There’s a famous myth from Greek antiquity that places the invention of drawing and painting in the hand of a young woman whose lover was about to leave her. To remember him, she shines a lamp on his face, and traces the shadow it casts upon the wall. Since that fateful (if apocryphal) first portrait, a primary artistic challenge over the history of human creativity has been how to capture the essence of an individual.
Every three years, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., holds a contest showcasing the best efforts in the country for this particular craft. Out of 3,300 entries to the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, an exhibition of the top 49 is now on display. In previous contests, only drawings, paintings and sculptures were eligible for consideration, but this year the prize was open to all visual-arts disciplines.
Dave Woody of Fort Collins, Colo., took the top honor and a $25,000 prize for his photograph, “Laura.” The subject of the piece was one of Woody’s graduate school classmates at the University of Texas.
“I think that digital photography and photography for itself is one more tool. It happens to be the tool that I use. If I could paint like some of the people in the exhibition paint, I would love to,” said Woody. “I can be bowled over by the simplest pencil drawing as much as a digital video. I think it is how you use it.”
Aga Vinson is happy to be a recurring subject of her husband’s work. Adam Vinson of Jenkintown, Pa., took home third prize and $5,000 for “Dressy Bessy Takes a Nap.” In it, Aga looks away from the viewer, holding a magnifying glass near her chin, with a doll resting on her lap.
“For this particular piece, I wanted to bring back some objects I had painted in previous paintings and bring them together,” Vinson said. “So the doll was a recurring subject.”
All of the finalists attended the opening and award ceremony, and many of the artists brought their subjects. Ralph Gabriel Rayfield sat in a wheelchair next to the large painting of himself standing in a hospital room, chest exposed, fresh from surgery following a heart attack. The portrait, titled “Dad,” was done by his 22 year-old son, Stanley of Richmond, Va., and was awarded the second place prize worth $7,500.
“I’m interested in African American subjects and overall the human condition, so it fits well into it because I’m painting my dad in a vulnerable position,” Rayfield said. “It is something about the person.”
Listen to an interview with the three winners, Rayfield’s parents and Aga Vinson:
Works from the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition are on display through August 22. The museum’s next exhibition is ‘Portraiture Now: Communities,’ the fifth installment of a series. The National Portrait Gallery invited three painters — Rose Frantzen, Jim Torok and Rebecca Westcott — to envision the idea of community in a variety of portraits of friends, neighbors and families from the places they live. That installation runs November 6 to July 5, 2010.