Rituals and Enactments:
The Self-Portraits of Anne Arden McDonald
October 15, 2012 through February 22, 2013
Iris BookCafe and Gallery

~ Jonathan Kamholtz

In Anne Arden McDonald’s “Self-Portrait #20, Utah, 1989” (her titles are generally not helpful or revealing), the artist depicts herself on her knees with a semicircle of lit candles in front of her like a ritual séance or old-fashioned footlights, and what might be a huge, time-scarred fireplace behind her. She is partly naked, clutching something, perhaps the rest of her clothing, to her. She stares out into the deep darkness that surrounds her, terrified, though we can have no idea at what, or whom, she is looking (or what, or who, might be looking at her). This is one of the few pictures in the show in which we can clearly see her face; elsewhere, her self-portraits are both luminous but obscure, tending to veil her features. But here, she seems surprised to find herself at an initiation rite of some sort, or to have been summoned by a magic not of her own creation. Part of the power of McDonald’s self-portraits comes from the tension between stoicism and exhibitionism in her performances, between fighting for control and submission. Is she the subject or the object in this drama, the maker or the made?

McDonald says of her work, “I build installations in the landscape or in abandoned interiors and then make private performances for my camera in those spaces.” “Abandoned” doesn’t capture the half of it. Across at least two continents, she has become a connoisseur and purveyor of architectural and urban decay. She stages herself in places where human intention has failed, though has left its signs everywhere. Floors are, apparently, the first things to go, though windows and ceilings are not far behind. They are open to the elements, though another way of saying that would be to note that the indoors and the outdoors have begun to merge. Decrepitude has not simplified the nature of constructed human space: rather the opposite. In “Self-Portrait #40, Hungary, 1992,” McDonald can be found as an almost ghostly presence in a niche in a wall, like a statue of a saint swathed in gray in a ruined church, only she is leaping. In her world, physical movement is not always possible, but dance seems to have the capacity to set her free. All around her are walls with holes in them, staircases that go nowhere, inhospitable archways, fallen blocks of stone, corridors and dead ends; only she seems able to escape the pull of gravity and entropy.

It is surely not part of McDonald’s effort to document the extraordinary spaces in which she stages her performances—we are meant, I think, to see them as dreamscapes rather than actual locales–though more than once I found myself wishing to know more about the sites of post-industrial ruin to which she is drawn. It is fair to say that she has an eye for the incipient gothic elements in everyday culture. Her combinations of what she calls “part ritual, part dance and part daydream” are not for the faint of heart or the claustrophobe. Rooms that have been unlocked for her can always be re-locked. Our constructed spaces decay to reveal tombs of varying sizes. In more than one of the pictures, she is in front of or lying down in shallow pits. In “Self-Portrait #66, New York, 1995,” she stands among some ruins in front of a row of grim industrial furnaces or ovens. She is naked, tangled in some strings, like a ruined marionette or something caught in a web. In “Self-Portrait #70, Austria, 1995,” she stands by a doorway squeezed within a human-sized conical wire framework like a giant tomato frame. Is it like an exoskeleton, designed to reinforce her strength, or is it to be seen as something to shape and constrain her? She is turned away from us, facing the wall; shame seems a possible constitutive element in several of the pictures, and perhaps the wire cone has echoes of a dunce’s cap. The room itself has the ruins of an electrical system, and down the center of the concrete floor is a carved trough leading to a drain. An abattoir? A second, empty conical framework is in the foreground. Is it the shell of something that has set itself free, or is it waiting to capture something new?

It’s not always gloomy in McDonald’s world. In “Self-Portrait #24, California, 1989,” the artist captures herself as a distant figure, running and twirling in view of the ocean. I must confess, though, that in the context of the other prints in this show, I found myself wondering if she was running away from something—possibly even the viewer?—or if perhaps the viewer was being situated in a position to see something we had no business seeing. Several times, despite her framework of opening up her performances to us, I thought McDonald’s pictures raised issues of voyeurism and intrusion on something private. It is not always easy to tell in McDonald’s photographs whether the figures and the dramas are intended to be demurely asexual or deeply erotic. As she notes in her Artist’s Statement, she is drawn to dramas of “living in a body with a mind that dreams.”

In the selection of her work at Iris BookCafe, it seems fair to say that her edgiest works depict artificial rather than wholly natural spaces. Her relation to nature seemed more typified by “Self-Portrait #25, Massachusetts, 1990,” where we find the artist flying or diving or floating over the remains of a ruined greenhouse. McDonald has written about her fantasy of “being able to fly” balanced off against “the limitations of an earthbound body.” All the work of taming nature and making it useful and pleasurable has gone to seed. She is stretched out, hovering above it, supported on a nearly invisible web of strings, flapping her arms. Has she been caught by a giant spider, or is she a prowling hawk, or perhaps an angel of deliverance?

Though it is hard to quarrel with Curator William Messer’s choices of strong images, I found myself curious about what a chronological arrangement of the works might have revealed about McDonald’s growth in her artistry and development in what she wished to portray about herself. I also found myself wondering what she’s been up to the last fifteen or so years. But the selection allows the prints to build revealingly on each other and to suggest some of the ways McDonald continually revisits her central concerns. In “Self-Portrait #35, New Hampshire, 1991,” she depicts herself facing away from us, crouching and hunched over, with her arms out but bent, like some bird of prey. She is tied by bright ribbons to two large rocks, keeping her earthbound. It is hard to say what will free her, or, considering her sinister pose, whether we would wish her to be free. Once again, it is hard to tell whether we should see her as being judged, or whether she herself is a judgment deferred. One door of her space is swung wide open, but the other door is closed. Is her proximity to freedom there to torment her, or to warn us?

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