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ART : The Lost Art of Portraits : Pretty hard to picture yourself in a grand portrait over the fireplace? Well, that’s not the only way to go. How today’s artists are redefining the medium

<i> Suzanne Muchnic is a Times staff writer</i>

This is a story about an embattled art form that refuses to die.

The subject? Portraiture.

True, it isn’t what it used to be. Photography and electronic technology have made images of people so plentiful that the notion of having a portrait laboriously painted or sculpted seems a bit archaic. Portraiture has also taken a hit from 20th-Century guilt. Unless you move in certain rarefied social circles, it just isn’t cool to glorify yourself in a grand portrait over the fireplace. Furthermore, artists themselves often shy away from creating commissioned likenesses, except as a means of supporting their art of choice. Even those who customarily portray people don’t necessarily conceive of their work as portraiture or accept portrait commissions.

But portraiture lives. Indeed it’s nearly ubiquitous. You just have to know where to look.

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Check out the scene at Paris Photo Lab on La Cienega Boulevard, where members of the Los Angeles Macintosh Group’s Fine Art SIG (Special Interest Group) are watching a demonstration by artist Jeremy Sutton.

“I don’t make computer art. I’m not even interested in computer art,” Sutton says. “What I’m after is expression. It’s the feeling and the passion that’s the key. I just happened to find this unusual tool that expresses what I want.”

If Sutton’s protestations disappoint his audience of aspiring techno-Rembrandts, you’d never know it. All eyes are fixed on a bright pink triangle that flutters across an illuminated screen as Sutton clicks an electronic mouse and moves a stylus across a pressure-sensitive tablet. Selecting colors, materials and textures from a software program projected on the right side of the screen, he begins a digital portrait of Bruce Wallace, a model recruited from the audience.

“I usually home in on the eyes first,” Sutton says. As he draws on the tablet a blue line appears on the left side of the screen and turns into a life-like eye. Then he sketches Wallace’s glasses with a wiry line and fleshes out the face with soft strokes of color--while confessing to seduction by technology.

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“You might ask why I use a computer for creating art, why bother to drag around all this equipment just to make a drawing,” says Sutton, who lives in Palo Alto. “The answer is the unique possibilities.”

The computer allows him to record his drawing sessions, play them back and print any stage of the work as a finished piece or as part of a collage, he explains. Furthermore, computer art can be enlarged and printed on a wide range of materials--including canvas, vinyl, Mylar and watercolor paper. Banner-size images--like the portraits of artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali he has put on display--require too much time and equipment to print on the spot, but Paris Photo Lab owner Arnaud Gregori soon appears with prints of the Wallace portrait, instantly produced on photography paper.

This is state-of-the-art portraiture, and it could hardly be otherwise in the digital age. Offering infinite opportunities to combine and rework hand-drawn or borrowed images, electronic methods of making art are irresistible--as magazine illustrations, CD-ROM covers, art exhibitions and computer trade fairs attest. Sutton, who was educated as a physicist but has always considered himself an artist, recently quit his computer-industry sales job to become a full-time artist. When he isn’t on the road demonstrating his skills, he produces commissioned portraits and illustrations.

Still, computer technology hasn’t exactly transformed the conventions of creating human likenesses. It merely provides one more option to people in search of visual records or immortality. The notion of preserving oneself in a marble bust or a bronze medal may have fallen from favor, but many time-tested approaches to portraiture persist even as new developments proliferate.

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Consider Portraits Inc.'s Park Avenue showroom in New York. Here--in a cozy, old-fashioned gallery, conveniently located two blocks east of the Metropolitan Museum of Art--visitors peruse examples of work by 175 artists and contemplate how they and their children, pets, houses and cars might be portrayed.

Choices range from small pencil drawings to life-size oils in various styles, priced from $2,000 to $150,000, but nearly all the images radiate a sense of health, prosperity and accomplishment. Stately Supreme Court justices in black robes, energetic business executives poised for action, elegant women in their gardens and freshly scrubbed children appear to belong to the same club, if only because they are important or confident enough to have their portraits done.

Portraits Inc.'s clients choose artists after consultation in person or by telephone, according to company president Marian MacKinney. “We often spend a good hour to an hour and a half trying to figure out what they want,” she says. “We make their life difficult in the beginning, so they get something they will be happy with.

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“It’s always a question of what’s appropriate,” MacKinney says. “But most people want to look a little younger and more attractive. That goes with the territory. They want to look five years younger and five pounds lighter. It’s not that much of a fib.”

