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YOU LOOK MARVELLOUS DEPT.
THE NEW PORTRAIT
Issue of 2004-06-14 and 21
Posted 2004-06-07

Those who bemoan the navel-gazing tendencies of contemporary art will be relieved to know that in some precincts the forces that shaped Velázquez, Gainsborough, and Sargent—patronage and vanity—still drive innovations in the market. Several months ago, Harry Stendhal, who with his sister owns Maya Stendhal Gallery, in Chelsea, commissioned a painter and filmmaker named Jeffrey Scher to do a portrait of his friend Susan Shin, whom Stendhal described on a Web site that he set up for her as “an icon of the times.” Shin, who works as an intellectual-property lawyer by day (Goodwin Procter) and as a committeewoman by night (The Young Friends of Save Venice, the Central Park Conservancy, New Yorkers for Children), is, Stendhal wrote, “generous with her resources—and, believe me, she has endless resources for the good of many charitable causes.” She is, furthermore, “glamorous and much sought after in New York, London, Paris, you name it.” In other words, she seemed to him the perfect candidate to inaugurate what he sees as the new age of society portraiture: the short animated film.
Scher’s two-minute film, which Stendhal gave Shin as a gift, shows a flatteringly cartooned shoulders-up Shin doing very little as her luxurious black hair strobes from tangerine to lilac to rainbow and eventually back to black, and a small smile flickers across her bright-red lips. A jaunty nineteen-forties guitar-and-accordion piece plays in the background. “It’s become too boring to look at a regular photo of any kind,” said Stendhal, who has the portrait on display in his gallery. “This is an art version that’s idealized. It hides away any imperfections, of course.”

To make the portrait, Scher filmed Shin in kind light; projected the film frame by frame through a rotoscope onto paper; and painted hundreds of six-by-seven-inch editions of her in watercolor, gouache, marker, pencil, and crayon, each one different. Then he loaded the pictures onto an animation stand and filmed them individually, before converting the whole thing to digital video. The process is about “distillation,” Scher notes. “What you don’t paint is as important as what you do.”

An astute salesman, Stendhal held an unveiling party at the gallery on Shin’s thirty-seventh birthday, last month (the theme was “Birth of a Goddess,” and the crowd of five hundred, Scher said tentatively, was “Patrick McMullan”). A number of guests left coveting a portrait of their own—bankers wanting pictures of their wives, wives wanting pictures of themselves. “A few of them are just civilians, New York people,” Stendhal said, and went on to mention actors, rock stars, a fashion designer, and several socialites, whose interest he is monitoring carefully. The portraits, including the paintings that constitute the frames, cost twenty-five thousand dollars. “People are getting on the wait list,” Stendhal continued. “Jeff can also do people playing golf, or at the beach, wherever they look their best.”
The other day, Stendhal sat in the gallery watching Shin on a continuous loop with a trilogy of Scher’s animated films—“Reasons to Be Glad” (composed of two thousand paintings), “Milk of Amnesia” (three thousand), and “Garden of Regrets” (ten thousand)—that is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. Beautifully rendered images of couples kissing, a toreador, a gondolier, trapeze artists, divers, children rolling down a hill, a lady eating a drumstick while twirling around in her underwear, two slim fellows in a fistfight, and the smoldering ruins of a house flashed by in a palette from a box of Caran d’Ache cray pas. The paintings of Shin hung on the wall. (Paintings from Scher’s animated shorts cost between five hundred and fifteen hundred dollars each, depending on the vintage, and scenes must be bought complete.)

Shin studied art history at Columbia, and is well positioned to appreciate Scher’s work. “I actually wrote a thesis about the history of portraiture,” she said last week. “Who could afford them, how they were commissioned, and how you had a certain station in life and you wanted to represent that.” In a few weeks, when Shin takes her portrait home, she’ll be faced with a conundrum: how to display it. “I have a flat-screen, but that’s kind of narcissistic,” she said. “Maybe for parties.”

— Dana Goodyear