Silhouettes—cut paper profiles—were a hugely popular and democratic form of portraiture in the 19th century, offering virtually instantaneous likenesses of everyone from presidents to those who were enslaved. The exhibition “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now” explores this relatively unstudied art form by examining its rich historical roots and considering its forceful contemporary presence. The show features works from the Portrait Gallery’s extensive collection of silhouettes, such as those by Auguste Edouart, who captured the likenesses of such notable figures as John Quincy Adams and Lydia Maria Child, and at the same time, the exhibition reveals how contemporary artists are reimagining silhouettes in bold and unforgettable ways.
Highlights of the historical objects include a double-silhouette portrait of a same-sex couple and a rarely seen life-size silhouette of a nineteen-year-old enslaved girl, along with the bill of her sale from 1796. The featured contemporary artists are Kara Walker, who makes panoramic silhouettes of plantation life and African American history; Canadian artist Kristi Malakoff, who cuts paper to make life-size sculptures depicting a children’s Maypole dance; MacArthur-prize-winner Camille Utterback, who will present an interactive digital work that reacts to visitors’ shadows and movements; and Kumi Yamashita, who “sculpts” light and shadow with objects to create mixed-media profiles of people who are not there. With both historical and contemporary explorations into the silhouette, Black Out reveals new pathways between our past and present, particularly with regard to how we can reassess notions of race, power, individualism, and even, our digital selves.
(Photo: Kristi Malakoff, Maibaum, 20 black paper figures, black foam core, hardware, 2009. Photo by Kristi Malakoff)