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Steven Klein, “David Bowie” (2003), C-type colour print (© Steven Klein, all images courtesy National Portrait Gallery)

The National Portrait Gallery in London has published a compendium of what portraiture means for the 21st century. While the media may be more tech-heavy than previous centuries, the examination of self remains, perhaps with even more questions of what that means than before.

“21st Century Portraits” cover

21st Century Portraitspublished last fall, compiles 150 images from 50 artists, all created since we rolled over into the aughts. The names don’t hold too many surprises as the heavy hitters of the genre are definitely here — Annie Leibovitz, Gerhard Richter, Lucian Freud, Sophie Calle, Rineke Dijkstra — but together they’re a compelling transection of just over a decade of portraiture.

“Portraiture is often dismissed as an art form mired in the past: deadly dull, deadly old-fashioned, just plan dead, its corpse still reeking mustily of the council chamber, the company boardroom and the smoke of cigars long since extinguished,” art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon atmospherically extolls in his foreword. The National Portrait Gallery itself, as he points out, is rooted in these musty Victorian memories. In 1856 when Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was explaining to the public why the museum should exist, he stated: “there cannot be a greater incentive to mental exertion, to noble actions, to good conduct on the part of the living than for them to see before them the features of those who have done things which are worthy of our admiration.”

Gillian Wearing, “Shami Chakrabarti” (2011) ( © National Portrait Gallery, London; commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery with the support of J.P. Morgan through the Fund for New Commissions) The portrait shows Chakrabarti, a human rights campaigner, holding her “grim and worthy” public face as a mask

The book is segmented into seven strains of portraiture, although it seems a bit unnecessary as no portrait can so cleanly be a “self-portrait” without slipping into “social portrait,” “national identity,” “the body,” or any of the other categories. However, 21st Century‘s strength is the images as a sort of album of how we see ourselves and each other in an age of exponential social media sharing, and when that morality that the National Portrait Gallery was founded on is far from the focus.

There are Craig Wylie’s hyperreal paintings, deceptive in their details that seem almost photographic but have a subjective perspective. Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s grotesque mash-ups of dead animals and trash are represented, their assemblages looking like rubbish until they cast a shadow of life. Michael Landy’s seminal act of destruction is also included as a portrait, where in 2001 he inventoried and systemically annihilated everything he owned. Then there are the shape shifters like Samuel Fosso morphing into Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian in Carl Fischer’s iconic portrait, and contemplations on celebrity like Douglas Gordon’s obsessive 2006 capture of Zinedine Zidane in a soccer game where the 17 cameras never left the sports star. Shadi Ghadirian’s striking “Be Colourful” (2002) graces the cover, a selection from her series on women in Iran, showing them obscured by layers of glass and paint.

Tom Noble & Sue Webster, “Isabella Blow” (2002), taxidermy, wood, fake moss, light projector and installation template (Photograph by Andy Keate, © National Portrait Gallery). The portrait of Blow includes her lipstick & a heel from her Manolo Blahnik shoes

There’s little definitively stated in this art, everything has an edge of the pensive. People change, wear their faces as fleshy masks, act as who they want to be. Even molecularly speaking, we’re not the same people we were 10 years ago; cells are replaced, memories fade, traumas scar. How you depict a person is like bringing together a string of questions into one evocative statement, and in the 21st century that process is rarely subdued into a dusty old heirloom.

Julian Opie, “James Dyson (‘James, Inventor’)” (2010), inkjet on canvas, 2010 (© Julian Opie / National Portrait Gallery, London; commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery with the support of J.P. Morgan through the Fund for New Commissions)

21st-Century Portraits is available from National Portrait Gallery Publications.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...