“The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today,” a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, isn’t silent. Moving through the rooms displaying works by the 46 finalists in the fifth triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, one hears a loud chopping sound, faint snatches of singing in Spanish and a band playing “Hail to the Chief.”
The presidential music is part of the soundtrack for “The Liberator,” a two-minute video looping in an elaborately framed box. The piece, made by Italian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Federico Solmi, shows the festive arrival on horseback of a creepy-doll version of a military leader, a cross between George Washington and the Joker.
“The Liberator” isn’t the only video in this edition of “The Outwin,” first held in 2006. Hugo Crosthwaite’s “A Portrait of Berenice Sarmiento Chávez” is a hand-drawn, stop-motion animation (with the singing mentioned above), just over three minutes long, inspired by the struggles of a young Mexican woman who crossed the border from Tijuana then had to return.
As first-prize winner, Crosthwaite, who lives in San Diego, received $25,000 and a commission to create a portrait of a living person for the gallery. The winner in 2016, Amy Sherald, was commissioned to paint Michelle Obama’s much-admired portrait.
More than 2,600 entries from 14 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico were received for the competition, co-curated by the National Portrait Gallery’s Dorothy Moss and Taína Caragol. Artists were encouraged to submit works dealing with themes of socio-political relevance.
Among the finalists chosen by Moss, Caragol and four guest jurors was, for the first time, a work of performance art: Sheldon Scott’s “Portrait, number 1 man (day clean ta sun down).” Scott, who lives in Washington, D.C., will be in the exhibition galleries all day, every day, through Nov. 2, kneeling on a platform hulling grains of rice and putting them in piles. Visitors can observe him performing the piece, which pays tribute to his enslaved ancestors in South Carolina, during public hours, from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Most of this year’s winning works were photographs or videos. In addition to Crosthwaite, the artists receiving prizes were: Sam Comen of Los Angeles for the photograph “Jesus Sera, Dishwasher”; Richard Greene of Los Angeles for the photograph “Monroe, LA”; and Wayde McIntosh of Brooklyn for the painting “Legacy.” Commended artists were Natalia García Clark of Los Angeles and Mexico City for the video “Self-Portrait”; Lauren Hare of Portland, Oregon, for the photograph “Secrets”; and Adrian Octavius Walker of Oakland for the photograph “Black Virgin Mary.”
A People’s Choice Award will be announced in May; voting can be done either at the gallery or online.
Below are three works that stood out on my visit to the exhibition.
“Vanguard,” by Antonius-Tin Bui of Houston, is the first in Bui’s “The Slaysian Dynasty” series of life-size, hand-cut paper portraits depicting queer Asian American Pacific Islanders. This large, stunningly intricate work is made from joss paper, which is burned in Chinese ancestral worship ceremonies. It honors Aiden Khanh Nguyen, founder of the LGBTQ+ zine Vanguard and of the Vietnamese Queer Film Festival.
“CSPG: Southway Zoo – Tropical Boyz,” by Michael Vasquez of Miami, is a beautifully done acrylic and spray painting on canvas of the two founding members of CSPG, described as an underground hip-hop conglomerate, posing amid lush greenery.
“Desaparecidos en el Río Bravo,” by Ruth Leonela Buentello of San Antonio, is an intentionally awkward composite, framed in fabric, of one of Buentello’s family photos and a press image of a Mexican family detained while trying to cross into the U.S. Painted flatly in front of and submerged in outlined, stylized foliage and large patches of color, the three generations of family members are painfully in limbo.
“The Outwin 2019” will be on view through Aug. 30, 2020, then travel to four other venues. The competition and the exhibition are named for Virginia Outwin Boochever, who endowed them. The wife of a foreign service officer, she was a longtime docent at the Portrait Gallery who died in 2005.
And the chopping sound? It accompanies “Just Below,” a striking (pun intended) life-size video by Los Angeles-based artist Anna Garner, who shows herself, all in red, using a pole to destroy the small elevated platform on which she stands. Putting herself in peril in the four-minute work, she and we, as viewers, are left dangling.