I can’t stop thinking about the Christopher Newhard show that is on display at Hub Coffee Roasters on Riverside. Titled Femme Politique, the series consists of 13 oil portraits of women—from a woman in a hijab, to three generations of Sioux daughters, to numerous depictions of African American women in various states of comfort, duress and undress. The work is stunning, and there is no question that Newhard has a real talent for capturing his subjects, whom he obviously admires.
Ten years ago, the second paragraph of this review would be about Newhard’s technique. His skill with oils. How the women look warm. How his layers are built up so that the underpainting does most of the work and the quality of light looks like late summer.
But it’s 2018, and there is more to say about this body of work besides the conclusion that it is visually stunning. We are able to have nuanced conversations about representation. Is it a good thing that we can walk into the Hub and see faces of Black Lives Matter coupled with the words “Resistance 2018”? Yes. How about a portrait that reminds us that the atrocities in Darfur are not over? Yes. And what about a piece depicting a Muslim woman with a piece of paper tacked to the frame that reads “BANNED” in all caps? I guess so. The thing is, it depends.
Newhard is not a woman, and he is not a person of color. I’m assuming he does not have a direct connection to Darfur and is probably not personally involved in every political cause that he broadly paints in Femme Politique. So why is this a problem? Newhard’s politics are sympathetic to issues that need eyes, and, on some level, he is aware of the male gaze that is trained on his subjects. (One painting of an Asian woman against an Asian backdrop is titled “Happy Era of the Asian Fetish!”).
His artist statement also reveals good intentions: “The artwork in this exhibition represents the inspiration I take from women, especially in the current political climate as well as within the context of sexual and racial issues in American culture.”
Newhard is aware of the dilemmas that women face enough to paint them, but not enough to question if he should paint them. In other words, the inspiration that he “takes from women” is truly taken in the sense that these stories are not exactly his to tell. There are other artists—women and women of color—who no doubt have things to say about each circumstance portrayed by Newhard. And if they want to, they should. I think this is a particularly tricky trap for portrait artists, given that their job is to paint people. After years of painting realistic images, it is not surprising that introducing commentary—introducing all the commentary all at once—into those likenesses is going to be clunky.
Further down in his artist statement, Newhard recognizes his status as an “outside observer” and qualifies his involvement by identifying as “an artist who is very much a product of his time and culture.”
All the credit to Newhard for recognizing what kind of observer he is. But part of being an “outside observer” as well as being a product of this “time and culture” is widening our perspective to consider the role of the male gaze in art. Does this mean white male painters should only paint white men? Absolutely not. But painting politically charged portraits of a wide swath of cultures that you don’t belong to, placing them all in one exhibit, and throwing down an “in-our-current-political-climate” statement as justification for your historic privilege to paint them is no longer something that should go unquestioned. Even in a coffee shop. Especially in a coffee shop that is a longtime supporter of contemporary, conscious local art.
“Femme Politique” is on display until Nov. 28 at the Hub Coffee Roasters, 727 Riverside Drive.
Photos: Kris Vagner