Contemporary Art

10 Portrait Paintings in Digital Times

Michel Rutten 26 April 2024 min Read

Everyone wants to save and share great moments with friends. That’s why we take loads of pictures with our cameras and especially with our smartphones; you might call them contemporary digital portraits. Portraiture began centuries ago and was particularly popular during the Renaissance, mostly at the request of the portrayed person. But what about today? Are portraits still being painted in this digital age? Do artists handle their subject as in the past?

Contemporary portraiture is not just a representative image of a certain person, but a more complex work. Besides the person portrayed, there are other elements that play a part in making a portrait of someone. It might give us an insight into the artist himself or we might learn more about the situation or personal history of the portrayed. Are you ready to meet 10 contemporary portraits?

1. John Currin, Rachel in Fur

Let’s start with a well-known artist, who has his work exhibited in the Tate Gallery and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA): John Currin. This American painter is known for his provocative paintings in Renaissance style. Many of the people he paints seem ecstatic or at least have a surreal look in their eyes. He uses realistic brushwork, but if you look closely at the works, you see that he often distorts his models.

The woman portrayed here is Rachel Feinstein, his wife and a sculptor. She is also a model and struts down the catwalk for fashion designer Marc Jacobs. Herein Currin finds his inspiration for this portrait: it is derived from an advertisement for a fur coat. But I must admit that she looks much more glamorous in the ad, and so it seems that she has become quite bored whilst being portrayed by her husband. Or did Currin deliberately depict his wife like this?

John Currin, Rachel in Fur, 2002, Private collection © John Currin;
John Currin, Rachel in Fur, 2002, private collection. © John Currin.

2. Albert Oehlen, Self-Portrait with Palette

Albert Oehlen already has many self-portraits on his record, from 1983 to the present, using an expressionist style of painting. He was part of the German ‘Neue Wilde,’ the politically-affiliated art movement that stood for ‘Wild Youth,’ trying to undermine the German authorities in the 1980s. That explains his strange self-portraits. To give you an idea, he once portrayed himself with three eyes and two noses, and in another self-portrait with his face upside down but his hair right side up, or again as a one-eyed cyclops. Even if he depicts himself in a more traditional way (with a paintbrush, a horse, or two skulls), he takes unconventional positions. One can say he makes parodies of traditional self-portraits. He certainly is an artist who dares to question himself.

Albert Oehlen, Selbstporträt mit Palette, 2005, Private collection © Albert Oehlen;
Albert Oehlen, Self-Portrait with Palette. 2005, private collection. © Albert Oehlen.

3. Elizabeth Peyton, Kanye West

Elizabeth Peyton is an atypical artist who voluntarily limits herself to making contemporary portraits. With her colorful works, she embraces celebrity culture and creates paintings documenting a particular cultural period. Since the late 1990s, she has painted popular musicians such as Kurt Cobain, David Bowie, Eminem, Kanye West, and Noel and Liam Gallagher of the rock band Oasis. In the era of Instagram and Pinterest, it’s quite unusual to see today’s pop artists portrayed in the classic form of painting. I believe that Kanye West is quite proud of his portrait since he allows it to be photographed and posted on social media.

Elisabeth Peyton, Kanye West, 2010, Private collection © Elisabeth Peyton;
Elisabeth Peyton, Kanye West, 2010, private collection © Elisabeth Peyton.
Elisabeth Peyton, Kanye West, 2010, Private collection © @kecia_benvenuto;
Kanye West with his portrait by Elisabeth Peyton. © kecia_benvenuto.

4. Merlin Carpenter, Blondie

Merlin Carpenter also paints popular culture figures and has made close-ups of Blondie, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Audrey Hepburn, and Michael Caine. He is clearly inspired by the prints of Andy Warhol. His poppy portraits resemble Warhol’s monochrome Marilyn Monroes.

Merlin Carpenter, Blondie, 2014, Private collection © Merlin Carpenter;
Merlin Carpenter, Blondie, 2014, private collection. © Merlin Carpenter.

