A Family Affair
As we find ourselves in the peak of the Holiday season, we are all reminded of the importance of family, as well as the unique and complicated relationships that come with having relatives. Art reflects the ever-evolving ideas, appearances, dynamics, and structures that define the concept of family in the contemporary world. Exploring both the representation of a family, as well as the underlying interrelationships, the following works prompt introspection on how we as society judge other families and choose to present our own.
Known for her practice of subverting social norms, Heintz’s Playing House series continues her examination of the American Dream and the pressure to conform. Using two mannequins, dubbed Chauncey and Mary Margaret, Heintz stages both humorous and shocking family portraits of marital bliss and maternal love. Her radioactive color and expressionless characters hint at the darker side of conformity, namely what is lost when the image, or illusion, of happiness is confused with happiness itself.
“This work isn’t only for women in terms of marriage; it applies to anybody whose life doesn’t fit expectations, whether that comes from their parents, their culture, or themselves. No one’s life turns out the way they or their Parents imagined it would. So many of us spend the second half of our lives trying to reconcile the choices we made in the first half. Just like any artist, I’m out to change perception. I want people, particularly women, to let go of the judgment, and embrace their lives, with or without the Mrs., PhD., or Esq. attached to their name,” Heintz explains.
Thomas Struth, The Richter Family I, Cologne. Image Courtesy: Guggenheim.
The Richter Family I, Cologne is a penetrating depiction of photographer Thomas Struth’s former mentor, renowned German artist, Gerhard Richter, with his wife and young children. To make his family portraits, Thomas Struth lets the sitters arrange themselves in their home. Struth instructs the family to look at his lens and he then waits for the instant in which the essence of each family member is vibrantly present.
Seemingly simple, the family is presented at almost eye level perspective, with a clean background, focusing on their humanity and facial expressions. Richter's gaze is intense, unsettling, and in direct contact with the viewer. His son sits on his knee, mirroring his daughter and wife’s positioning on the right side of the composition. In allowing his subjects to decide their outfits, positioning, and setting, Struth creates a work that illuminates the essence of Richter’s family, while reflecting how they themselves wish to be perceived by onlookers.
Jacques-Louis David, Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte, 1821, Oil on Canvas, 51 x 39 5/8 in. Image Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum.
Portraying contemporary African American men and women using the conventions of traditional European portraiture, Kehinde Wiley revives the classical genre into culturally poignant and provocative compositions. Inspired by Jacques-Louis David’s 1821 neoclassical painting, Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte, Wiley’s The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte from The World Stage: Haiti, shows two women seated against a decorative background that weaves its way to the forefront. Incorporating images of vegetation found on Haiti such as okra, brought first to the island from Africa, and sugarcane, a food product that was broadly exploited as a cash crop during slavery, Wiley masters the technical aspects of portraiture painting while propagating unique aspects of his individual subjects and giving rise to a notion of national identity.
Urs Fischer, Leo (George & Irmelin) (2019). Copyright Urs Fischer, Image Courtesy: Gagosian.
Approached by Leonardo DiCaprio to create a portrait, sculptor Urs Fischer created a larger-than-life size waxwork of the DiCaprio family. Simply titled, Leo, the monumental wax sculpture is composed of a double portrait in which Leonardo is depicted simultaneously hugging his mother, Irmelin Indenbirken, and gazing toward his father, George DiCaprio. The two Leonardos, linked as if conjoined twins, maintain separate interactions with each of his respective parents, reinforcing the duality of the double portrait. Complete with a wick that burns on the top of Leonardo DiCaprio’s head, the wax installation slowly melts away, mimicking the impermanence of life.
As the lineage of family portraits from history changed reflecting the differing family values and uncomfortable truths, the idealized family portraits are re-evaluated and questioned to offer a truer description of our family.