Why portrait painting is important (now)

Dushko Petrovich on why portrait painting is gaining in reputation, even before the unveiling of Barack and Michelle Obama's official portraits. 

So why is portraiture returning now? For one, there is an institutional urgency to speak to a more diverse audience with painting that depicts the black community, the Asian-American experience, the Latino face, to attract the various people who had been excluded from the museum by remaking the history of figurative painting, this time with color. Not that the trend toward realist portraits is exclusive to artists of color. It is evident in the rococo renderings of Sam McKinniss, who paints pop culture figures — Prince, Lorde, Flipper — like hallowed aristocrats. It was clear in a series of self-portraits by Justin Vivian Bond — who is best known for experimental cabaret performances — that were displayed at the New Museum last fall, and seemed to casually but definitively announce Bond’s identity as a trans artist.

And there is another reason for figurative paintings’ resurgence as well: We live in a time in which reality is almost daily warped in ways that were unimaginable even 18 months ago. We have swiftly entered an era where the very notion of truth, or facts, is considered fungible. As we reassess the various power structures that landed us here, it is stabilizing and reassuring to look at the work of an artist who is clearly in control of her craft, who is able to depict a reality that is material and grounded in recognition — of seeing, in the Facebook age, a painting that looks like who it is meant to.