In our column, Artist File, art advisor Diana Hamm of WK ART reports on an exciting resurgence of portraiture on the contemporary art scene.
After many years of abstract art dominating the global art world, I’ve noticed a growing shift toward portraiture. There’s been a return to figuration and using the body as subject. On my last trip to New York, pre-Covid, the sheer volume of figurative art was breathtaking. Art fairs and galleries were teeming with representational art. And today, I’m exposed on a daily basis to new artists working in this style through online previews and art fairs. Read on to explore some of the most exciting portraiture artists in Canada.
Shantel Miller uses portraiture as a way of addressing politics around the Black body. She intentionally uses oil paint, which has a history of power, class and gender hierarchies, in order to democratize the medium and allow for a deeper inclusivity of who is portrayed. In a series called
The Side Profile, she portrays young Black men in profile. Stefan (2016) exemplifies this series well. Each portrait reveals personal traits of the individual, though the painting immediately recalls a mug shot; this reframing of the Black profile positively changes the context of this type of image.
Photographer: Courtesy Shantel Miller
Products: Stefan (2016)
Self Portrait (2019), Shantel again uses oil paint, reversing the traditional narrative of class and race structures in a way that seems hopeful and optimistic. The work feels full of promise as society tries to write a new history. I love her thoughtful manner of exploring themes of belonging and identity — they’re thought-provoking, important subjects, which she paints with such a beautiful hand.
Shantel Miller currently lives in Boston, where she’s completing her MA in fine painting at Boston University. She is represented by NewCube in New York.
Photographer: Courtesy Shantel Miller
Source: Self Portrait (2019)
Erin Armstrong is one of my favorite portrait artists at the moment. Her subject is definitely portraiture but not in a traditional sense; she imagines everything in her paintings, from the body to the background, rather than painting a particular person or place. Erin stitches together memories, experiences and images from her imagination in order to create lush and narrative scenes. She also uses vibrant pastel colors and fun patterns in order to balance the heavy emotions that the sitter often embodies. A sense of melancholy is palpable in many of her paintings — by allowing the mysterious figure to live among the joyous settings, a positive tension is created.
Lemon (2020) exemplifies this: the woman’s face is undefined and rather joyless while she is placed in what looks like a holiday setting. I love the patterning on her blouse — she looks stylish but sad. Erin creates a dichotomy between the woman’s feelings and the setting, demonstrating the true power of portraiture.
Erin Armstrong is based in Toronto. She’s represented across the country at Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto and Vancouver, Duran Mashaal gallery in Montreal and Calgary’s Newzones Gallery of Contemporary Art. Her work on canvas starts around $4,900.
Photographer: Courtesy of Erin Armstrong
Products: Lemon (2020)
Erik Olson paints faces, but in a much more abstract manner, with gloopy brushstrokes that both reveal and hide the sitter. He paints those close to him, allowing feeling to be prioritized more than a direct likeness of the person. The works are textural and feel three-dimensional. There’s something in his palette and hand that feels very masculine and woodsy, yet there’s a direct link to formal portraiture in the way he crops and frames each work. He alters this historical medium by retaining the format but contemporizing the subject; there seems to be a push and pull of that which is old, and that which is new.
Erik Olson is based in Düsseldorf, Germany. He’s represented by VivianeArt gallery in Calgary, Michael Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario, and Luis de Jesus Los Angeles. His portraits are around $7,500.
Photographer: Courtesy of Erik Olson & Luis de Jesus Los Angeles
Products: Kerry (2020)
Chloe Wise’s work feels very urgent and “now.” She’s 29 and, thus, was born and raised in the age of technology. With a cell phone glued to her, she grew up in the world of selfies and constant photo-taking. This fact appears quite openly in her art as she crops things in bizarre ways on her canvases, like one might screengrab and edit on a phone. Her art is humorous and subversive, incorporating brand names as a means to parody our devotion to them. Chloe is very aware of advertising, product placement and branding, making her paintings emblems of the moment.
You’ll Go Blind Looking for It (2017), for example, places a container of processed cheese prominently in the frame, humorously raising the debate around the wellness industry. I think these paintings will be fascinating to study years from now: what will they say about our current culture? I love how all these artists are working in completely different manners, exploring vastly different themes, but are united in their use of the body as subject. Portraiture goes in and out of style, but I think, because of its humanity, it’s something that will continue to be explored by artists for generations to come.
Chloe Wise is now based in New York. She is represented by Galerie Division in Montreal and Almine Rech gallery in New York City. Her large canvases start at $46,000.
Photographer: Courtesy of Almine Rech
Products: You’ll Go Blind Looking for It (2017)
Author: Diana Hamm
House & Home November 2020