Social Acceptance of T21
July 18, 2006 7:58 AM   Subscribe

The National Potrait Gallery held a competition for new entries into the gallery. The winner is a fabulous painting by David Lenz. There is a great deal of focus in the exhibit of imagery that is truthful, but not necessarily flattering. The winner is both truthful and flattering. Lenz's subject is is his son, who has Down syndrome. The title, "Sam and the Perfect World" is quite poignant. There is a long NPR program covering the entire topic of portaiture in general and this portrait specifically.
posted by plinth (31 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What a beautiful portrait. And as the parent of a child with a profound disability, the artist's statement resonates very strongly with me.

Thanks for the post.
posted by pardonyou? at 8:08 AM on July 18, 2006

That's one hell of an oil painting.
posted by NationalKato at 8:13 AM on July 18, 2006

Beautiful image and moving sentiment.

At first, I thought it was a photo and was a little peeved that the painting itself wasn't linked.
posted by lyam at 8:16 AM on July 18, 2006

Ugh, that's a godawful painting - mawkish, sentimental, cod-realist pap. Given the choice, I'd've picked almost any of the other contenders over it.

See also, the current BP Award show at, er, The National Portrait Gallery (as in the one in London), where the winning work a portrait of an older person (a more common subject than people with a disability, obviously, but still comparable, maybe?)
posted by jack_mo at 8:17 AM on July 18, 2006


At first, I thought it was a photo...
That pretty much sums up my dislike of it. And, it probably explains why it's the People's Choice Award winner.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:22 AM on July 18, 2006

Wow, some nice pieces there.

I saw this piece a the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair a couple weeks ago and thought it was great, though the web photo doesn't do it justice. Same goes for this series.

I find myself surprised by liking portraits so much these days. I'm normally more into abstracts.

Thanks for the link, plinth.
posted by dobbs at 8:23 AM on July 18, 2006

Great post, plinth, and a fantastic portrait.
posted by jonson at 8:27 AM on July 18, 2006

I was just at this show, the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, and the pieces are all great. If you ask me, the real winner of the show was "Mom and Dad (nsfw), a nude portrait of the artist's parents done entirely with Lite-Brites.

(And those of you complaining about realism, go somewhere you're more at home.)
posted by brownpau at 8:32 AM on July 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm part of the thought-the-painting-was-a-photo camp. I enjoyed the artist's statement a lot though.

I'm not a huge fan of portraits, but I appreciate how difficult they are; trying to encapsulate someone in what amounts to be an instant is pretty tricky.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:37 AM on July 18, 2006

as much as I want to hate that painting for its saccharin over rendered aesthetic, some how I can't. I must need to transfer more power to my cynicism shield.

The lightbright portrait is just amazing in concept and execution.
posted by subtle_squid at 9:00 AM on July 18, 2006

I'm with jack_mo. It's fucking hideous. If anything, the backstory makes it even worse.

Not seen this year's BP Portrait Awards show, but last year, there were indeed plenty of portraits of The Elderly; maybe it's that all those wrinkles give Proper Artists who paint Proper Paintings and don't fanny about with conceptualist nonsense like that Damian Hirst or that slutty Tracy Emin woman the chance to show their technique and craft.
posted by Len at 9:03 AM on July 18, 2006

I'd guess that most of the Exhibition finalists are painted directly from photographs, not from life. See also the BP Portrait Award 2006 Exhibition [correct link, but may be down] at London's National Portrait Gallery.

Realism is nothing new—note this 1st Century Pompeiian mosaic—but do photo-based portraits reveal the artist's vision, or merely what's left after being filtered through the lens of a camera?
posted by cenoxo at 9:07 AM on July 18, 2006

Thanks for the reminder about the portrait gallery. It's been closed for renovations for forever, and I hadn't realized it had finally reopened. It's one of my favorite local museums.
posted by crunchland at 9:13 AM on July 18, 2006

cenoxo – there's absolutely nothing wrong with portraits taken from photographs. Francis Bacon never had a real live model in front of him when he was painting; plenty of his paintings were taken from photographs by John Deakin (like this one [nsfw], which became this [also nsfw]).

