“Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness.”
― Marshall McLuhan
Rick Ashley has been making portraits for decades, including hundreds of his brother-in-law, Michael. Michael has Down Syndrome, a congenital condition with distinctive physical characteristics and a range of cognitive disabilities that confer a characteristically childlike demeanor. It turns out that Michael loves dressing up as superheroes, especially Superman. So Ashley photographed him that way. Now one of those portraits is featured at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., a selected finalist in the prestigious triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The juried exhibition’s 43 pieces in “The Outwin: American Portraiture Today” include sculpture, mixed media, photographs, paintings and drawings, which will be shown in Washington, D.C. from March 12, 2016 to January 8, 2017, and then travel to three other domestic museums.
The “Michael” series is a multi-media examination of the assumptions that portraits convey and the ways in which different forms of artistic presentation alter those interpretations. In addition to the color photograph on view, a range of portraits have been produced in black & white and color photographs, drawings, and oil paintings solicited from Chinese production houses.
A curious thing happened when Ashley began showing his photographic portraits of Michael to others. He got a lot of push-back: “you’re promulgating negative stereotypes of the disabled”; “aren’t you taking advantage of him?”; and most frustrating, radio silence. Ashley realized he’d hit a nerve, one based on people’s fundamental misconceptions about Down Syndrome, about Michael, and about the photographer’s close relationship with him.
Undoubtedly, Ashley’s insight and compassion were among the reasons his work was selected from over 2,500 entries. “I was very impressed with the social-impact choices made this year,” said Kim Sajet, Director of the National Portrait Gallery. “Each (of the six) judge(s) came with a definite and strong point of view about what he or she considered a portrait to be and how today’s artists are part of the national dialogue around issues of race, identity, family and community. I defy anyone coming to the exhibition not to be fundamentally moved by this year’s interpretation of the human condition.”
For more photographs and the backstory to his controversial “Michael” series, see my 2013 interview with Rick Ashley: https://whatwillyouremember.com/agent-provocateur/
To learn more about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, go to: http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/outwin-boochever-portrait-competition-finalists-announced
Feature Image: Framer Gene Arnould (left) and photographer Rick Ashley (right) transport “Michael” for packaging to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. (photo courtesy of the artist).