As a genre, portraiture is fraught territory. The intertwining of concerns, recognition and identification, or representation in its social and cultural complexities, is always going to make for a rough ground to tread upon—to summon Wittgenstein. As old as the genre of portraiture is, and as carefully considered its forms have been, the difficulty, the roughness of the ground, has remained. In the past century or so, the content of the portrait has come under increasing analysis—questions of race, gender, sexuality, and class, to name a few, have become important in when considering an image of another human being. But a portrait is not just an image of another human being, it is a highly constructed and composed image that follows sets of imaging conventions that are historically and culturally informed. Trying to understand the intersections of these valences can be difficult to say the least, but it can also be rewarding—indeed, it has been rewarding over the past several decades as artists from any number of marginalized social or cultural groups have taken it upon themselves to work in the multiple intersections of identity categories and mine the potential there.
Whitney Hubbs is just such an artist—having received her MFA from the University of Southern California, she now lives and works in New York state as an Assistant Professor of Photography at Alfred University. Through her various engagements with the genre of portraiture, Hubbs has offered a lively critique, framed as an exploration, of the surfaces of bodies—where gender lives and breathes—and the topographies of representation and recognition that they express. Each of the five images included in the Body Doubles exhibit on display at The Art Academy of Cincinnati continues this exploration of the peaks and valleys of the female form, creating new topographical schematics of recognition, building on others and destroying still others. For instance, Hubbs’ self-portrait, titled Woman no. 12 (Self-Portrait), defies the viewers’ expectations by employing a high-key presentation—the white light makes the form of Hubbs’ half naked torso only just discernable. Her pose is classically informed, and while it is possible to make out some of the details of her body (her feminine presentation is apparent for instance) the sort of knowing that comes from seeing, from recognition, is resisted throughout. We don’t actually know what we see in the image, we see only what we (believe) we know. Though the lighting conventions in the rest of the images are more or less influenced by commercial photography, each resists the drive toward recognition through some sort of visual refusal. In Woman no. 1, the model holds a rectangular piece of paper in front of her face, despite what could be read as a suggestive pose, that conceals her identity from the viewer. In Woman no. 6, another classically influenced pose—though the gendered elements of this particular pose are flipped, there is the suggestion of a bare breast, the outline visible in profile with the bare back of the model facing us. We “know” what is there, but what we know is not entirely what we see. In the three images described thus far, the suggestion of female sexuality and the female form are powerful compositional elements but at the same time seem to exist primarily to be subverted. The rhetorical construction of each image’s content is in fact a refusal of recognition—we only think we know, we only think we see, but we can never be sure. Via these strategic refusals, ones that leave viewers to operate on their gender, sexual, class, and or race based assumptions, it seems that Hubbs is trying to challenge the traditional configurations of recognition that make portraits “work.” The mimicry of the imaging conventions of portraiture only serves to highlight the unconventionality of the images as portraits themselves.
Each of the images on display stands in for that which is not there, as a body double does on a movie set—hence the title of the exhibit. However, one has to wonder: what is it that is not there—or here? What is missing in a gallery space so stripped down and bare? Perhaps this is the challenge for each viewer of Hubbs’ excellent show—to find what is not there, or put another way: find what could be there.
–Ben Michaelis is an artist, philosopher, and Phd candidate at University of Cincinnati.