Jac Lahav’s portrait series The Great Americans plays off of a 2005 Discovery Channel series that encouraged voters to select the country’s leading figures, past and present. In the contest, media personalities like Oprah Winfrey vied with scientists like Jonas Salk, with Winfrey ousting one of the inventors of the polio vaccine from the top ten. In the series, the artist explores the tension and competition between image and reputation, media fame and history. The larger-than-life portraits depict American icons in unexpected ways through dress and pose, often distorting bodies or altering costumes that we’ve come to see as synonymous with the image of figures like George Washington, for example. Lahav is interested in the concept of layering—how individual and group identity are like an onion skin that we can peel away, but whose transparency allows the whole to assume a larger meaning than its parts. By assembling his own unconventional canon of Great Americans, Lahav exposes the clash of image and substance in our contemporary culture. Staring with figures represented in countless paintings and photos that have shaped our perceptions, some of which the artist incorporates into his compositions, Lahav asks what we can know about people from their portraits. As a further meditation on art’s role in the formation of these perceptions in American culture, Lahav will mine the museum’s permanent collection in a companion exhibition. Lahav lives in Lyme, CT. Exhibitions of his work have appeared or will appear at the Richmond Art Museum, the Saginaw Museum of Art, in Michigan, and the LongView Museum of Fine Art in Texas.
SHOWN: Jac Lahav, Emily Dickinson, courtesy of the artist