A Study in Portraiture deals with the subversion and altering of identity through portraiture and how those issues manifest themselves through Heather Cantrell’s exploration of tribes and subcultures, specifically those of the art world. The project explores her usage of theatricality and references to historical artworks within her chosen medium of photography to document the performative. Involving much more than mere photography, Cantrell’s artistic practice entails a conceptual strategy that incorporates performance, theater, painting, sculpture, and sociology. The resulting photographic image represents this in one captured moment with all its beautiful ambiguity and intrigue – it is a ‘play-still.’
Throughout previous bodies of work (Century’s End, The Extended Family, Corpus Battaglia, Head Hunters, and Zombies), Cantrell has focused on family, tribes, subcultures, and history by depicting her “community” of fellow artists, musicians, collectors, and curators in constructed scenes. Employing such devices as theatricality and creating individualized settings, she layers her subjects within a fictional narrative whereby the subjects exist in limbo, somewhere between their own reality and the one constructed by Cantrell. This interest in questioning authority in identity is further addressed in her new series, A Study in Portraiture, as both the artist and subject participate in culling from stage props, costumes, placement, and backdrop scenarios. The focus on members of the art world provides a further hidden identity; those in this world may recognize the subjects while for others the situation remains unclear. Referencing West African photographers Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe as well as the 18th century society portraits of British painter Thomas Gainsborough, she addresses the subject’s complicity in the inauthentic with their desire for enhanced social or economic perception and the subsequent role the artist has in creating this. Like these artists, Cantrell’s images call into question the subject’s indvididual identity while simultaneously documenting a specific generation as a whole; hers is an ethnographic exploration into the exclusivity of the contemporary art world through performance.
A Study in Portraiture began in the summer of 2008 when Cantrell invited artist friends to her studio to dress up, using her many props and costumes, and have their portrait taken. This event culminated in a Polaroid that the subject kept and both a black-and-white 4×5 and a digital image used for archiving and future printing, thus combining an out-dated (and now defunct) means of image capturing with current technology. The success of these sessions lay not only in the visually rich and captivating image itself but also in the organic depiction of the Los Angeles art community. Now, in taking this concept out of the studio and into the gallery, Cantrell pushes her involvement as a director by approaching each exhibition of A Study in Portraiture as an act in a play (hence the titling “Act I” and “Act II”). This allows the compartmentalization of the individual participants and the ability to realize each as a character. The exhibition consist of an “in house” photography studio resembling the one used in her own studio that consists of several hand-painted backdrops along with a table housing a bevy of prop options for both artist and invited participant to use. In addition to this performative element, which will occur both publicly and privately during the exhibition, selected framed portraits or ‘play stills’ will be presented.
A Study in Portraiture is curated by Caryn Coleman.