BY Cal Revely-Calder in Opinion | 22 SEP 21
Featured in
Issue 222

The Rise of Portraiture in the Pandemic

As society withdrew behind screens Cal Revely-Calder reflects on how the visage has become a focal point in painting during the COVID-19 crisis

BY Cal Revely-Calder in Opinion | 22 SEP 21

You’re asked to look into her eyes. Her head tilts back, her lips are apart, her gaze is fixed on you. Though both artist and painting have names – Jenny Saville, Rupture (2020) – the subject herself does not. Her life is a mystery. And if you stare at Saville’s brushwork and flagrant, high-keyed hues, the layers disconnect. The right eye is rendered in detail, a lick of white on an iris of blue, but it’s set in an orbit of pinks and beiges, done in flattish strokes. Below her left eye, these end abruptly; her cheek is all lines, yellow and red, laid over a scarlet mass, and the yellows climb through her eye. Her head is crowned by, or dissipates into, a collision of blue and pink.

Rupture is about recognition, which in paint is faith: the belief we have, and need to hold, in the medium’s capacity to show emotional states. Let’s pretend, we say, that this is a being with a soul – a soul that we discern in her mirroring our stares – while we know her to be an illusion, like anything made of lines and drips. Old story, new obviousness: ‘The marks and energy and colour,’ Saville said of her recent works in a February interview with The Brooklyn Rail, ‘were a sort of resistance to the virus and life’s restrictions.’ Deprived of faces during lockdown, and desperate to re-encounter them, she used paint to re-create the place where, for Emmanuel Levinas, ethics begin: ‘The face,’ he wrote in Totality and Infinity (1961), ‘is a living presence […] The Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me.’ Rupture makes a woman’s face strange; reading it becomes a demand. She’s alive because you care.

Jenny Saville, Rupture, 2020, acrylic and oil on linen, 2 × 1.5 m

As society withdrew behind screens, and works of art became groups of pixels viewed in solitude, some notions had to be held onto like articles of faith. Such as: paint is colour with presence; all attitudes towards others are ethically fraught; marks can cast doubt on their own pretensions; looking at someone is a privilege. A group of contemporary painters – Saville, Sam McKinniss, Dana Schutz, Genesis Tramaine – began, now, to stand as examples of how we desire to see and be seen. The flicker of life in an eye, the perceptible tilt of a chin: we read feelings in arrangements of features, and what they display or hide. Human expressions are better captured, these painters suggest, in a medium that thrives on belief.

McKinniss’s portraiture is little like Saville’s in style, but his Dolly Parton (2021), like the woman in Rupture, situates urgency in a face. Dolly the person; Dolly the icon. At the heart of icons is their fragility: as Michael Taussig noted, they ‘come alive only with their defacement’. This Dolly has a fluorescent aura, and she seems ready to evanesce … but it hasn’t happened yet, she says, wanting you to stare. What’s stark about McKinniss’s portrait is its tragic attitude: ‘iconic’ people, it implies, are society’s marionettes.

Sam McKinniss, Dolly Parton, 2021, oil on linen, 1.3 × 1.2 m

As for fame, so for intimacy. Everyone is someone’s invention; that’s one precondition of love. I’ve begun casting some painters as pairs, arbitrary dipoles – the outcome is never true, but the process is interesting – and, it seems to me, to the extent that Saville is loving, Schutz is loveless. Her grotesquerie dwells in faces, considered as zones of flesh. One series, ‘Self-Eaters’ (2003–04), depicted characters consuming their own eyeballs; another, ‘Frank from Observation’ (2002), took a lonely man at the end of the world and put him in various poses, wretched and burning beneath the sun. ‘I never felt guilty about taking [Frank] apart,’ Schutz told BOMB in 2005. ‘He’s a fictional character; there is no consequence in him coming to an end.’ But characters can’t be treated entirely unlike people; that’s all ‘treating’, morally, can mean. Such heartlessness caused Schutz trouble with her painting Open Casket (2016), in which the mutilated face of Emmett Till – the Black 14 year old lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman – was re-created in brazen marks: impasto, inch-thick, flagrantly indelicate. And recently, in Boat Group (2020), there are figures alone together, sailing on wine-red waves. None of their gazes meets; their heads are oversized; their features are eerie and semi-abstract. The composition is like a still-life. In Schutz’s vision, the face becomes meaty, crass, inert.

In pictures such as these, both Saville and Schutz remind us that paint is unable to yearn – that it’s just a medium, pigment and oil, just a way of telling tales. Nobody would have doubted this, as a practical belief, but the thought has a coldness, a sadness, made more acute in being worn on a face. Yearning lights up a life, and that light shines through our expressions: you yearn for others (and show it); you’re yearned for (and acknowledge it). These are risks we desire to take, and we feel their loss when we’re deprived of society and its matrix of looks.

Tramaine’s paintings take romance to the riskiest extent: the surrender of oneself. Her abstracted heads are blocky and angular; they contain fragments of other faces that amass like fractal shapes. The ambiguity of how these features interrelate, how many persons are present, what the figure thinks or feels – it all vaunts the greatest refashioning (by ourselves, by a higher power) to which a person can aspire. Tramaine, who is Black and queer and a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter cause, is a devotee of hope, and her portraits see revolution in this multiplicity.

Genesis Tramaine, Saint Jonathan, 2020, oil stick, oil pastel, holy spirit, 1.8 × 1.2 m

Looking at Saint Jonathan (2020) – ‘oil pastel, oil stick, Holy Spirit’ – you see that the layering of this face has none of Saville’s subtlety; blue and beige slam into each other, creating a forehead from hues that shout their refusal to settle down. Tramaine’s gallery, Almine Rech, describes her paintings as ‘visual sermons’, but that’s too hierarchical. Think of Saint Jonathan, instead, as giving form to the prayers with which Tramaine precedes her work. She bears out a line by Herbert McCabe, from his 1970 talk ‘Prayer’, on what the point of praying is, or is not: ‘God is love, and his life is not like the life of the worker or artist, but of lovers wasting time with each other uselessly. It is into this worthless activity that we enter in prayer.’ Yearning is worthless, too, and that’s why its value, or its loss, are immense. Dolly Parton and Saint Jonathan both long to be recognized; paint is what gives them flesh, and invites you to start to feel. Nothing can change, in this or another world, without first meeting someone’s eyes.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 222 under the headline 'Painting Faces Now', as part of a special series titled 'Painting Now'.  

Main Image: Jenny Saville, Rupture, 2020, acrylic and oil on linen, 2 × 1.5 m

Cal Revely-Calder is a writer and editor from London, UK. He works on the arts desk at The Telegraph. In 2017, he won the Frieze Writers’ Prize.