5. Gérard Garouste, Jeu de Malin

This French painter, born in Paris in 1946, is inspired by mythical characters in literature. To understand his paintings, a certain knowledge of la commedia dell’arte, Don Quixote, and even the Bible or the Kaballah comes in handy. In this self-portrait, he depicted himself as a fool coming straight from the theater stage with a puppet in his hair. I think it’s a strange setup, but on the other hand, it seems like the puppet is whispering inspiration into his ears.

Gérard Garouste, Jeu de Malin, 2010, Private collection © Gérard Garouste;
Gérard Garouste, Jeu de Malin, 2010, private collection. © Gérard Garouste.

6. Paulina Ołowska, Torcik

This Polish artist Paulina Ołowska was 13 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. For her series of Eastern Bloc women wearing 1980s-style sweaters, she clearly borrowed stylistic elements from vintage advertisements and communist propaganda posters. The women portrayed have a determined look as if they are convinced of their ideals. Those could be political ideals but also non-political ideals, as indicated by the outdated sweater. A funny wink is never far away in these portraits.

Paulina Ołowska, Torcik, 2010, private collection. © Paulina Ołowska.

7. Luc Tuymans, Mwana Kitoko (Beautiful White Man)

The man portrayed here is King Baudouin I, who reigned over Belgium from 1951 to 1993. During Baudouin’s era, the colony of Belgian Congo became independent, hence the friendly title of this work: Mwana Kitoko means ‘beautiful white man’ in Congolese. Luc Tuymans has painted a series related to the colonial past of Belgium, such as the portrait of Lumumba, who served as the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo. It shows an intense interest of the artist in a turbulent part of his country’s history.

Luc Tuymans, Mwana Kitoko, 2000, SMAK, Ghent, Belgium;
Luc Tuymans, Mwana Kitoko, 2000, SMAK, Ghent, Belgium.

8. Victor Man, Self-Portrait at Father’s Death

The characters in the paintings of Victor Man are bathed in a nocturnal, mysterious light. Perhaps he inherited this way of painting during his three-year stay in a monastery in Jerusalem, Israel. His way of painting seems to go back to the style of Édouard Manet and Paul Gauguin. In this melancholic self-portrait, he holds a flower between his lips, as if he wants to tell us something without saying it. It seems like a dream image.

Victor Man:, Self-Portrait at Father's Death, 2016, Galeria Plan B Limited, Berlin, Germany;
Victor Man, Self-Portrait at Father’s Death, 2016, Galeria Plan B Limited, Berlin, Germany.

9. Henry Taylor, Danielle Dean

Taylor finds his models very close to his home and depicts his Afro-American family, friends, and acquaintances. You could call him a painter of the everyday man, which matches very well with his style. The naive technique contributes to that vision, but do not let yourself be distracted, because at a later age he obtained a bachelor’s degree from the California Institute for the Arts. Therefore I like to quote him: “I paint everyone, or I try to. I try to capture the moment I am with someone who could be my friend, a neighbor, a celebrity, or a homeless person.

Henry Taylor, Danielle Dean, 2012, Collection of Rosalie Benitez, Malibu, CA;
Henry Taylor, Danielle Dean, 2012, Collection of Rosalie Benitez, Malibu, CA, USA.

10. Avery Singer, Lee Krasner

To end this series of contemporary portraits, I thought it would be interesting to show a more abstract work. Avery Singer uses 3D-graphic programs and has experimented with the software Paintbrush before painting her figures on the canvas. The geometric figures in her paintings are halfway between human and robot. They are composed of three-dimensional building blocks and therefore the compositions look very futuristic, but in the same time they refer to the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, or to the Russian Constructivism of the 1920s. The different layers of tones of gray underline the futuristic character of the works and create a certain depth in the painting. Lee Krasner was one of the pioneers of abstract art. The link with Singer’s work is easily made.

Avery Singer, Lee Krasner, 2014, Private collection © Avery Singer; Portrait Paintings in Digital Times
Avery Singer, Lee Krasner, 2014, private collection © Avery Singer.

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Marina Abramović, Four Crosses: The Evil (positive), 2019 (detail). Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović Contemporary Art

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