The Zoom portrait stakes out an uneasy ethical position somewhere between street sketching and voyeurism; it occupies the uncanny valley between our public and private faces. Participants feel unobserved, and even at funerals can be seen snoozing or checking their messages. As with the murder of Kitty Genovese, the greater the number of bystanders, the greater the indifference.
The artist who observes is not without guilt either. Two recent documentaries showed film-makers crafting affectionate portraits of grandparents while ruthlessly rifling through their dentures and underwear — and Zoom gives any curious observer access to the bedrooms of strangers.
The sociologist Erving Goffman first explored the difference between public and private identities in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In a hotel or restaurant, he says, there are charming, well-dressed employees who engage with the public in front of house, while employees at the back are allowed to be ruder and scruffier. In the theatre too, the front is performance and illusion and the back is function and reality. I paint what’s behind the scenes
A commissioned portrait makes a single sitter the center of attention. She is well-dressed and accomplished, her life is in order. Conversely, on Zoom, there are many competing portraits - some badly painted, some unfinished - which connect in ways which are untidy, sometimes ugly and often awkward. This is how we experience life, and I hope that anyone I paint will find this notion of beauty valid, and forgive me.