Heather Cantrell: Study in Portraiture

Heather Cantrell – A Study in Portraiture

  • A Study in Portraiture: Act I
    Kinkead Contemporary, Los Angeles (June – August 2009)
  • A Study in Portraiture: Act II
    MOT International, London (Nov – Dec 2009)


Reviewed in Artforum and the Los Angeles Weekly | More information: www.studyinportraiture.com

From John Baldessari to David Yow, Heather Cantrell has always looked within her own tribe of artists, curators, and musicians in her exploration of community and subcultures. Her project A Study in Portraiture is an international ethnographic study that simultaneously documents, subverts, and reveals identities of the art world through performative portraiture. Having debuted in Los Angeles (June 2009) with subsequent happenings in London (December 2009) and Volta New York (March 2010), Cantrell has photographed hundreds of art world members including Hans Ulrich Obrist, Julia Peyton Jones, Iwona Blazwick, Shezad Dawood, Michael Nyman, Mark Titchner, Anita Zabludowicz, Dr. Andew Renton, Tom Christie, Ed Schad, Hannah Greely, Mindy Shapero, Brian Bress, and Ruby Neri.

Using hand-painted backdrops with a variety of costume and prop materials, Cantrell embraces the ‘theater of the portrait’ and pushes her role as an artist/director by making each exhibition of A Study in Portraiture a city-specific act in a play (hence the titling ‘Act I’, ‘Act II’, etc.) where the sitter has the ability to realize and portray a character. Referencing the 1960s West African photographs by Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe as well as the 18th century society portraits by British painter Thomas Gainsborough, she addresses the historical complicity in constructed identity and image assumed by both subject and artist. Like these artists, she also documents a social culture: hers being the exclusive contemporary art world. And through the interrogation of individual art communities (Los Angeles, London, New York, Chicago, and more), she and those who participate jointly construct a referential identity of the art world as a whole. Involving much more than mere photography, her practice entails a conceptual strategy that incorporates performance, theater, painting, sculpture, and sociology. The resulting photographic image represents these elements in one captured moment with all its beautiful ambiguity and intrigue. It is a ‘play-still.’

Kinkead Contemporary and MOT International have played host to ‘Acts’ this ongoing series, transforming the gallery space into an ‘in-house’ photography for the duration of the exhibition where members of the each art community were invited to participate by having their portrait taken during performative sessions, or happenings, that punctuate the exhibition. Cantrell’s portrait studio remains in the gallery functioning as the site for scheduled weekly sessions throughout the duration of the show and as an installation when not in use.  Framed portraits from previous sessions and a wall of instant 4×5 photographs are added to the wall as each session progresses.

Heather Cantrell (lives/works in Los Angeles) received her MFA from UCLA in 2001 and her BFA from the Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1995. Her work has been shown in the touring museum exhibition Likeness: Portraits of Artists by Other Artists curated by Matthew Higgs (Singing Sirens is featured on catalog cover) and the recent group exhibitions LA: 2019 Cults, Collectives and Cocooning curated by Ciara Ennis at 18th Street Art Center, Celebration at Circus Gallery, Group Show at Black Dragon Society, and Flowing, Pulsing, Beating, Burning curated by Roger Dickes. Solo gallery shows include Century’s End at sixspace in Los Angeles and Extended Family at Newman Popiashvili Gallery in New York. Reviews of her work have been published in Artforum, Los Angeles Weekly, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Frieze, Index, and Wired Magazine. A Study in Portraiture: Act I debuted at Kinkead Contemporary in Los Angeles June 2009 while Act II opened at MOT International in London November 2009.