For the last few years, the artist Matthew Mitchell has been working diligently on his portrait painting project, the 100 Faces of War Experience, a contemplative work based on the Americans who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s find out a little more about the project and Matthews experience of working with this subject.
What inspired your painting project 100 Faces of War Experience? The short version would be that, in 2005, I had a vision of an art work, an installation of paintings, that might get people to consider the weight of war more seriously.
I thought that if I could do a new kind of presentation of the seriousness of the endeavor of war, then I should do it. The orientation of the work is towards the American people in general. It invites in all kinds of people in America, across all divides of politics and culture. It is important that we all spend time on this issue because America will always be tempted to flex its military might.
The 100 Faces project is meant to serve people in both its production and the space created by the exhibitions: the process seems to have a positive mental/spiritual aspect for many of the participants, and the exhibition space can be seen as a memorial, or an educational tool. Ultimately I hope that its most enduring power lay in presenting to the American people an understanding of armed conflict that will be a caution and a consideration in future wars. We should not commit our troops lightly.
Have you served in the military? No, this whole world was foreign to me in the beginning.
What is the most surprising response you have received from one of the soldiers’ you painted? Rick Yarosh loved his portrait. This was a surprise to me because he was disfigured by burns. I tried as well as I could to be truthful and get to his character despite the way his features are all different from other people’s features. The whole time I was painting I was wondering what he was going to think. He was very enthusiastic. When I sent him a photo of the finished paintng he said he was proud of it and sent it to all his friends and family.
What is the hardest part of portrait painting? In order to be a solid painting a portrait must have its own abstract value in terms of color, line, texture, etc. All the abstract elements must have their own life as well as conveying a likeness to the person in the studio. It is a perpetual struggle to try to map an abstraction onto a portrayal of a personality, or a map a personality onto an abstraction. This is an insolvable riddle and the most fascinating thing to work on. In the 100 Faces project there are additional limitations because the portraits are all in a similar format and the likeness is very fine grained. The best a portrait can be is a meditation on the relationship between the materiality of the paint and the personality of the sitter.
What artists work do you admire but paint nothing like? A quick list would be: Anselm Kiefer, Sean Scully, Fairfield Porter, Gerhard Richter…
How do you find your subjects? In collaboration with sociologist Dan Burland, I made a list of the demographics of the people who go from America into these wars. I look to that list to choose each person. There are about ten different kinds of dynamics when looking at each person. You can see the list here.
The important thing is that I never choose people based on what I think they are going to say. The choice is based only on demographic information and their interest in the work.
People approach the project by applying on the website, then I see how they fit into the demographic list. In some cases I have gone out and searched for people who fit a certain qualification. I research on line then send an email or make a call and see what happens.
Have you ever painted a portrait and the subject was, how shall we say, unhappy with the results? What did you do? It happens, people know when they sign up what kind of work I do. In the 100 Faces project people are in it for more than vanity, so they tend to be pretty courageous and accepting. Some of the historical paintings I find most fascinating were originally rejected by the people who commissioned them.
How has this project changed you as an artist? There is now no doubt in my mind that painting has a powerful symbolic meaning in the public imagination. The idea of the death of painting, some modernist endgame, seems absurd now. It is great to be working in this day when we can be part of the end of the end of painting.
For more, go check out Matthews fifty one portraits and their accompanying statements on exhibit at the Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, NJ. The show also includes twenty seven new portraits and statements that have never been exhibited before. The exhibition runs through December 31, 2013.