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The Subversive Art of Portrait Painting

David Lenz at the Museum of Wisconsin Art

Oct. 4, 2016
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David Lenz is among the most celebrated contemporary portrait painters—no small feat considering he’s an independent artist without gallery representation who subtly subverts the traditional history of portraiture.

Stylistically, Lenz is categorized as a hyperrealist, which is to say he paints things as they appear and is really good at it, like, photographically good. In this respect, Lenz fits comfortably in the tradition of Diego Velásquez, Anthony van Dyck and other old masters who earned their bread with princely commissions to paint royalty and those whose vanity was equaled by their disposable income.

Lenz’s subject matter, however, distances his work from that of his venerable predecessors. As suggested by the title of his first major retrospective “David Lenz: People on the Periphery,” at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, Lenz selects his subjects from the margins of society. “By painting people who would historically have been considered unworthy, David has turned the history of portraiture on its head,” notes Graeme Reid, MOWA’s director of collections/exhibitions and curator of the Lenz retrospective. “David has a remarkable humanity and he leverages that into a greater awareness of other people’s lives.” Lenz regards his interest in peripheral people as longstanding: “I’ve always had an affinity for underdogs,” he says. “I could never understand why society celebrates certain types of people and forgets others. It tears at me. I have to paint it.”

Lenz’s life in Milwaukee has inspired this underdog orientation. He dispiritedly recalls headlines about the city’s segregation some 25 years ago when he began painting inner-city youth, and Milwaukee’s rural surroundings have furnished Lenz with ample case studies in agrarian modes of life. There are personal, as well as geographic, motivations for Lenz’s focus on peripheral people. When his son was born with Down syndrome, Lenz gained personal insight into the world of people with disabilities. His son stars in Sam and the Perfect World (2005), which beat out more than 4,000 other entries to win the National Portrait Gallery’s inaugural Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Lenz was awarded $25,000 and the immeasurable prestige of securing the first non-presidential commission from Washington D.C.’s congressionally created gallery.

Portraiture, by its very nature, ennobles its subject. It singles out an individual as a person of interest. Lenz’s art asserts the dignity of groups that are frequently overlooked. While painting with photographic exactitude in this day and age of ubiquitous, high-quality cameras enhances the significance and subversiveness of Lenz’s hyperreal portraiture of peripheral people, purely aesthetic considerations are also at play. Like those who assert the auditory superiority of vinyl or shellac records, Lenz argues that paintings possess a texture and quality of surface that photographs simply cannot compete with.

Additionally, Lenz and Reid reject the idea that the hyperreal painter attempts to reproduce the world exactly as it is. “I work with photographs as reference material. But every aspect is up for grabs,” explains Lenz. “I don’t simply copy a photograph. There are many photographs. Bits and pieces are used. Things are manipulated to serve the greater whole.”

Reid elaborates with reference to a recently completed canvas that is being shown at the retrospective for the first time. Entitled Youth and the Great Divide, Reid calls the work a masterpiece. “The painting is of 10 children standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon,” he says, “If they were actually standing there not only would it be entirely illegal but terribly dangerous. One step back and they would fall in! So clearly David was working with multiple photos. But the point is clear: Whether you’re a wealthy kid from Arizona or a poor kid from Milwaukee—one step in the wrong direction can mean life and death. All children live in the same world and inherit the same world.”

“David Lenz: People on the Periphery” runs at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (205 Veterans Ave., West Bend) through Jan. 8, 2017.

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