"The Outwin 2016" Finalist: Rick Ashley

"Michael #145973" by Rick Ashley
Michael #145973 / Rick Ashley / 2014 / Collection of the Artist / © Rick Ashley

Out of over 2,500 entries in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, 43 artists have their work shown in the exhibition “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today.” Read more about one of the finalists, Rick Ashley. 

How did your work develop from idea to execution?

Michael, my brother-in-law, is the youngest of eight siblings. We have been taking photographs together for forty years. This project began seven years ago when a friend told me that art factories in China would have students paint, oil on canvas, any photograph emailed to them. I immediately photographed Michael in the clichéd “author flap jacket style”: tweed jacket, black turtleneck, and pipe. My intention was to show how ridiculous these stylized photographic portraits look. However, when the painting arrived, instead of my intended parody I had a portrait of Michael, the erudite intellectual. The physical features of Down Syndrome were now secondary to cultural references. In some cases viewers never noticed that Michael had Down Syndrome, something that never occurs in person.
How did the sitter inspire this specific portrait? 

The photograph of Michael displayed in the gallery is from another chapter in this larger body of work. During a break while photographing Michael in his Superman suit for another possible painting, he moved to another part of the room while I adjusted lights. As he sat in his wheel chair in front of the fire place looking out the window, he was bathed in the light of an “old world” painting. Within an hour we had produced the first photograph of this next chapter.

I hope to emulate the style and artifice of past paintings, instead of simply replacing the original subjects with Michael. The Superman suit is his (he has several) and represents the rich garments and fabrics worn by the powerful and wealthy patrons of the past. The painting in the gallery takes inspiration from Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat. The reclining figure, the draped right hand, and the overhead lighting were our points of departure.

What about the sitter inspired you?

This is not a series of portraits about Down Syndrome. This is a series about Michael and myself. It is a series about what interests me about photography and more specifically about portraits and how they function and are perceived. For Michael it is fun, but there is more.

Michael has no speech yet the project is a collaboration. I have an idea, a possibility, but Michael makes it speak. In the Superman series, he turns staged photographs into Rorschach tests.

Everything about Michael inspires me. Our long distance project has continued for more than seven years and we continue to explore the possibilities.

How does the piece fit within you larger body of work?

As a commercial photographer for the last 30 years, my job was to visually fulfill the editorial needs of another. My photography now is about discovering how I see and think photographically.

You can see Ashley’s work in “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today,” up now through Jan. 8, 2017. Also, be sure to vote in our People’s Choice Competition.