But then Bacon's a bit more talented than David Lenz.
posted by Len at 9:16 AM on July 18, 2006

I wandered through the exhibit just last week. It had its interesting and no so interesting pieces. I tend to be old fashion when it comes to portraits (John Singer Sergeant), so I wasn't too excited by the photo-realism of the winning portrait. Its great that someone is embracing their son's disability, I'm just not a fan of how they went about it.

The National Portrait Gallery, though, is looking pretty nice and is worth a visit since its renovation.
posted by Atreides at 10:13 AM on July 18, 2006

Artists have been using photographs since the dawn of photography - Vuillard, Degas, Bonnard, Renoir to name a few of the less expected.
posted by fire&wings at 10:28 AM on July 18, 2006

And before that, artists - Masaccio, Van Eyck, Holbein, Caravaggio, Vermeer - may well have been using the camera obscura and other optics (if David Hockney and others are to be believed, it's a bit of a controversial view).
posted by jack_mo at 10:41 AM on July 18, 2006

Would you have liked the portrait of the kid with Down syndrome as much if you didn't know the backstory? If it just was some kid staring into a camera, with an overexposed sun in the center? I don't think so. The second prize winner is so great it gives me chills. So do many of those others. Thank God for these painters who re-making naturalism and craftsmanship into modern idioms.
posted by Faze at 10:57 AM on July 18, 2006

Would you have liked the portrait of the kid with Down syndrome as much if you didn't know the backstory? If it just was some kid staring into a camera, with an overexposed sun in the center? I don't think so.

I agree totally. The first place picture sucked. The second and third place pictures were much, much better.
posted by delmoi at 11:06 AM on July 18, 2006

brownpau: That link was SO COOL!!! Thanks!
posted by johngumbo at 11:14 AM on July 18, 2006

Maybe the bigger problem is that most people still see him as a kid with Down syndrome and not just a kid.

With the backstory the work is larger than the borders of the frame. Take most works of art out of the context of the society that raised the artist and the work loses meaning. This painting has extra meaning for those whose children are born into a world and society that often actively shuns them and if, as a work, it helps create a more accepting culture, then has it not accomplished one of the major goals of art?

We are already creating a society that is pushing for eugenics to, as much as possible, eliminate the Trisomy population from our culture. How far does the Trisomy population need to drop before equal classroom access is removed and children are once again routinely condemned to institutions?

As for the quality of the work, I am entranced by the texture of his hair and his overalls and the playing of light on his cheek from his glasses. I wish I could see more detail in the work. But that is personal opinion.
posted by plinth at 11:58 AM on July 18, 2006

Plinth, i agree that one cannot assess a painting based on the size available on the site. And promoting understanding and acceptance is a noble goal for anyone. But that does not make this piece art, and I think most of us can tell that from what we see.

Why not? Because you NEED the backstory to appreciate it on those terms. Otherwise, it's just a plain, unremarkable photo, reproduced in oil. The lens flare personalizes it so that you feel as if you are experiencing something private via amateur photography. But modern art has shown that painting has means of its own to express intimacy. As painters we do not have to capitulate to (the unintentionally ironically "pure") devices this way.

Didn't the curators feel that the artist's slavishness to the photograph points rather away from the naturalness he espouses as a way to accept imperfection? I can't understand the thickheadedness of it.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 12:45 PM on July 18, 2006

And incidentally, the SECOND-place piece uses the WTC incident (and "impressive" photosurrealism-ishness) as its inflammatory means of getting attention for itself. Unsophisticated.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 12:49 PM on July 18, 2006

Because you NEED the backstory to appreciate it on those terms.
That's horseshit. Without the backstory handed to you, the title, the subject, and rest of the imagery give you more than enough to appreciate it on a social level. The significance of a boy who is immediately identifiable for having a genetic defect not fitting into the perfect world that most of us are born into is absolutely apparent.

Your sweeping statement about capitulation is laughable and ironically elitist as you apply your own perfect artistic prejudices to an artist who is constantly living with others social prejudices.

I had the initial story passed onto me by a local storekeeper who knows my ties to the special needs community. He got it. Is he more eclectic and erudite than thou?
posted by plinth at 1:04 PM on July 18, 2006

...there's absolutely nothing wrong with portraits taken from photographs.

