Last week brought the official unveiling of the new portrait of former Governor Chris Christie. Images of the portrait were released last week after a private ceremony at Morven, although Governor Phil Murphy must still decide where to hang it, since Christie closed the Statehouse governors office for a four-year renovation last year. The portrait – which already got several rounds of criticism for its price (more on that later) before it was even painted – has raised many questions about its unconventional depiction of an elected official. I thought it would be worth it to spend a little time really thinking about this portrait, and what it means.
I’m going to start off somewhere that probably seems incredibly obvious, but bear with me: what, exactly, is a portrait? The reflexive answer would seem to be that it’s a work of art that accurately depicts a person of note, and by “accurately depicts,” I mean not only captures how they physically look, but also conveys something of their personality, stature, etc. But while that might seem like an easy task for an artist (just paint them how they look), there’s actually quite a bit that can influence a portrait. In our era of ubiquitous selfies, we all know that a slightly different angle, light, expression, filter, or so forth can make all the difference – they can add/subtract weight, add/subtract age, make you look smart/stupid/attractive/gross, or just about anything else, just by a simple tweak to a snapshot.
Artists have been aware of this for centuries. Titian (1488-1576) painted the portrait to the right of Isabelle D’Este around 1534. Although in her 60s at the time in which this was made, Titian painted her with the glowing skin, rosy cheeks, and uncreased face of a 20 year old, to flatter his subject. Titian was sought after as a portraitist not only for his ability to make his subjects look incredible, but for his willingness to do so from a written description of the person. As an artist, he let the subject of his paintings guide him, and tell them what they wanted. This is not unusual in portraiture, but you can see that we’re veering a bit from “reality.”
Another great example would be Raphael (1483-1520), who depicted leaders in the Church as world-weary, old, beaten down, and with the weight of the world on their shoulders. In his portrait of Pope Julius II (1511-2), his subject looks worried and sad – caught up in his own thoughts, most of them not very good. We feel the responsibility he carries, and while Titian’s subject reveled (demanded, even) in being depicted as being spry and young, Julius wears his sadness as a badge of courage. What Pope is really doing his job, if he’s not convinced we’re all going to hell?
The portraitist can – and often does – depict their subject as whatever the dominant culture deems as appropriate for a person of their stature to embody. Maybe. Or maybe they just want to comment on the whole impossible process of doing just this, as in Robert Rauschenberg’s This is a Portrait of Iris Clert if I Say So (1961). In a simple telegram to a gallery, the artist declares that this, the telegram itself, is the portrait. No need to make a painting – the telegram is enough. And in this Neo-Dada/post-Duchamp send-up of portraiture, Rauschenberg is pointing to the ultimate authority of the artist to do as he pleases and still refer to his creation as “art.” It’s “art” because an “artist” says so. A piece like this will likely be maddening to some, and liberating to others.
So, portraiture can take many forms. One more thing bears mentioning about the Christie portrait before any consideration can advance: this is a piece done on commission.
To a lay person, this can sound like no big deal – sooner or later, your artwork winds up in the hands of someone, right? As a working artist myself, let me tell you: this makes all the difference. I take very, very few commissions. The reason? If I wanted to torture myself for very little money, there’s lots of other ways to do it that are way cooler (1).
Art – making a living as an artist, that is – is a very competitive field. In one of the sick payoffs for being in a “creative field,” we expect artists to be very well-educated and well-versed in art history, yet in order to commission a work of art, all you need is money. There is no audition or interview to purchase a work of art; you can be any jerk with a credit card and buy yourself a painting. Oh, I could tell you stories. But I digress.
The point I’m trying to make is that when you’re an artist working on commission, you are constantly in the situation of dealing with someone who may have totally different ideas of what is good taste, what makes a good work of art, and so on, and then you have to navigate and massage those ideas into your work and make something that you can both live with. They might know nothing. They might be like, “yeah put a puppy dog and some explosions and a big car in there!” and you have to be diplomatic and say, “ok, maybe some explosions, but I draw the line there. (2)”
All of this – all of it, I swear – swirled into my mind when I saw the Christie portrait. Firstly, that poor artist, omg, I’m so sorry. And then secondly – as I sat in Newark Penn Station on Thanksgiving morning, nudging my husband (an actual bonafide art critic!) a jpeg of the portrait and asking what do you think? – the drollest assessment of the portrait: Hm. It looks like he’s fucking the podium.
