Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture at CAAM

Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture. Photo Courtesy of the California African American Museum.

Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture

California African American Museum

By Anna Garner

Through October 8th


The portrait has remained an innately relatable form; it welcomes the viewer to look at a person for extended periods, something that can be taken as a questionable form of interaction from one person to another. In looking, the viewer is asked to identify with the person, to relate, bond, and emerge with a greater sense of self and kinship.  Whether a stranger or loved one, the portrait in its most optimistic form, mediates interconnections between sitter, viewer, and artist.  “Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture,” curated by Naima J. Keith and Diana Nawi, considers the ongoing lure of the portrait, and the role of collectors in continuing to shape the genre’s growing import.

Borrowed from the collections of Los Angeles patrons the works in the exhibition reflect the portrait not only as visual resemblance, but also the story shared about or through the given subject.  With elements of fiction and nonfiction, the portrait communicates who a person is, what their status is, and more idealistically something of their interior ontological presence.  It is these narratives that cement the portrait as an accessible, relevant, and permanent form.  Yet portraits also function as frames of reference for the world we inhabit, mimicking hierarchical frameworks of whom and what is valued.  Portraiture’s intrinsically subjective yet plausible qualities make it a tricky site for meaning, providing both accurate and inaccurate representation.

“Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture” is an informed exhibition that ambidextrously allows these dilemmas and idealisms to coexist.  It does not elide the complications and complexities of the portrait, yet sincerely affirms the continued importance of the genre in contemporary art.  Directed through six theoretical propositions on the nature and function of portraiture the exhibition conveys a comprehensive introduction to the figure in art.  The organizing principles are: Public Persona, Performed Bodies, Love and Desire, Redefining Icons, Redefining Bodies, and Resistance and Commemoration.  Examples of these categories include Titus Kaphar’s Jerome series that uses gold surface to evoke religious and iconographic symbolism, Mickalene Thomas’ Look at What You’ve Become that confronts the portrait as object of desire by using direct gaze and an unapologetically sequined surface, and Genevieve Gaignards’ The Line Up (Green) and The Line Up (White) that relay the inherent performativity of the portrait and of identity.

The works in the exhibition are made between 1984 (the founding of CAAM) and 2017, a relatively short period, but one that encompasses wide differentiations in style and approach, expressing the breadth of the portrait in contemporary practice and its network of meanings beyond the surface.  Exploration and experimentation are manifested in works such as John Edmonds Prince, a photographic print on silk of a man wearing a du-rag, or Tschabalala Self’s Muva that depicts a stylized and abstracted figure through a mixture paint and fabric.  Progression and evolution is also underscored through a mix of early career and established artists, creating a visible exchange of artistic development.

Collectively the exhibition demonstrates an ongoing discourse with the history and role of portraiture, revealing the portrait as signifier to multifaceted relations of position, meaning, and context.  The exhibition not only imparts the extensive possibilities of the genre, it also hearteningly shows the portrait as a vital conduit for connection and identification.


“Face to Face: Los Angeles Collects Portraiture” at California African American Museum, 600 State Drive – Exposition Park – Los Angeles, CA 90037

July 12 – October 8, 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *