Editor’s Note: This column is reprinted courtesy of UnderMain, an online publication in Lexington.
Self-portraiture can be an unfortunate expression of ego, and until the last hundred years or so this has been its dominant motivation. The humanism of the renaissance elevated the individual artist into subjects worthy of examination in art, displacing, but by no means replacing, royalty and religion. These same humanistic tendencies are what motivated artists to elevate him or herself by altering the self-portrait for their own means. At best this was self-portraiture as a means to enhance collective notions of humanity – an extension of Michaelangelo’s idea that the human form should be perfected by art. At its worst it was self-portraiture as hubris or propaganda – a means to elevate a career or cause. But contrast these tendencies with contemporary photographic self-portraiture. Like the photography in Artist:Body (the work in this show is predominately photography, with three sculptures), contemporary self-portraiture hasn’t traditionally allowed for this type of alteration, at lease in the pre-digital age. Instead, it often necessarily takes on other, perhaps more honest, forms of alteration: false humility, self-deprecation, and irony.
The complex and shifting objectives of Artist:Body are many. It contains over 50 works throughout five rooms of the Gothic Revival Loudon House that houses the Lexington Art League. The architecture is hauntingly appropriate for this type of show. It is curated by Julien Robson, a former curator at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum and currently the curator of the Shands Collection. Borrowing work from regional collectors and commercial galleries, the exhibition is grand in its scope yet disciplined in its organization – what isn’t included in the exhibit as self-portraiture is as important as what is. Artist:Body is more of a survey of the richness of contemporary self-portraiture than a thesis on the state of self-portraiture today. But in the context of the history of self-portraiture, gradually shifting from the humanistic tendency to elevate to a contemporary tendency to ironize, an inevitable leit motif of this exhibition is that contemporary self-portraiture acts as an anti-self-portrait, paradoxically causing us to question the very notions of persona, self and identity. While this essay necessarily follows the nature of the exhibition by surveying certain work (with over 50 pieces, it would be impossible to address all of them), I hope certain themes provide points of reference.
Cindy Sherman’s mise-en- scene self-portraits of the artist posing as various archetypal women purposefully have no fixed meaning. They are simultaneously an imitation and mockery of popular culture, a commentary on the objectification of women in the media, and examinations of identity and gender. Most interestingly, to me, they call attention to the paradox of persona. This necessarily invokes Warhol, who was an expert at creating a persona to hide what might exist of a true self. Sherman builds on this paradox in Untitled from 1982, hanging in Artist:Body, and in the rest of her oeuvre. While in a general sense Warhol created one persona (his) to hide from a world that would otherwise might not have accepted his “otherness”, Sherman has created many personae in order to subvert the notion of self-portraiture and, perhaps, show that identity is not a fixed construction. In Sherman’s work, it’s always obvious enough that she is the sitter in each of her photographs (and it would be easy enough to disguise that fact), but Sherman is decidedly never the actual subject. Each picture in her work is like a mask, and beneath it another mask, all reflections on female identity, gender, sexuality, and mediated personae.
John Coplans is less discreet in his tendency to hide himself as his subject. Exhibited in Artist:Body are black and white photographs of Coplans’s body but never his face, intentionally avoiding a particular identity. They celebrate age and imperfection, a “riposte to the cult of youth, and what the artist saw as the vanities of the 1980s art world.” His are the subtle and touching photographs of any aging man, and are part of a very long series of self-portraits. They are not just about formal virtuosity (Coplans’s compositions are formerly perfect in the sense that Mapplethorpe’s photographs were), but about something more meaningful: aging, time and a primeval harmony with the body. When making the photographs Coplans describes a feeling of being “immersed in the past.” In Arnulf Ranier’s Self Portrait from 1971, he is grimacing painfully, reminiscent of fellow Austrian Messerschmidt’s expressionistic sculptures. Like Messerschmidt, they evoke Freudian repressions of Viennese (and, arguably, Western) society. For Ranier they are a “summoning of dormant, or psychopathic reserves of energy.” Coplans’s “immersion in the past” and Ranier’s summoning of “psychopathic reserves of energy” relate to the primordial connection to flesh that is the subject of phenomenological philosophy from Husserl to Merleau Ponty. To simplify, that branch of philosophy, like Coplans’ and Ranier’s self-portraits, posits that the body, rather than consciousness, is the primary source of knowledge about our world.
Thaniel Ion Lee’s series of pieces also react against the superficial, consumerist perfection of the body in a similar way that Coplans’s do. Born with arthrogryposis, a condition that left Lee with limited use of his arms, legs and fingers, he photographed parts of his body in black and white, but never really the whole, documenting a tension between beauty and decrepitude. This tendency to document through self-portraiture is perhaps most evident in the works of Louis Zoellar Bickett. His What I Read series pictures Bickett reading the Qu’ran, Torah and Bible. The series is part of Bickett’s overriding archival project in which the pieces are ongoing documentation of what he reads. But then there is the uncanniness of a naked man reading the three Abrahamic religious texts. The choice of using these historically, culturally and spiritually loaded texts is less about exploring multiple identities than it is about the culmination of experiences that make up one’s self. This is self-portraiture as a mirror for the viewer; a performative space where the self is consciously created through reflection of and on another, not unlike the photographs of Lucas Samaras.
Much of the work in Artist:Body is a reminder that study of the self can paradoxically dispel solipsist thought. When we look and think about the self and many of the pieces in this show we may intuit, as eastern wisdom long posited, that the self doesn’t really exist at all in the sense that we’re used to thinking about it. Rather, as science is proving (and this is admittedly simplistic) our “selves” are a culmination of every experience the universe has ever known. Bickett’s work suggests this, and certain of the better facets of contemporary thought have picked up on it. Derrida is now infamous for declaring the fictitiousness of the subject, whether conceived as artist, viewer or otherwise.
Over two thirds of the artists in this show are female, and many of those artists explicitly or implicitly invoke feminism. At risk of overgeneralizing (a perennial risk when writing about group shows), much of the work includes a female presenting her self in a manner that creates an exaggerated performance, often sexual in nature. This inevitably (or intuitively?) causes the viewer to think anew about the gender identified subject. To add to this, historically the culture surrounding portraiture in the Renaissance accepted women as artists for the first time, but for the wrong reasons. The art patrons of the Renaissance, which included royalty, the church and a small but growing progressive merchant class, accepted portraiture as an appropriate genre for women because it was consistent with the prevailing notions of feminine virtue and domesticity, and because it was considered by some as rote reproduction absent of what they considered the more noble (and therefore masculine) intentions in other genres like, say, history painting.
It is not unreasonable to think that certain of the female artists in this show implicitly reference this history, though most of these are works that are decidedly not domestic or particularly virtuous (in the traditional sense of those words). In Hanna Wilke’s So Help me Hannah series the artist is photographed nude holding a gun. In one, the pistol is held point-blank to her face, but not necessarily in a menacing way. The work can be a validation of the self and the feminine. Wilke is clearly in control of the phallic pistol, as if taking that power away from the male viewer.
Critical discourse concerning feminism comes at a risk. Art made by women should not automatically become about feminist activity, whereby such contributions are included in the history books only because they are begrudgingly marked as “outside”. This line of thought, latent in my opinion in the less worthy parts of post-modernist art history, leaves little room for women (or other minorities in the “art world”) to substantively rework the dominant art historical narrative, which is male and white . Artist:Body reminds us of this danger, and therefore, of our responsibility to think about these works in broader cultural terms. Hanna Wilke, for instance, has much to add to the history of photography. As Roberta Smith has noted of Wilke’s intentions, she worked to create a “formal imagery that is specifically female.”
This sentiment is consistent with Kiki Smith’s work. Her Butterfly, Bat, Turtle is a photocollage, a practice that was invented by upper class women in the Victorian age, not by machismo modernists like Picasso and Braque, as early modernist history books had us believe. Smith uses this historic reference (and related historical rewriting of history by the dominant majority) to comment on the mainstream exclusion of these Victorian works from “fine art”. Smith collaged the image with delicate tissue (as if to say fine art should have no quarrels with using delicate, traditionally feminine materials) to signify butterfly wings, bat wings, and a turtle shell. Implicit in these pieces is her overriding interest in myth, fairy tale and humanity’s dual human and animal nature.
Shinique Smith’s Soul Elsewhere is not photography (it is one of only three non-photographic works in the show), nor is it squarely within the genre of self-portraiture. It is a sculpture made from multiple pairs of the artist’s blue jeans covered in paint (presumably studio jeans). It is tied up with rope in an anthropomorphic shape that, while abstract, suggests a woman’s body. It hangs from the ceiling. Smith is African American. This description sounds clinical, but that is, in part, the point of the work. In the context of Artist:Body, it is both the most non-literal self portrait in the show but also the least illusionistic. It is, in fact, the material stuff of Smith’s life. It carries a similar sense of nostalgia for the artist’s body that Coplans’s work does. The use of denim is not insignificant, being a material that forms to the body, thus carrying a literal and metaphorical memory of the person who wore it. In Smith’s work, like that of Martin Puryear, the end point for abstraction is not non-referentiality, but memories, both bitter and sweet, of lost histories. The sculpture is round, warm, friendly, and formally beautiful. But with Soul Elsewhere, hanging from the ceiling and always swaying slightly with an eerie stillness, no matter how hard we might try, it is impossible to shake the image and dark history of lynching.
Appropriately placed in conversation with Soul Elsewhere is Xavier Simmons’ One Day and Back Then (Standing). Simmons, also African American, stands in a field with black face wearing a modern black coat and stilettos. Is she escaping from slavery or heading to a night-club? It is unlike any other work in Artist:Body in that it invokes time and place, but with purposeful ambiguity. We are simultaneously in the antebellum south, the early cinema of the 20th century (with the disgrace of blackface) and the present day.
Photography has an inevitable relation to the performative and phantasmal, and Artist:Body reminds us of this difficult concept. Recall the Native American belief that photography was an intrusion on the soul and disrespectful to the spirit world (Crazy Horse refused to be photographed for these reasons). For many of us, whether we know it or not, a good photograph simultaneously provides the fulfillment of a memory and a sense of loss, lack, or even death, in that the fleeting moment of the photograph is taken away forever. We feel with it a passing of time and our own mortality. But a photograph can also be life giving in the sense that it conveys action, a performance, like many of the works in Artist:Body. It is this tension that makes so much of the work in this show so poignant. Francesca Woodman’s work comes to mind as an example, as does Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Self Portrait Suspended IV, in which the artist was tied up by a bondage expert and suspended from the ceiling. The bondage ropes were digitally removed, leaving an image of release and freedom. The act of bondage invokes pain, vulnerability and despair, while the photograph itself is a fleeting moment of pure joissance (which, in the end, is pleasure come full circle to pain).
Artist:Body is a full and rich examination of the possibilities of contemporary self-portraiture. It is full of ideas sensualized, which, incidentally, is in a nutshell Hegel’s definition of true art. It runs at the Lexington Art League until March 27th.