“Portraiture Now: Communities” is supposed to teach us about the tightly forged bonds of community, and three in particular: artists in Philly, a family in Colorado, and the citizens of Maquoketa, Iowa. But all we learn about these communities from this exhibit is that they happen to be inhabited by a collection of friendly-looking white people, and that they have the good fortune of having attracted the attention of three very talented artists. Rose Frantzen, Jim Torok, and Rebecca Westcott’s paintings are lovely, really—-they’re detailed, emotional, and exquisitely realistic. But the exercise of cataloging every member of a community with a portrait feels stiffly ancient and anthropological, like George Catlin‘s attempt in the 1830s to document entire Indian tribes before they were lost to assimilation. His try is far more interesting to look at. (It’s on permanent display at the Renwick Gallery, across the street from the Old Executive Office.)
Westcott’s portraits of her artist friends in Philadelphia offer up the most personality, compared to the artistic mug shots of her fellow exhibitors. Frantzen, however, has made the poor decision of recording statements from her subjects about their lives in Maquoketa, and playing them on a continuous loop in the gallery. But the acoustics of the space turn their words into a jumbled din, and when their words can be made out, they offer no particular insight into Maquoketa anyway. It is extraordinarily distracting—-so much, that one wishes to say to the good citizens of Maquoketa, “Shut up, so I can look at the paintings in peace.”
The exhibition is on view from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily to July 5 at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F Streets NW Free. (202) 633-1000.