In 'Self & Others,' portrait painters still thrive in the age of selfies

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Portraits done by two artists of the same subject
Portraits done by Frank and Pam Gaard of the same people hang together in Instinct Gallery.
Courtesy Instinct Gallery

In the age of the selfie, the self-portrait snapped on a phone then shared on-line, it might seem that there is no longer a place for portrait painters.

But the artists involved in "Self & Others," a show that opens at the Instinct Gallery on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, say otherwise.

"Self & Others" displays the work of artists Nancy Robinson, Frank Gaard, Pamela Gaard, and Stuart Mead. The show opens Saturday and runs through Sept. 6.

The title's simplicity belies a deep exploration, Instinct Gallery Director John Schuerman said. The show captures how the artists see others, and in a way, how they see themselves.

A detail of "Portrait of Anne"
A detail of "Portrait of Anne" by Stuart Mead, one of the painters featured in "Self & Others" opening this weekend at Instinct Gallery in Minneapolis.
Courtesy Instinct Gallery

"Probably more importantly, it's not only how they see someone," Schuerman said, "it's what they choose to show the rest of the world about that person, right? Or what they choose to reveal about themselves if they are doing a self-portrait."

The show includes a variety of work, said Schuerman, as he sorted piles of material before mounting the exhibit.

"We are mixing it up a little bit," he said. "We have the artists who do portraits of others, doing portraits of others in the show."  

The four artists produce very different work. Nancy Robinson arguably produces selfies, but they are darkly humorous self portraits in oils. She calls them commentaries about life as a modern woman.

"And some of these paintings, what's happening to the person in the painting, I'd kind of rather do to myself, rather than to other people," she said.  

Instinct Gallery Director John Schuerman
Instinct Gallery Director John Schuerman says he chose the four artists in "Self & Others" because of the different ways they approach portraiture.
Mai Tong Yang/MPR News

Robinson portrays herself as both Adam and Eve in one picture, gazing into a mirror in another while saying "Nobody understands me the way you do." She often begins planning her paintings while writing in her journal.

"Somebody called me a dinosaur for some reason," she recalled, as she pointed to a painting of herself looking curiously at an approaching brontosaurus. "And I thought, 'Fine! Here I am hanging out with dinosaurs.'"  

There are also images of Robinson created by husband and wife Frank and Pamela Gaard. For five years they've invited models to their studio where they both paint the subject.

The sittings are filled with music and talk, said Frank Gaard, who is well known for his brightly colored pop art pieces. The finished paintings are clearly of the same person, but always quite distinct. Gaard likes that

"Like the French: 'Vive la difference!'" he said. "I means it's difference that gives us a sense of who is who. We will use the same model some times and it's like from different planets."  

Self-portrait of Nancy Robinson
Nancy Robinson says she began painting this self-portrait after someone accused her of being a dinosaur.
Mai Tong Yang/MPR News

Pamela Gaard sees it as a manifestation of psychology.

"Because we do see different sides of the model or we have a different intuition about them," she said. "And it does come through in the portraits."  

Pam Gaard's picture of Robinson is perhaps more realistic. Her husband's glows with his trademark bright colors. Robinson said she thinks both paintings are gorgeous.

"It felt like it was a kind of conversation," she said. "I know both of these people and their art enough to really respect their work and so I came to it feeling like they were giving me a gift, painting my portrait."  

"Self & Others" contains several of the dual portraits hung side by side. There is also work by Mead, who is based in Germany. In addition to works on the walls, the gallery has a video loop displaying his working sketches leading up to finished portraits.

Robinson and the Gaards believe the portrait has a lot to offer, even in the modern visually overloaded world. Frank Gaard calls it the age of vanity. He says for centuries rich people have always wanted paintings of themselves and their children. However, he thinks that there is something deeply human about a painting of a person, and when it's done right it goes far beyond a simple image.

"You see a portrait that touches you, in a collection someplace," he said, "And there is a haunting in there of that being who sat."