Artists have been using photographs since the dawn of photography...

Agreed. But we labor under the illusion that a photograph somehow captures reality, when in truth your perceptions are limited from the moment you look through the viewfinder.

Your natural field of vision is restricted. When you press the shutter release, you capture that particular moment, but miss all others (unless you're shooting multiple frames, film, or video.) A photograph lacks much: the subject's voice, eye and head movements, changes in posture and body language, and anything else happening beyond the edges of the frame.

Working live without a camera, a good portraitist will see, hear, smell, touch, and talk with their subject, then—over time with many changes made along the way—incorporate their impressions into a unique vision of the sitter. The paint on a blank canvas, after it passes through the eye and hand of an artist, will show more than any photograph.

It's like going on a trip with a load of cameras, lenses, and film, and having one eye against the viewfinder the whole time: you're half blind. If you want to see more, leave the old camera obscura behind occasionally.
posted by cenoxo at 3:14 PM on July 18, 2006

Run, Sam, run!!
posted by rob511 at 5:09 PM on July 18, 2006

cenoxo - if you think a photographic portrait is, by definition, a lesser work than a painting, you need to look at more photographs. Sorry, that sounds horribly patronising, but, I dunno, check out some of the best known portrait photographers - Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Martin Parr or Nan Goldin, say - and apply your criteria for a good portrait. I'm certain you'll find that they match up to any painter.

plinth - I get where you're coming from, but I personally find this work offensive, not only because it is by any standards a poor painting (assuming we're not missing something by viewing it in reproduction), but because it fetishises that child, and emphasises that child's difference. It's disgusting to me because it absolutely does not 'create a more accepting culture', it continues the ghettoisation, for want of a better word, of people with Down's syndrome, just from a different perspective - the kid in this portrait is 'special' rather than 'disabled'.

The painting is, in the sense that Greenberg and Adorno used the word, and in the older sense, kitsch: an expression of false consciousness, and a badge of status. By claiming that the work as one with aesthetic value, you are laying claim to your status as one who has a particular moral/political view of the role of Down's syndrome people in society. (By the sound of it, I agree with that view, for what it's worth...)
posted by jack_mo at 5:34 PM on July 18, 2006

plinth, i didnt mean to piss on yr post. the boy was not identifiable as " " to me, possibly due to the size of the linked picture, or maybe my monitor is cheap.
but i'll raise you that calling someone an artist based on this painting is complete horseshit. erudition has nothing to do with it.
that said, i think it's wonderful that people with genetic defects can have a nice poster. it is, awfully.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 6:30 PM on July 18, 2006

jack_mo -
I understand what you say about ghettoisation from a different prespective, but I don't agree with you. The generation of people with Down syndrome who were first labelled 'special' instead of 'disabled' have flourished. I can't wait to see what happens with the next generation that's benefitting from inclusion.

With regards to the rest, I just deleted several paragraphs of response when I figured I could sum it up more succinctly: lay off the equivocation. It's trivially false, doesn't do your point justice and is demeaning to those who disagree with you.
posted by plinth at 6:49 PM on July 18, 2006

None of those potraits were of Leo Sayer, which means that the competition was inherently flawed.
posted by Biblio at 7:36 PM on July 18, 2006

lay off the equivocation. It's trivially false, doesn't do your point justice and is demeaning to those who disagree with you.

Huh? You mean the bit about kitsch? Since I clearly (well, clearly-ish!) stated that I was using the word in both the critical theory sense and the older 'bourgeoisie buying tat to make themselves look good' sense, not conflating the two meanings to confuse, so I don't see how I can be guilty of the fallacy of equivocation.

I can't wait to see what happens with the next generation that's benefitting from inclusion.

Me neither - having worked with Down's syndrome children in both special schools and mixed ability classes, I'm pretty certain that the latter is best for everyone, academically and socially speaking. I guess we'll have to agree to differ on this painting, though - if we want people to see 'some kid' rather than 'some Down's kid', I just can't see how a sentimental work like this helps towards a goal of inclusion.
posted by jack_mo at 5:11 AM on July 19, 2006

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