OCCURRING EVERY THREE YEARS, the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition has showcased the work of numerous African American artists. Amy Sherald won first prize in 2016, transforming her career. In the latest cycle, Deborah Roberts, Genevieve Gaignard, Lava Thomas and Nona Faustine are among the finalists, and Wayde McIntosh tied for third prize.

Their works are currently on view in “The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today” at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Washington, D.C., through Aug. 30.

 


QUINN RUSSELL BROWN, “DeRay Mckesson,” 2018 (inkjet print). | Collection of the artist, courtesy of the University of Washington

 

In a video introducing the competition, NPG curators explain a portrait is a likeness or representation of an individual and describe the works as the best portraiture made in America over the past three years and a representation of the fresh new ways artists are “interpreting the long tradition of portraiture.”

Kim Sajet, director of NPG said: “We put a call out to artists across the country to send us their best images of people that they are looking at and talking about and have a relationship with in their communities.”

More than 2,600 artists entered the 2019 competition and 46 artists were selected as finalists and are featured in the group show. Many of the portraits depict black subjects or make reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and related racial violence and racial justice issues. The museum invited artists to reflect on their social and political contexts and weigh in on national conversations. Other themes that emerge are immigration, the American worker, the military, and the LGBTQ community.

Brooklyn-based McIntosh made a small portrait of his friend, artist Jordan Casteel. He titled the painting “Legacy” (2017) in reference to her family’s intergenerational dedication to the arts and activism.

Casteel is a portrait painter, too. Her practice is dedicated to seeing those who aren’t ordinarily centered. McIntosh depicts Casteel with a bookshelf in the background. A mini red, black, and green African American flag is displayed among the books and a copy of Time magazine with “Black Lives Matter” on the cover is also shown.

“DeRay McKesson” (2018) is an inkjet print by Quinn Russell Brown. A former school administrator, McKesson turned to civil rights activism in response to the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and gained a national profile in the wake of the growing Black Lives Matter movement.

Since 2014, McKesson has been wearing a Patagonia vest everyday. Seattle-based Brown’s striking photographic portrait captures McKesson looking directly into the camera against a golden yellow background, a bold complement his bright blue vest.

Many of the portraits depict black subjects or make reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and related racial violence and racial justice issues.


JOSHUA COGAN, “Bryan Stevenson,” 2018 (inkjet print). | Collection of the artist

 

Brown and Joshua Cogan are among several non-black artists who entered portraits of African American subjects. Another inkjet print, “Bryan Stevenson” (2018) by Cogan depicts the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Ala. Since 1989, EJI has been fighting wrongful convictions. Reducing mass incarceration is also a key priority. The beginnings of EJI and an early case Stevenson took on are dramatized in the film “Just Mercy,” starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

In 2018, EJI opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (known as the Lynching Memorial) in downtown Montgomery. A powerful, floor-to-ceiling installation at the memorial acknowledges individual lynching victims. Rows of more than 800 jars contain soil collected from lynching sites. Each jar is labeled with a name, city/state, and when the lynching occurred.

Washington, D.C.-based Cogan captures Stevenson standing before the display. He gazes past the viewer with a sobering expression. In an otherwise dimly lit image, a light shines on Stevenson.

For this cycle, the museum adjusted the rules of the competition. “I think about where we are going as an institution. How our priorities have evolved,” said Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture. For the first time, artists could to enter portraits of historic figures “who may not be represented in the Portrait Gallery’s collection, people’s whose names are not known, who’ve made an impact on the history of this country.”

“80 Days” (2018) is a collage on canvas portrait by Austin, Texas-based Roberts. Her subject is a historic figure. She portrays George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old executed by the state of South Carolina for a murder he didn’t commit. The title of the work references the short period of time between when he was picked up, tried, convicted, and executed. Killed in 1944, Stinney is the youngest person put to death in modern U.S. history.

“I think the reason why Black Lives Matter is a prominent theme throughout much of the work in this year’s competition is because it’s something that’s really real and now that we have instant communication, and access to ways of accessing change, it’s not that these things weren’t going on before now, it’s that now there’s more agency and easier ways to get those messages across,” McIntosh says in a video about his portrait of Casteel.

“I think the reason why Black Lives Matter is a prominent theme throughout much of the work in this year’s competition is because it’s something that’s really real… it’s not that these things weren’t going on before now, it’s that now there’s more agency and easier ways to get those messages across.” — Wayde McIntosh


DEBORAH ROBERTS, “80 days,” 2018 (paper, acrylic, graphite, and pastel on canvas). | Collection of the artist, courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London

 

The portraits take many forms beyond painting, drawing, and photography. Entries are also considered in a variety of other mediums, including sculpture, time-based media art, installation, and performance.

Hugo Crosthwaite, the 2019 first place winner was recognized for a stop-motion animated drawing. “A Portrait of Berenice Sarmiento Chávez” (2018) depicts a young woman from Tijuana and explores her pursuit of the American dream. The animated video project is part of a series based on oral histories Crosthwaite has gathered at the U.S.-Mexico border.

THERE ARE MANY COMPETITIONS that give promising artists a chance to submit their work, have it judged against their peers, and vie for a cash prize, exhibition opportunities, and other forms of support for their practices.

