The Outwin: American Portraiture Today, a major exhibition organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, features the finalists of the Portrait Gallery’s fifth triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
Every three years, artists living and working in the United States are invited to submit a recent portrait to a panel of experts chosen by the Portrait Gallery. In 2019, forty-six works were selected from over 2,600 entries in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, time-based media, and performance art. Artists were asked explicitly to submit works that respond to the current political and social context; the resulting presentation offers perspectives on a range of themes of sociopolitical relevance, including immigration, the status of American workers, mass incarceration, gun violence, and LGBTQ+ rights.
Finalists come from fourteen states; Washington, DC; and Puerto Rico. While some portraits reflect a direct encounter between artist and sitter, others depict historical figures such as the author and activist James Baldwin, the civil rights worker Lottie Green Varner, and George Stinney Jr., a fourteen-year-old boy executed for a crime he did not commit. The majority of the works represent people who are vulnerable, including immigrants crossing the border, unaccompanied minors seeking shelter, and LGBTQ+ refugees, as well as those figures who are known for supporting social justice. All of the final selections reflect a keen awareness of portraiture’s potential to insist on the presence, and importance, of every human being, evoking a strong sense of activism rooted in empathy.