Blog / 2021 / What a Painted Portrait Really Says About You

February 20, 2021

Paris Hilton and Carter Reum with Paint Your Life portrait
photo from Paris Hilton’s Instagram

News of Paris Hilton’s painted portrait with her fiancé hit the art world exactly like your three year old’s latest chef d’oeuvre, but it still made an impression on me—though more for the story behind the image than for the work itself. Officially, the larger-than-life painting is a jokey gift for her partner. It’s a reference to the huge family portrait in Schitt’s Creek, the lockdown TV show of choice for the couple. But that’s not what caught my attention.

Hilton commissioned the piece through Paint Your Life, a sweatshop in Asia which pays its workers a pittance for creating custom art and which has both revolted and fascinated me since 2008. My guess is that Hilton hired this company as part of the promotional gig portion of her site where she endorses a whole range of products which she probably doesn’t pay for, but the decision to work with a sweatshop still stings. I mean, if you want someone to reproduce your favorite photo in a bland realistic style, there are plenty of independent artists who are more than capable of fulfilling your dream.

Ai-Da Robot with self-portrait
photo courtesy of the Design Museum

All that said, I likely would have stuck to rolling my eyes about Hilton’s choice in private, except that, almost simultaneously, Ai-Da Robot decided to pop up in my news feed again.

Or did it?

As “the world’s first ultra-realistic robot artist,” Ai-Da doesn’t have a lot of agency in anything it does, not the least of which is its marketing. What do its keepers even mean by calling the robot “ultra-realistic”? Does Ai-Da treat itself to avocados only rarely because its sometimes meager art income dictates a simple life? Does it suffer crushing self-doubt at times? From a quick tour of its website, I can say that, unlike most artists, Ai-Da definitely doesn’t do the maintenance itself. A robot would never stand for the mobile version of its site to *cringe* open links in a new tab.

Ai-Da is back in the news with an upcoming exhibit, Ai-Da Self Portraits, on display this spring at London’s Design Museum. The show is being billed as commentary about artificial intelligence’s uses and abuses, but I can’t help be more than a little weirded out, because no one’s talking about Ai-Da’s face. You know, the thing that the ultra-realistic robot artist is actually portraying in all its self-portraits.

Thanks to Reuters, we know that the high tech rubber mask as well as the mechanisms that animate it were built by Mesmer with the goal of creating a “mixed race appearance,” but I can’t find any info about motivations:

  • How was it decided that the android should have a multi-ethnic appearance?
  • And why so light-skinned if the intention is for the robot to seem “mixed race”?
  • Why is Ai-Da feminine-looking and why do her keepers use the pronouns she/her for it?
  • Why is Mesmer’s huge contribution to Ai-Da and its self-portraits not acknowledged on the site’s “Who Is Ai-Da” page?
Gwenn Seemel portrait painting process
painting process

Behind every painted face, there’s a whole story. There’s the stuff the artwork obviously calls attention to: the subject. And then there’s all the other stuff it brings up: everything from unethical labor practices to the unsavory machinations of the all-too-human minds who create androids.

My portraits are not immune to this layered kind of storytelling, including the one above of Maggie. There’s the subject: a kind and very funny person whom I adore. And then there’s the rest of it: Maggie didn’t ask to have her portrait done. I wanted to paint her, and, though it made her nervous, she went along with it because she was touched by the request and because she was curious about what the experience would bring up for her. She ended up sharing the portrait on her social media recently, reporting back to me:

“The feedback I got was so special. I’m not someone who invites this kind of attention to myself, but it was very satisfying, humbling, lovely. So many people, people who really know me, said that your portrait captured my essence, not simply my likeness.”

Portraits are never just representations of their subjects. In fact, it’s often the context—all the things that aren’t directly depicted in the artwork—that end up painting the most complete picture of the subject, whether they’re human or android.

custom portrait painting art
Gwenn Seemel
Maggie
2021
acrylic on wood
8 inches in diameter

If bland, realistic, and robotic are the opposite of what you’re looking for, you can hire me to paint you portrait! All the info is here.

smiling portrait art by acrylic painter
detail of Maggie

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