That’s Not a Flashback, It’s Video Portraiture

It’s nothing unusual to feel a rush of guilty pleasure during a midnight refrigerator raid. But when Jeff Dauber, a senior executive in the laptop computer division of Apple, tries it in his San Francisco home, he feels even more risqué. The shaven-headed, tattooed Mr. Dauber is usually naked, and to get to the refrigerator he must scamper past the video camera that is always watching from the foot of his stairs.
No, he is not auditioning for a reality show. A year ago, Mr. Dauber, 40, spent $87,000 on two pieces of art called “generative portraiture,” developed by a Chicago artist, Lincoln Schatz. (Mr. Dauber’s other Schatz hangs in his home movie studio.)

A contemporary twist on the aristocratic (and narcissistic) oil portrait above the mantel, the artwork consists of a motion-activated video camera affixed to a large flat-panel television and a computer, tracking and displaying the movements of whatever passes by: underdressed masters of the house, delivery people, ex-wives. It then continuously superimposes the images, so that a year-old shot may coexist briefly with one from five minutes ago, and they become an ever-evolving collage on the television screen, which hangs on the wall.

The work is not likely to create anything that could end up as a “Moguls Gone Wild” video on YouTube. Most of the dozen or so collectors who have bought the pieces (at $40,000 to $85,000) have hung them in the entryway of their homes.

“I haven’t seen my ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ yet,” said Mr. Dauber, who considers his Schatz portrait serious art, “but one of these days it’s going to come up.”

Unlike the rich and prominent of decades past, who sought to flatter their own sense of power by commissioning stately, idealized oil portraits, the moguls of today live in a more self-consciously complex era. Wealth and power can be fleeting, family bonds tenuous, status mercurial. What better toy for such times than one that evolves — or degenerates — along with you, creating a portrait as fleeting as memory itself?

“This is an advance in the idea of portraiture,” said Mr. Schatz, 43. “We’re moving from that single frozen moment that you might find in painting or photography,” he said, to create a new style of portrait that “never repeats, much like the human mind continually remakes memories.”

Mr. Schatz, a sculptor and new-media artist, developed the technique over the last seven years, and his portraits have only started to catch on. He has sold them to corporate clients like Qualcomm and to collectors like Tony Goldman, the SoHo real estate developer, and Pearl Lam, the Shanghai gallery owner.

Later this month, Mr. Schatz will invite Craig Newmark, founder of, and Lawrence R. Rinder, the former curator of contemporary art at the Whitney Museum, to sit for another form of digital portraiture, the “Cube” project, at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. For one hour, subjects sit inside a 4,000-pound plexiglass box with 24 video cameras shooting them from all angles; the footage is edited into a generative portrait.

While the egoists of yore could command their portraitists to leave out the messier details of their lives, the wealthy subjects of this self-portrait may find the piece becoming an unexpected socio-economic commentary.

“Like many people who collect art, we’re somewhat economically blessed,” said Gary Simons, 47, a commercial real estate developer who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Gilena, a philanthropist and art collector, and their two children. “We do have people who do the gardening, bring deliveries to the door, and help clean the house. We see them in the imagery a significant portion of the time. Twenty-five percent, or 33 percent of the time, we’re seeing people who are working and helping us support our lifestyle.”

“It was interesting,” he added.

Ms. Simons said she was drawn to the work, which now hangs in the entry hall of their home, as something of a highbrow Handycam for proud parents.

“We encourage the children to go dance in front of the Lincoln, to throw bunnies in the air,” she said. “It’s a time capsule.”

By Alex Williams

New York Times | October 14, 2007

© 2007 The New York Times