Genre Bending: Sharon Sprung Re-Invents Portraiture
By Michael Gormley

Sharon Sprung, Fringe, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 in.

Our contemporary mindset separates “figurative painting” and “portraiture” as distinct genre types. It follows that we then view these works with a predetermined set of expectations that influences what we will allow ourselves to see. I get it—life is messy—we want our art in neat and tidy categories. So we want portraits that aim to capture a sitter’s likeness and, to keep the work’s focus on the face, we prefer simple compositions and conservative poses. A figurative painting on the other hand can fly with artist fancy—because our collective expectations are largely non-existent. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. The good news is that we can view the work with fresh and open eyes. The bad news is that we have little to go on to make an aesthetic judgment. But hey, we’re not to blame—contemporary visual culture is somewhat lacking on the subject of figurative art.

Here’s more good news. We get to re-invent the language of painting. Let’s begin by erasing the hard line between “figurative painting” and “portraiture.” That way of thinking doesn’t jive with contemporary realist production and frankly disregards historical practice. Regarding the latter, call to mind Sargent’s “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” Whistler’s “Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland,” or Klimt’s “The Black Feather Hat.” These are but a few examples of “portraits” that we have come to view as great “figurative paintings”—and rightfully so—given their masterful display of painterly technique and emotive expression.

Now to the present; Portraits, Inc. artist Sharon Sprung is similarly aiming to make great figurative paintings that happen to cross over into the context of portraiture. “Fringe,” pictured above, is an ambitious work that succeeds in disrupting portraiture’s defining characteristics while preserving the genre’s more noble aims. Sprung enacts this sleight of hand by mashing up what we think separates a “sitter” from a “studio nude” painting; the elaborate parlor chair cues portrait, partial nudity does not. For a correct studio nude, intricate drapery belongs tacked up as a backdrop, here it swaddles the sitter—and is painted with a delicacy that would bring tears to Ingres’s eyes. The sitter/model’s head is cast downward—not getting much face painting with that pose. Yet the work is not revealing much anatomy either.

So what is Sprung after? My guess is that the artist is still working within the realm of portraiture—but her aim is to capture the likeness of an expression—and thereby portray a deeper sense of her subject’s psyche. Sprung adds, “The sitter's name is Zeli, a very interesting young woman who has become a friend. This is my 7th or 8th painting of her and we have achieved a comfort and ease of working together that has now become more a collaboration than merely 'artist and sitter.' She can be extraordinary in her ability to create, express and embody mood, and the subtleties of emotion."

Sprung continues: "My narratives have, to me, always been more poetry than prose. They become more and more focused on the play of echoes and paradox in an emotional context rather than a cognitive, linear 'story.' The movement of her hair repeats in the fringe of the shawl—both are momentary, flowing, complex and caught in and conforming to gravity's pull. There is also tension; the fragile, ancient shawl, and the damaged antique chair pull against the model's evanescent youth—the latter as fleeting and mutable as her pose.”

Sprung paints from the sketches and photographs created during her initial work with the model—they are record of her observations and decisions about various poses, props, set-ups and lighting. The composite reference adds an animated quality to her final work—one senses a life-like potential for action and change. She notes that the work develops over long periods of time, up to three months, with numerous applications of paint layers. It is a mighty effort, and Sprung muses that she often feels like a symphony conductor assembling her orchestra of colors, strokes and compositional elements. She looks to her heroes—Caravaggio, Velasquez, Egon Schiele and Kathe Kollwitz—for the inspiration to keep working and concludes, “All these extraordinary artists capture a great depth of emotion in a beautifully expressive and unique way—stylistically and potently. They all paint people, which to me is the hardest, most challenging and complex subject matter."

Michael Gormley is a painter, writer, curator and regular contributor to the Portraits, Inc. blog. Gormley is the former editor of
American Artist magazine and most recently created the fine art catalog for Craftsy--an online education platform.