Martin Schoeller: The Truth Behind the Portraits
by Oscar Laluyan
Portraits have come a long way. Painting your visage took endless hours of sitting for the artist and if you go to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. there you’ll see corridors of stern looking or very stiff subjects. It was the proper air of formidable and haughty for the noble and rich who can afford to commission a portrait. With the invention of photography, well it was no longer the impression of what your portrait can be – it can now reveal something that is true to the individual. Is it really the truth or a lie?
Diane Arbus quoted, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”
Last November 13th, AF came to the opening of celebrated portraitist to the celestially famous, Martin Schoeller for his photography exhibition, Portraits. The mobbed reception packed them in as the well-known images that have been featured in Time Magazine, GQ and Entertainment Weekly peered into the sea of star struck art aficionados. Spanning about 15 years of work, Schoeller had the classic black and white along with the fantastic color images in varying scales as testament to the immense body of work he produced. Given that the subjects are famous people and celebrities, there’s a lot to be said about the images one beholds in this show. The production level is high to stage the shoot, it is revealing of the personality of each one, high glamour, reality, created or ingrained – the variety of his portraits are simply: ASTOUNDING.
One of the first photographs that captivated me was Quentin Tarantino, the unconventional and iconic director of Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies, breaking free from a strait jacket while he is seated on a hospital stretcher as white birds mimic the explosion of his action. It signaled freedom from convention, which is what Tarantino is all about as a director and auteur of cinema. Art is the same way. It is breaking free from convention. Schoeller was skillful to express the idea and show it beautifully.
Another great image is of the actor Bill Murray peeking his head out behind the curtain and flanked by two armchairs. It is the surprise on an otherwise mundane interior shot and the unexpected made the entire photo charming yet poignant at the same time. Schoeller captured the spirit of Bill Murray as the actor and perhaps the man behind the curtain.
George Clooney grins behind a mask of a torn page set exactly where his eyes are and Schoeller hits the nail on this one as peeling or concealing the man that everyone has idolized. Do we add more layers or we peel off layers to know someone? The dichotomy of these thoughts is cleverly demonstrated by Schoeller.
Does he rely only with the staged, high concept, star wattage and machinations of fantasy to present portraits of the famous? He manages true grit and character such as his photo of the man in black – Johnny Cash or the casual stance of Clint Eastwood. You have nothing but the man and every line on their face tells the story of everything they went through, lived and learned. Stark and bold comes through because the subjects themselves are badass. They don’t need the studio gimmicks and props. All it takes is sit and take my damn picture. Schoeller can certainly step toe to toe with the best of ‘em.
So does Schoeller reveal everything or does he conceal then shows us what he envisions? Like any good artist who edits – there are moments that may be frozen in film but the nuance of the person cannot be adequately displayed. The allure of people is their complexity and Schoeller managed to distill the bare essentials but keeps a great part reserved for the imagination. There must be the air of mystery still preserved for these famous subjects in his portraits. I am sure they trusted Schoeller to finesse what needs to be shown and put the brakes on how far they’re going out on a limb for that shot.
Going back to the Diane Arbus quote and seeing all the portraits by Schoeller informs me that the secret to its impact and sense of timelessness is the undefined artistry that will forever remain a secret. The more I try to dissect and analyze the images, the less fun it becomes. Take the portraits at face value for the best part is being titillated that they are either saying everything or nothing.
Martin Schoeller: PORTRAITS / On View: Nov. 13, 2014 – Jan. 3, 2015
Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday (11 am to 6 pm)
HASTED KRAEUTLER. 537 West 24th Street. NYC, NY 10011