The barbed wire fence between here and perfection

It’s a nipped, tucked, Botoxed world we’re living in–at least if you have the inclination and the cash to spare, or if you’re famous enough to inhabit the covers of those magazines in the grocery checkout lane. That’s why I’m always grateful when I see rare images of the rest of us surface in our perfection-obsessed culture. 

Milwaukee artist David Lenz is committed to contributing such images to America’s visual repository–portraits of the people often rejected, forgotten and unseen by our most pervasive media outlets.  Known for his photo-realistic paintings, Mr. Lenz won the distinction in 2006 of placing first in the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Competition, an honor that comes with an impressive cash award and a separate commission to be included in the Gallery’s permanent collection.

Recently our partners at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters named David Lenz one of seven 2009 Academy Fellows, prompting me to “dust off” an old streaming video from Portal Wisconsin’s digital media collection. It features his Academy Evening presentation, “Everyday People: An Artist’s Tribute.”  

Mr. Lenz is a soft-spoken activist/artist with a compelling tale. Through his videotaped public talk, we get an illustrated tour of his artistic journey,  beginning with his education at UW-Milwaukee and continuing through his evolution from painting Canadian landscapes to portraits of urban children and dairy farmers. He describes how he came to submit the winning portrait of his son Sam to the national competition; and finally, he tells us about his negotiations with the National Portrait Gallery over who might be considered an appropriate subject for the subsequent commission.  

“Sam and the Perfect World,” shown below, is Mr. Lenz’s winning Outwin Boochever portrait. In it, the landscape takes up most of the canvas, but it’s 8-year-old Sam who won’t be denied. Sam, who has Down Syndrome, stares at us squarely from the foreground, on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence.

Sam and the Perfect World, David Lenz, 44" x 46" Oil on linen, 2005. Photo: David Lenz.

Sam and the Perfect World, David Lenz, 44" x 46" Oil on linen, 2005. Photo: David Lenz.

About his attempt to portray his son on canvas, Mr. Lenz says:

How do you talk about all these different things? How do you talk about the love that you feel for your child? How do you couple that with all the discrimination there is out there, and wrap it all up in one painting? So the only way that I know how to do that is with metaphor.

And this painting, like many of Mr. Lenz’s others, is rich with metaphor: the haloed sun symbolizing the divine; a vast, sunbleached Eden, or the “perfect world” we aspire to inhabit; the barbed barrier that denies entry to those deemed imperfect. Yet Sam is real. Sam makes us question our presumptions about self-worth and belonging.

At the time of his Academy Evening presentation, Mr. Lenz had recently settled on the subject of his commissioned painting for the National Portrait Gallery, and he wasn’t at liberty to reveal her to us. His account of the back-and-forth debate between himself and the Gallery regarding who might be “significant” enough to include in their collection makes for dramatic viewing. In fact, I missed my bus home from work, just so I could catch the ending.

Of course, we know now (spoiler alert!) that it’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver, one of the founders of Special Olympics, who appears in Mr. Lenz’s portrait. There are no fences this time, only Ms. Shriver and four real-life Special Olympics kids, whose portraits are finally judged significant enough to hang in a Washington, D.C. gallery filled with the paintings of presidents and other dignitaries.

If you have a chance, watch the presentation. It really is absorbing–and unlike most video out of Hollywood, it won’t make you self-conscious of your crow’s feet.

–Tammy Kempfert

2 Responses to The barbed wire fence between here and perfection

  1. David Lenz’s work is on view through the end of the year as part of the John Michael Kohler Art Center’s American Story exhibition. Check it out!

  2. Thanks, Christine. Coincidentally, I was at JMKAC today and saw David Lenz’s work. “Sam and the Perfect World” is there. What a happy accident!

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