Blog / 2016 / Celebrity Portraiture Is Boring.

July 13, 2016

Celebrity portraits are popular. Artists seem to love making them and audiences definitely enjoy looking at them.

I think it’s because people connect with the narratives that the celebrity faces evoke—either the stars’ life stories or the made-up ones that they have acted in. What’s more, individuals come together through their love of celebrity, so that these icons end up shaping our communities as well as our communal narratives. All in all, I recognize that a certain amount of adulation is only natural, and that portraiture is a part of it.

But I still find celebrity art dull.

commmissioned portrait of a girl
Gwenn Seemel
Nina
2007
acrylic on canvas
24 x 18 inches

There are exceptions, of course. When an image brings visibility to an underappreciated icon, the work is more inspiring. Or when an image is a commentary on fame itself, I can go with it, though I’m not certain that anyone besides Warhol can convincingly make that kind of work. I even understand the desire to grieve celebrities through portraiture—I did it once.

an African American woman as the President of the United States
Gwenn Seemel
The Next President (African American, Chandra)
2007
acrylic on denim
34 x 31 inches

That said, celebrity portraits usually have two much more mundane goals:

  1. They’re meant to show off an artist’s virtuosity—similar to hyperrealism. And the “see me draw a recognizable face” subtext fails to impress me since I think that portraits should show the “who” of a subject instead of just the “what” of their features.
  2. They’re meant as straightforward moneymakers for artists. This goes back to the fact that people buy into the people of People, which I talked about up front.
commissioned portrait of man
Gwenn Seemel
Bill
2009
acrylic on canvas
48 x 34 inches

Any way you present celebrity portraiture, I get the appeal on an intellectual level, but my heart isn’t in it. How can it be when every person I meet has so many fascinating stories to tell? Why would I waste time repeating and strengthening the narratives that mainstream culture is trying to sell me when I could be doing work that is meaningful to me?

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