing allure—and, of course, the power of celebrity—that work brought more than $7 million in a February auction.

Artists whose choice of medium or style would appear to exclude them from the realm of portraiture are also trying their hand at it. Using HDTV, animation, and even silk, they have taken the genre into new territory. These portraits might be called experimental—if it weren't for the fact that most of the artists are as fascinated as their predecessors were by the challenge of capturing a specific human being's soul.

At first glance, what the painter Jeff Scher seeks to achieve with his work appears altogether traditional. "I like faces," he says matter-of-factly. "I also love the idea of distilling the essence of a person and a particular moment in time. I try to do that with a portrait." Scher's approach is anything but predictable, though: His portraits are animated. Inspired by rotoscoping, a technique he first saw applied in Max Fleischer's shorts from the thirties, Scher shoots a film of his subject and then paints key frames. The result is essentially a kind of flip-book displayed all at once on a wall, animated by the viewer's own eye as he or she scans from one image to the next; Scher also turns the paintings into a loop of film, video, or digital display. He has used the method for years to create such long films as Milk of Amnesia (1992), made with 3,000 paintings, now in the collection at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Scher's first—and probably the first ever—animated portrait was commissioned by his dealer, Maya Stendhal. She wanted him to depict her friend, the New York lawyer and socialite Susan Shin. In the resulting short film, a young woman is rendered in gorgeous watercolors. She tilts her head, hair moving as though in a breeze; she looks at the camera and smiles.

That's it. But what would otherwise be the most conventional of scenes is transformed by the charm of the paintings flickering past, bringing Shin to life. "I love the way people will sometimes fight a smile," Scher says. "They'll fight it, and then slowly, slowly it will bloom and their whole face will light up. With a painting, there's always this frozenness. But with film and motion, you can really amplify an emotion and the truth of a moment."

The subject concurs. Even though the individual paintings stylize and simplify Shin—"They don't really look so much like me, I thought"—taken together they create something more true. "There's so much of me there, the way I toss my hair, the way I move my head. Movement is so important in defining a person," she says. "All my friends said they would have recognized me even if the face was a blank." She received plenty of feedback: The portrait was unveiled at her birthday party—in front of 500 guests.

Robert Wilson, the director/writer/designer/sculptor, recently added "celebrity portrait artist" to that string of titles. Wilson has long been something of a celebrity in his own right among the avant-garde, often because of his collaborations with notables like Philip Glass, William Burroughs, and Marianne Faithfull. For him to embrace a project this mainstream might seem a major departure from his typically hallucinatory, and sometimes difficult, work. But when you see his series of short portrait films, they clearly are of a piece with his artistic history.

There are eight clips in the series so far, each about five minutes long and each centered on a different subject in a slowly unfolding, dreamlike tableau. In one, Mikhail Baryshnikov poses as St. Sebastian, pierced with arrows and looking to the heavens with resignation, blood trickling from his wounds. In another, Winona Ryder, wearing a Carmen Miranda headdress, is buried to the neck in sand; in her mind (we're told) she's reenacting the Beckett play Happy Days.

Wilson's approach is also more high-tech than traditional. The portraits were shot using high-definition video, and each individual raindrop is clearly visible as it trickles down the torso of Brad Pitt, another of Wilson's subjects. Wilson describes his pieces as being distantly related to Warhol's Pop portraits: icon reinvention brought into the contemporary moment.

The famous, wealthy, and powerful have always commissioned portraits, and the artist-couple Eric Chan and Heather Schatz have made their reputation by portraying today's royal court of celebrities. The husband-and-wife team (who together go by ChanSchatz) has worked with writer Salman Rushdie and his wife, model Padma Lakshmi, and with the art dealer and socialite Yvonne Force Villareal. But the two artists felt the need to move away from the well-worn roles of subject and artist. "We wanted to find a way to open up the art-making process," Schatz says, "and make it more interactive, more like our other work. We wanted it to be collaborative."

The couple turned to a combination of technology, modernist practice, and tried-and-true craft. To start, they took a series of forms that they had been working with for many years. Part hieroglyphic, part fractal, and part organic abstraction, these "ChanSchatz characters" were used as the basis of a kind of portrait kit. The person "posing" for the portrait would select the characters and colors he or she wanted to use and send the instructions back to ChanSchatz, who would produce a unique object.

"We were really interested in the rise in popularity of bespoke fashion," Chan says. "We wanted to do something that would combine the choice people get in that arena with our own process." ChanSchatz then prints the designs on silk, incorporating the subject's choices. For the final stage he or she then can come into the studio and sit with the silk piece for a series of photographs.

The process may sound complicated, but the results are beautiful. The subject of the work is engulfed within a swirl of images. Rather than disappearing into chaos, the individual shines through.

That may be precisely why so many artists today are revisiting—and redefining—the portrait. For sheer impact, no other unveiling comes close.


Commissioning a Portrait

Is it possible to convince a blue-chip contemporary artist to paint your portrait? According to New York art dealer MATTHEW MARKS, you're best off if you already have a connection with one in the first place. In the case of painter Gary Hume and the photographer team Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, who are known for their evocative portraits, the subjects are generally models, friends, or collectors. By visiting the gallery and collecting the work, "they've shown they possess a serious interest in the artist," Marks says. "There's a lot of handholding to do. Everybody really has to want it to happen. And be willing to go out of their way to make it happen." In other words, don't be afraid to ask a dealer to approach an artist on your behalf.