Meanwhile in Southern California, where tradition is said to be a foreign concept, a more adventurous portrait consulting firm has been established by three enterprising women: Barbara Guggenheim, a New York-Los Angeles art consultant with strong ties to Hollywood; Barbara Pallenberg, an expert in Impressionist painting and founding director of Sotheby’s Beverly Hills who left the firm last year and Christine Eisenberg, a Los Angeles associate of Sotheby’s. Operating as Portraits by Artists Inc. in Beverly Hills, the partners offer the services of a wide range of artists.

Flipping through sample books in their Maple Drive office, Pallenberg and Guggenheim survey a roster including Nelson Shanks’ flattering interpretation of Ronald Reagan and Aaron Shikler’s glamorous socialites as well as Sylvia Shap’s unflinching realism, Patrick Morrison’s gritty Expressionism, Jon Swihart’s impeccable period pieces and Sutton’s digital art.

The company’s promotional material also touts gift portraits in the form of cartoons, caricatures, banners, photographs of houses, bronze sculptures of racehorses and watercolors of gardens or favorite rooms. Novelty items run as low as $300, while the general price range for portraits starts at $700 for a photograph or drawing and jumps as high as $150,000 or $200,000 for a life-size painting by a major artist. The majority of commissions run from around $5,000 to $20,000.

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About 80% of the artists represented by Portraits by Artists Inc. make their living by doing portraits, Pallenberg says. For the rest, portraiture is a sideline that offers undeniable rewards--not least of which is money.

“I do portraits because I like to get paid for my work,” says Rodney Buice, a Los Angeles-based artist whose silk-screen portraits were inspired by Andy Warhol. Among his completed projects are 19 likenesses of contemporary art collector Frederick R. Weisman and his second wife, Billie Milam Weisman, commissioned for the couple’s homes and for several Weisman-supported museums.

But for Dan McCleary, who uses his friends as models in his figurative paintings, commissioned portraits are something he only agrees to “in weak moments” or when money is especially tight.

“Portraiture has always been something artists could fall back on,” says Clayton Campbell, who has completed 30 portraits in the last three years. Known for narrative figurative paintings with social or political themes, he inadvertently launched himself in a new direction by producing a magazine illustration for an article on migraine headaches. For that commission he manipulated photographic images of four women so they appeared to be in pain. Despite the off-putting subject matter, Campbell was suddenly in demand by clients who wanted portraits done in the same style.

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In his current work--including a group portrait of Guggenheim, Pallenberg and Eisenberg--he takes photographs of his subjects, alters and prints several different images on paper, then affixes the prints to canvas in a grid arrangement and adds painted details. Calling his work “expressionistic distortion,” he aims to reveal his subjects through a composite view. “I ask my subjects to go on an adventure with me,” Campbell says. The challenge of plunging into a field that’s so laden with history is to “use a visual language that adds to the genre in a positive way,” he says.

John Nava, who is well known for figurative paintings, has found unexpected pleasure in portraits. Although he has long tested his powers of observation by representing his models precisely, he never thought of his work as portraiture. But recently he has accepted portrait commissions with satisfying results. “I think my portrait of Catherine Hillman is one of the best things I’ve done,” he says of his painting of the 8-year-old daughter of Pop musician Chris Hillman.

If lucrative commissions and serendipity lure artists to portraiture, it’s often the psychological element that gets them hooked.

“I fought doing portraits until I found out how much fun they are,” says Nic Nicosia, a nationally known photographer who lives in Dallas. He draws a sharp distinction between his portraits and the psychologically charged scenes that compose his main body of work. “Portraits are about them and a lot about how they look,” he says, referring to his subjects. “The rest of my work is about me, or something I’ve observed or heard or read.” But the bonus of portraiture is that people reveal themselves in unexpected ways and those revelations enrich his other work, Nicosia says.

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Sylvia Shap, who cringes when she’s labeled a portrait artist but devotes herself to the artform, says her commissioned works often become symbolic quests for dream fulfillment. “I feel like I’m a psychologist,” she says. A sheltered child of Holocaust survivors, Shap initially drew herself as a means of self knowledge. Now her favorite clients are those “who don’t fault me because they have a wart,” she says.

“I always say, I don’t make ‘em, I just paint ‘em,” Shap quips. Nonetheless, she has lots of stories to share. There’s the one about the battered woman who posed in a frilly set, with the bruised side of her face turned to the wall. The man who rented a Napoleon costume for his portrait and redecorated his house to match the painting. The teen-age boy who grew up and thanked Shap for allowing him to discover himself in a portrait that his parents hated.

