Charlottesville is a cozy little city. Most of the time, we know our neighbors—enough to recognize their kids or their pets, maybe catch snippets about their lives at work or play.
But what if the guy down the street turned out to be the commander of an invading fleet of warships? Or the girl next door is actually the leader of an entire army?
It sounds fantastical, but few of us know where authority comes from—or if we could spot it in street clothes.
Local artist Blake Hurt explores this human propensity to fill in the blanks by creating portraits not with photorealistic accuracy but with an assembly of unexpected artifacts and symbols. In this way, he renders family, friends and familiar members of the Charlottesville community wholly new.
His current show includes two bodies of work in two separate galleries. The PCA Gallery features “Steampunk Ink Collages,” a collection of large-scale digital portraits, while Chroma Projects is exhibiting “August Persons,” a collection of watercolor portraits laced with outrageous crowns, hats and other whimsical toppers.
When he creates his mosaic-like digital portraits, Hurt uses a computer program to deconstruct and rebuild faces with components that reflect the accomplishments or interests of his subjects. In the past, his digital works included a portrait of Charlottesville’s former mayor Satyendra Huja blended from a street map of the city, and a portrait composed from visual soundwave renderings from an audio recording of a friend’s voice.
In “Steampunk Ink Collages,” he took inspiration from Modern Locomotive Construction, an early 19th-century engineering book that is chock-full of technical illustrations of locomotive machinery and design. Hurt used these hand-drawn illustrations as facial components, overlaying and combining them to reveal the sitter of each portrait.
Hurt explains in his artist’s statement, “The recognition of the whole is controlled by where the viewer of the picture stands. If you stand close to one of the digital pictures, you see only the individual drawings; if you stand far away, you see the image of the face.”
In “August Persons,” Hurt creates faces using the more traditional dashes and blots of watercolor paints—then takes it up a notch.
Hurt knew he wanted to elevate the conversation around his watercolor portraits from a comparison of strict likeness to actual content. Inspired by a picture of the marriage ceremony of Czar and Czarina Nicholas and Alexandra, he began adding crowns to his subjects, hoping that “rather than asking if it was a good likeness, people would ask, ‘Who is this person that has such a big hat?’”
“I think of these hats as regalia, signatories of authority, a long history of accumulated power,” Hurt says. “You wear them because they have meaning. Your great-grandfather defeated some country, and that doodad on the right is the finger of the defeated foe.”
Think, he suggests, of the guards in front of Buckingham Palace. “They’ve got columns of hair two feet high with doodads on the front. These hats are signifiers of position, of membership to an elite group.”
Hurt considered writing a backstory for each of his subjects in “August Persons,” since most visitors will not recognize his portraits. But in the end, he decided to let the headgear speak for itself.
“It’s not that these people have unusual authority, but it could be,” Hurt says. “These portraits are starting points for imagination. They’re a reflection of how ordinary people can show up in extraordinary circumstances.”