Among the most closely watched is the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition for two key reasons. One, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is operating the competition, providing a prominent platform. Two, Sherald gained widespread recognition after winning the first prize four years ago and taking advantage of the opportunities that came her way as a result. Hers is an outcome any artist would welcome and curators, critics, and collectors have followed.

Amy Sherald gained widespread recognition after winning the first prize four years ago and taking advantage of the opportunities that came her way as a result.

Sherald’s imaginative and otherworldly portraits are distinguished by her use of gray for her subject’s skin. She has said the choice is a reference to black-and-white photography and is also intended to focus attention on her subject’s individuality rather than their race or the color of their skin. For the NPG contest, Sherald submitted “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance),” a 2013 painting in which her subject is holding an oversized teacup.

Prior to the competition, Sherald was based in Baltimore and doing relatively well, having established a collector base and presented a solo exhibition at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Topping the Outwin Boochever competition was a game changer.

 


GENEVIEVE GAIGNARD, “Trailblazer (A Dream Deferred),” 2017 (inkjet print). | Collection of the artist, Courtesy of Vielmetter Los Angeles

 

The first place winner is awarded $25,000 and the opportunity to create a new portrait that will be added to NPG’s collection. After she won, Sherald was famously commissioned to make a portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama. The portrait has been a huge draw, bringing record levels of traffic to the museum.

In addition, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis organized a solo exhibition of Sherald’s paintings that traveled to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., and Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta. In 2018, Sherald joined Hauser & Wirth, one of the largest galleries in the world. “the heart of the matter…,” her first solo exhibition with the gallery was on view last fall in New York. It’s a dream narrative for an up-and-coming artist.

A PANEL OF NPG CURATORS and outside art professionals serve as jurors to determine the winners of the Outwin Boochever competition. Lauren Haynes, curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges and curator of visual arts at the Momentary, was among the 2019 jurors. Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey was on the jury panel for the 2016 cycle, the year Sherald won.

That year, portraits by Allison Janae Hamilton, Kelly Carmody, Marti Corn, Paul D’Amato, Christine Osinski, and Mike Smith were among the finalists. The group also included Dean Mitchell, who made a portrait of artist Bob Ragland. Donita Simpson submitted a photograph of Gilda Snowden, the Detroit artist who died in 2014. Joel Daniel Phillips won third prize and Sedrick Huckaby was specially commended for his portrait. He is also a 2019 finalist.

The first Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition occurred in 2006. Although the dozens of semifinalists selected in each competition cycle are diverse in terms of race, gender, geography, and medium, Sherald is the first and only African American artist to win the portrait competition and she is also the first and only woman to have garnered the top prize.

“Portraiture is definitely evolving,” Sajet said. “When it started off it was a very elitist art form that was really reserved for those who were in the upper echelons of society. But as we as a country are changing, portraiture is changing.” CT

 

“The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., Oct. 26, 2019-Aug. 30, 2020

 

PEOPLE’S CHOICE One of the 2019 finalists will receive the People’s Choice Award. The public can vote for their favorite portrait through April 24, 2020

 

A selection of 2019 finalists follows:

 


ADRIAN OCTAVIUS WALKER, “Black Virgin Mary,” 2018 (inkjet print). | Collection of the artist

 


RICHARD GREENE, “Monroe, LA,” 2016 (inkjet print). | Collection of the artist

 


WAYDE MCINTOSH, “Legacy,” 2017 (oil on Dibond). | © Wayde McIntosh, Collection of the artist

 


NEKISHA DURRETT, “James Baldwin,” 2018 (polymer clay). | Collection of the artist

 


DAVID ANTONIO CRUZ, “theboysdon’tplaynice-withanyone, portrait of april and june,” 2018 (oil and latex on wood). | Collection of the artist, courtesy of Monique Meloche Gallery

 


NONA FAUSTINE, “Isabelle, Lefferts House, Brooklyn (Self-Portrait),” 2016 (inkjet print). | Collection of the artist

 


LAVA THOMAS, “Lottie Green Varner,” 2018 (graphite and conté crayon on paper). | Collection of David and Pamela Hornik

 


SEDRICK HUCKABY, “Our Lamentations: Never Forgotten Daddy,” 2018 (oil on canvas). | Collection of the artist

 


LARRY W. COOK JR., “Fatherhood 2,” 2018 (inkjet print). | Collection of the artist

 


JULIANNE WALLACE STERLING, “Specialist Murphy,” 2016 (oil and graphite on wood). | Collection of the artist

 


ZUN LEE, “Brendan and Tyrice,” 2016 (inkjet print). | Collection of the artist

 


SANDRA STEINBRECHER, “Frontline, March for Our Lives, Chicago,” 2018 (inkjet print). | Collection of the artist

 


SHIMON ATTIE, “Night Watch,” 2018 (HD video, 9:48 min.). | Collection of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Originally commissioned and produced by More Art, NYC

 

BOOKSHELF
“The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2019: American Portraiture Today,” is offered in the museum shop and will be available more widely later this year. “The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2016: American Portraiture Today” features Amy Sherald’s first place portrait “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)” (2016) on the cover.

 

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