Today’s portrait artists have found a niche in a tradition that has changed dramatically since the invention of the camera. Indeed, American portraiture was almost synonymous with painting until the 1850s and ‘60s, when photography became all the rage, according to Michael Quick, former chief curator of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. During those decades, artists who continued to paint portraits tried to make their work look like stiff photographs. “That’s why there are no good paintings of Abraham Lincoln, only photographs,” he says.

Portrait painting enjoyed a vigorous revival in America, beginning in the 1870s and reaching its zenith in the 1890s but dying out at the end of the 1920s. “There was a tremendous boom during the Romantic period, when individuality was highly prized,” Quick says. “Portraits flourished around the turn of century, in the era of the robber barons. It was part of the ostentation of the period, when people began to live in palaces.”

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A champion of portrait painting, Quick organized two exhibitions for LACMA in the early 1980s, “American Portraiture in the Grand Manner, 1720-1920" and “Artists By Themselves: Artists Portraits From the National Academy of Design.” He had hoped to stimulate interest in historic portraits and in collecting them, but the effort failed. “Portraits give you all the textures of still life, plus a personality,” he says, but few collectors seem to be interested in paintings of strangers.

Pictures of themselves are another matter, however. Collectors frequently commission portraits or agree to pose for artists whose work they admire--and eventually buy the resulting artworks. Moreover, artists not known for portraiture naturally turn to their collectors when they venture into the territory. New York photographer William Wegman’s primary subjects are his Weimaraners, but when he focuses his giant Polaroid camera on people they are often collectors of his work.

F. Scott Hess, a Los Angeles-based artist, persuaded 32 of his collectors and an equal number of friends to pose individually for an ambitious project that he carried out in 1992. The wall-size installation of 18x24-inch images, “Your Face or Mine: Work in Progress,” has been exhibited in full at the Ovsey Gallery and in part at other locations, including a recent show at the Louis Newman Gallery in Beverly Hills. The expressionistic images are not particularly flattering, but 26 of the collectors have purchased their portraits.

They are in good company. Peter and Eileen Norton, who are among Hess’ subjects, have been photographed by Richard Schulman and painted by Shap, McCleary and Don Bachardy. Eli and Edythe Broad’s vast collection of contemporary art includes a portrait of the couple by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In addition to the 19 portraits he ordered from Buice, Weisman has been painted by Warhol and he appears with his first wife, the late Marcia Weisman, in David Hockney’s 1968 painting, “American Collectors.”

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It’s possible, as Quick suggests, that palatial homes built in the profligate 1980s have replaced portraits as they proclaim their owners’ importance. And--since life drawing is considered a rather quaint skill in most art schools--it seems unlikely that the grand portrait painting he so admires will ever return in force.

But portraiture is such an enduring artform that five countries--England, Scotland, Australia, France, Sweden and the United States--have established museums on the subject.

“The original impetus for our National Portrait Gallery in Washington was to celebrate the past, not just through dates and events but to recognize what people have done,” says gallery director Alan Fern. “Portraiture is a kind of visual biography. It offers insight into people’s personalities as well as a map of their features. It has the dual quality of being an interesting work of art and a revelation about a person.”

Visitors can gaze into the countenances of heroes and scoundrels alike, he says, noting that the gallery has a painting of Jesse James as well as George Washington. It also offers images of famous Americans whose faces are little known, such as John James Audubon and Noah Webster.

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Founded in 1962 as a branch of the Smithsonian Institution, the gallery opened in 1968 in the U.S. Patent Office Building, one of the capital’s oldest structures. Though comparatively young, the collection contains about 12,000 works, of which 600-700 are on view.

Initially the gallery wasn’t authorized to collect photographs, but it soon became apparent that a comprehensive portrait collection couldn’t be built without photography, Fern says. The gallery’s mandate was changed, and he now takes pride in the collection’s diversity. Although the Hall of Presidents, featuring conventional paintings, is the gallery’s most popular exhibit, the collection also boasts a hologram of Ronald Reagan, he notes. Furthermore, the gallery has hosted shows of photographic portraits by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Arnold Newman.

In an ongoing effort to keep the National Portrait Gallery up to date, Fern is hoping to move into the area of video portraits. “We don’t have a screening area yet, but that’s one of my targets,” he says. As for computer art, he has an open mind.

Acquiring portraits of any kind is first of all “a question of artistic validity,” he says. “But we don’t lead. The artists lead us.”

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