LL Cool J posing like John D. Rockefeller. LeBron James playing with a basketball video game. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke resembling a dollar bill. And yes, President Obama looking skyward, filled with HOPE.
They are only a few “Americans Now” — stars of entertainment, government, the arts, business, and science — in the National Portrait Gallery’s fascinating multi-media exhibit that opened August 20.
This must-see exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) shows key Americans by some famed photographers and artists, including Chuck Close, but mostly 30-something creative talents. Their various processes are as creative as the portraits they produce:
• David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien are virtually and literally indistinguishable from each other in “The Late Night Triad” projected video by Jason Salavon. The three side-by-side videos are from 64, yes, 64 nights of continually taped programs, which Salavon compressed into about 3.5 minutes.
• Toni Morrison is painted — you’d swear it was a photograph – by Robert McCurdy. He asks his subjects, including the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, to remove all expression from their faces, and then McCurdy takes 360 photographs in one session. He chooses one, and spends 18 months creating a meticulous painting.
• George Clooney, LeBron James, Kindle creator Jeff Bezos, are among 19 video portraits by Lincoln Schatz in a process he created for “Esquire’s “Portrait of the 21st Century”. Bezos is shown reading an e-book on Kindle before the revolutionary product was released.
• Lyle Lovett, known for his humor as well as honky-tonk music and hair, is shown roping a bull to the ground on his Texas ranch. Martin Schoeller took the photograph not long after a bull had trampled the singer, sidelining Lovett for about half a year. Schoeller’s other work here includes Tony Hawk, who put skateboarding on the international map, skateboarding off his kitchen cabinet in between his wife and young children.
• Martha Stewart’s 2005 photograph was taken by William Abranowicz soon after she was released from prison on charges of lying to investigators. Prominent in her pristine all-white office is her Hermès “Birkin” handbag, retailing for as much as $85,000, which caused controversy when she carried it daily to her trial. The portrait seems to say that “Martha and her bag are back,” commented Ann Shumard, an NPG curator.
• LL Cool J asked to be painted in the same pose that John D. Rockefeller struck when painted by John Singer Sargent. And speaking of rocks, LL Cool J wears much bling in his portrait by Kehinde Wiley.
• Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s portrait by Mark Wagner is a satirical collage made from tiny strips of $1 bills. Bernanke stares out from eyes with his initials as irises, “B” and “B”. Bernanke was appointed to head the Fed in Feb. 2006 when the markets were in what B.B. terms “anaphylactic shock”.
• President Obama is represented by, yes, the indeed iconic “HOPE” portrait by Shepard Fairey. The National Portrait Gallery unveiled Fairey’s hand-finished collage on inauguration day.
NPG Director Martin Sullivan told a press preview, “We hope this is a fair and representative example of Americans who have great creativity and impact on society.”
The exhibit is particularly timely “now”, when concepts and questions of identity abound — genetic identity, gender identity, ethnic identity… and when concepts of portraiture are evolving in spectacularly innovative ways.
“Americans Now”, drawn mainly from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection and a few long-term loans, will be on view through July 10, 2011.
For more info: The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, www.npg.si.edu, Eighth and F Streets NW, Washington, DC, 202-633-1000.