Thing is – it does! It really, really does! In a stance that’s probably meant to connote swagger and I-don’t-give-a-fuck, Christie inadvertently looks as if, erm, he is having his way with the podium. And it’s really gross! The whole portrait is just gross in a way in which it depicts the absolute downfall of American culture, from the very top, down. Oh sure, there’s a wink-wink message hidden in the podium, (3) but beyond that? It’s all about the way in which Christie stares at the viewer, and how he stands. – his weight on one leg; his hips, tilted. It’s a cocky stance. He’s being a huge jerk and he is proud that he’s a big jerk. This is where we are in 2018: our leaders are huge jerks, and they know it. Gone are the days when our elected officials commanded respect by being smart or good leaders or at least commanding speakers. Now they just run the world because they’re bullies. Christie says, in his pose and his gaze, c’mon. Come at me. I’m bigger than you, and I can kick your ass.
I’ve spent the last I-don’t-know-how-many-years online fighting a stupid and fruitless battle. That battle has been essentially: don’t make fun of Chris Christie’s weight. Bear in mind, I’m a Leftist; I support nothing about Christie’s administration. But I do support his personal ability to live, and that’s why I’ve defended him a million times online, and yelled at people for mocking his weight. I, myself, am in recovery for an eating disorder, and I realized that Christie and I were two sides of the same coin. I really, really tried to see his humanity. I thought I knew it.
Having now seen this portrait – which was created, I assume, in collaboration with the artist and subject – that all the arguing and supporting I did in good conscience to defend this man was energy wasted. I pissed away my time and support. This is a guy who wants to throw around his weight and flip us all off; he sees it as a badge of honor. Yeah, what are you gonna do, make fun of my weight? He says, while being such a fucking dick that our insults to him mean nothing. He pushes his weight around. He’s in charge. Yeah, we can say whatever we want – he’s the one who runs things. Lolllll whatevs next question whatever who cares.
And so here we are, in 2018. This is our portrait of our ex-Governor.
To all of this, I would like to counter the following. Here is the portrait of yet another ex-Governor, Richard Codey:
What we see, in this portrait, is the Governor-as-a-really-great-guy. Here is The Governor as the Really Nice Neighbor You Wish Your Kid Never Got His Frisbee Stuck On His Roof, But It’s Ok That It Happened Because He’s Totally Gonna Return That Frisbee To You. Here is the Someone is in Charge Who is Really Nice and Smart. It is the I am the Governor: And We Have Dignity portrait. The light pours in from the stained glass that I’d guess contains the crest of his alma mater. He holds a book. There’s a flag in the back. His glowing blue shirt lights up the whole composition. Life is good. He smiles and looks at you with dignity and respect. You can sit down and have a drink with this guy. Your kids can have a hot cocoa with him and you won’t be nervous. It’s all ok. He’s a decent, reasonable human being. If only we could go back to this very recent history, and rewind to a point where generally okay people were in control of things. Dick Codey 2020.
Ahh, but it’s all for nothing. In 2018, the Codey portrait is an outlier, and the boors have won – Trump is President; who knows, maybe Christie is destined to higher office. Everything is terrible, and we now have an official portrait of an ex-Governor, flipping us all off. But still, in our sea of terribleness, we can have decent people. We can have our Richard Codey’s. At least, as a reminder.
(1) Much has been made about the artist being paid $85,000 for this piece, as if that’s an unholy amount of money to exchange hands for a work of art. I’d like to argue the opposite. First, bear in mind that the artist likely had to split (or otherwise hand over a commission) to a gallery or agent, so the real amount of money is actually 50% or so. Then, a work this skillful easily took most of the year. You’re looking at ~$42k for a year’s work of incredibly skilled labor, executing this painting. Then, bear in mind that the client is Christie. We know he’s not pleasant. Imagine him being your one boss for the better part of the year, critiquing your baby, every single step of the way. The taxpayers got off with a bargain.
(2) Ok, you’re possibly wondering: why doesn’t the painter just do whatever the hell the sitter wants, and just make this crass, stupid painting? The answer is really complex and stupidly nuanced – there is the fear that if the artist just gives in to the sitter’s based, pathetic impulses, that he/she won’t get any work after this one particular commission. That, in effect, everyone else will see how horrific this portrait is – while, assumedly, the person commissioning it is quite pleased with is – and no one will ever hire them again. Is this actually true? I have no idea. But that idea is out there.
(3) This is nothing new. See: Van Eyck: Red Turban (see the inscription on the frame); Durer Self Portrait at Age Twenty Eight: both of which challenged perceptions of what portraiture should be; the Van Eyck in particular uses an inscription.