Though it’s often the case that only one subject is visible, every portrait begins with a conversation between two. For the artists Jessica Mauboy and David Rosetzky, the first of many happened in a quiet boardroom at the former’s record label – a place where it’s possible to imagine many monumental decisions are made through achieving consensus by more parties than the one in question.

For over an hour, Mauboy and Rosetzky talked at-length about their lives, their ideas about their respective art forms and the myriad processes that are entailed before it’s even possible to imagine producing a finished portrait. Both, of course, are familiar with the processes involved on either side of the lens. Rosetzky, a Melbourne-based artist who works across photography, video and installation, is known for his cerebral, cinematic portraiture, much of which is captured on video with a view to exposing the many sedimentary layers of an individual’s psychology through images charged with movement. One such digital video, a highly choreographed 10-minute portrait of the actor Cate Blanchett was commissioned to coincide with the opening of the new National Portrait Gallery building in Canberra ten years ago. Mauboy says she researched the Blanchett portrait (one of the first moving portraits acquired by the gallery) prior to meeting with Rosetzky for the first time, and so knew something of how their collaboration would ultimately evince itself. That familiarity with the process did little, however, to dampen her visible shock and awe on seeing Rosetzky’s finished portrait for the first time yesterday at a preview of the new exhibition, 20/20: Celebrating twenty years with twenty new portrait commissions.

Rosetzky’s portrait of Mauboy is one of 20 new portrait commissions of Australian leaders and individualists unveiled this week as the yearlong celebratory culmination of the National Portrait Gallery’s twentieth birthday. Also included therein are works of art encompassing a variety of techniques and approaches to portraiture, with subjects including leaders from a range of fields from the arts, sport, business and industry to education, science, technology and philanthropy. The resulting survey allows the Gallery to fill gaps in its collection in an effort to better reflect contemporary Australian history and culture; to illuminate, in effect, the many faces of Australia. It is, according to Minister for the Arts, Senator Mitch Fifield, “the most significant exhibition for this country” staged within “the most accessible cultural institution in the country… We see ourselves in what’s on these walls.”

Of the full day that they spent shooting together on a closed set in Brunswick, Mauboy recalls feeling as though she were “naked”. Not through any absence of costuming – an armorial, woven chain mail, leather biker jacket by the Melbourne artist and designer Alexi Freeman hangs from her shoulders – but for the unusual intimacy that was cultivated between artist and subject. In the dark, both was free to experiment and, in those moments between shots, reflect on the circumstances that brought them to that point together. In the finished black and white portrait, there are two impressions of Mauboy superimposed indelibly on Rosetzky’s film achieved the photographic process of double exposure, whereby the film is run through a 35mm camera twice, and two separate exposures combine to form a single image. “For me, it wasn’t one of those fabulous shoots where you’re given a big gown and [you have] lots of makeup on and you do your hair,” Mauboy reflects of their pared back approach, in its own way a stylistic deviation from the norm. “It was a raw experience where I got to be myself […] and not have someone in my ear telling me what to think about and who to be.”

In the scope of its ambition, the National Portrait Gallery’s 20/20 exhibition is an historic occurrence. The simultaneous release of 20 new works of art is significant in as much as hitherto no more than four commissions would be in process at any one time. After their exhibition, each of the commissioned works will join some 2700 other portraits that collectively comprise the gallery’s permanent collection. “I often say that the coming together of artist, subject and the portrait that is the product of their unique encounter in time and place is a very unusual phenomenon in the history of art,” the outgoing Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Angus Trumble, remarked at the same preview. “To have all of those things and people under the same roof [is rare]. Today we’re witnessing not just that historic convergence but we’re witnessing it 20 times over, which is, in my estimation, without precedent.”

Also of note is that each of the portraits was produced entirely through philanthropic bequest, with a total of close to $500,000 contributed to bring the project to life. One of many figures central to that process is Alan Dodge, non-executive director of the National Portrait Gallery, who said the first step involved in the commissioning process was compiling a long list of who the sitters might be before whittling those possibilities down by consensus. “We wanted to represent all states, different backgrounds and [people who come from] all different areas like show business, corporate [industries], science, writers and so on,” Dodge said. In consultation with the gallery’s board, Senior Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, Christopher Chapman, married artist and subject in a manner that speaks to an underlying synergy between the subject and the medium their portrait would be realised in. Take, for example, a large-scale watercolour portrait of Margaret Seares by Cherry Hood, an artist known for her translucent, though no less impactful, portraits derived from photographs. Their pairing was precipitated on, respectively, a personal and artistic preference for subtlety over showboating. “It’s also about a variety of scale and surface, the play of photography versus painting,” added Doge. “I thought it was appropriate that [Mauboy] would work with a photographer… When I heard the marriage of [her] and David I thought, it’s a perfect one.”

When subject and artist could not be in the same room, Mauboy says she would send Rosetzky her own self-portraits in an effort to further refine their concept. “By the time we got into the room, it was just us,” she says. “I put the jacket on and let my hair down… There was nobody else in the room… I felt like I was discovering myself again.” In the vacuum of the space and divorced from the world outside, the musician says she found her mind drifting back to the most important things in her life, chief amongst them, her family; without meaning to, Mauboy was quietly affirming the intention of the artist. For his part, Rosetzky said he had always been drawn to Mauboy’s personable nature from her earliest appearances as a 16-year-old on Australian Idol in 2006, and was overwhelmed when invited by Chapman to contribute. Their collaboration is, in many ways, a continuation of Rosetzky’s most recent body of work as he moves more toward analogue photography, with its aberrations both fortuitous and unexpected. “There’s a great sense of chance [in the practice of double exposure photography]”, says Rosetzky, who arrived at the finished portrait after cycling through 14 rolls of film, each with 36 frames. “I purposefully don’t record what I did in each shot so the final result […] has a sense of not knowing and lack of control, in a way.”

As for the all-important playlist on set that day, Rosetzky remained mum on the 80s and 90s hits he relied on to induce the palpable sense of joy suggested in the second, dynamic exposure of Mauboy, which stands in stark contrast to the quiet assuredness of the first. “That’s the idea I was going for,” Rosetzky says. “The multi-faceted duality of her; the stillness and the joy of her music; and the magic and mystery of art.”

20/20 will be on display for free at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, from October 20 2018 until February 10, 2019. More information is available here.

Tile image: David Rosetzky
Cover image: Narelle Autio