I am totally one of those super-ADD people who doesn't own a TV but can't stop staring at a screen when there's one in a bar. It drives people crazy. I couldn't care less about whatever sports event is typically on, but if someone is trying to talk to me and there's a glowing image behind them it's impossible to hold my attention. And now, like many residents of Midtown Baltimore, I find myself looking up constantly—waiting for the bus, crossing the street, blundering up a crowded sidewalk—transfixed by the seductive glow of the Baltimore LED Art Billboard.
But here I'm not indulging an antisocial impulse to aimlessly stare at strangers chasing balls—which was also the case when the hookup app Grindr found its way onto my phone—I'm looking for familiar faces. The Baltimore Portrait Project is presently in rotation on the screen, featuring work by nearly 100 local artists who were randomly paired to paint, photograph, draw, or sculpt one another.
The project is the brainchild of Brooks Kossover, founder of Terrault Contemporary, and Carabella Sands (who, in the interest of full disclosure, was my roommate in the Copycat way back in 2006). About once a year, I try to come up with an excuse to practice oil painting, so I signed up and attended the pairing party at The Windup Space in late August.
After our first photoshoot, I started working on my oil portrait of John. It occurred to me that I only come up with an excuse to practice oil painting once a year because once I actually start the preparations for a painting I remember that it is a maddening process. Gesso takes forever to apply and dry and sand, toxic cadmium pigments end up under fingernails, mistakes always seem to be too dry to wipe off and too wet to paint over, and noses never seem to rest in the right spot on a portrait's face at the correct angle. In the end, I did have fun with the painting once I stopped thinking about it as "a painting" and considered that it will live on an LED screen as a digital image and not an object. I have always really loved that huge modernist high-rise on 20th Street (probably because it also reminded me of "Blade Runner," pre-paint job) and decided to use that as a background for the painting. Theoretically, if you stand in the right spot between Penn Station and the new University of Baltimore law building, for a split second the image matches up with the real (and as of late, frequently quite painterly) building and it looks as if John's torso is floating. I've stood there like a crazy person waiting for this to happen so I can snap a photo, but that ADD keeps kicking in and I move on.
Now that all the portraits are done, it's pretty fun to watch to watch them take turns on the screen. Some of them are pretty goofy, but a lot of them are actually pretty good. My favorites remind me that the two aren't mutually exclusive. I love (occasional CP contributor) Rob Brulinski's portrait of Ilenia Madelaire. It's a flash photo of her leaning against a stucco wall. Something about her facial expression and averted gaze makes it seem like she's totally uncomfortable being photographed, but she's surrounded by cheeky, brightly colored brushstrokes. The image looks like it was printed and hand-painted on before being re-scanned and submitted for display. It's sort of the post-production equivalent of telling someone to "cheer up" or "smile for the camera." Her painting of Rob is great and funny too—he's almost totally absent as a negative space defined by cartoonish clothes, sunglasses, and decorative motifs—an "anti-portrait" of sorts.