Myself: A Survey of Contemporary Self-Portraiture
Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery at the University of Nevada, Reno
January 18 - February 18, 2011
Curated by Marjorie Vecchio
The exhibition and catalogue is dedicated to the memory of amazing young artists Emma Bee Bernstein and Devin Hosselkus.
Exhibition catalogue essay: Myself: A Conversation about Self-Portraiture, Joy Garnett and Mira Schor.
Joy Garnett: I’m trying to remember my last intentional self-portrait; I probably painted it years ago, when I was an art student living in another country. I was learning to express myself in a new language (French), which presented a real challenge for me when defending my work during weekly crits. The whole process, now that I look back on it, was an elaborate self-exploration not unlike self-portraiture, and there was some hunger and deep need involved in this. I routinely made self-portraits back then, incorporating them into still lifes and other kinds of compositions. There was the business of keeping 'likeness' intact, which seemed so important, it was part of the development of a certain kind of acuity that leads past surfaces: tracking the exigencies of the self through likeness. These things were so important to me then!
Lately I have been thinking of the whole process of making art as a kind of selfportraiture, a performance where one repeatedly discovers and renders threads of the self on the spot while working...
Mira Schor: Self-portraiture was an important part of my work at its beginnings. I always say that by the time I left graduate school my agenda was to bring my experience of living inside a female body – with a mind -- into high art in as intact a form as possible. My first interpretation of that was to place a depiction of my body into a narrative and landscape structure. I was doing work somewhat in the genre of Florine Stettheimer just around the time I learned of her work (that is to say, I got to a place and then found out she had gotten there too as had several other important women artists of the surrealist period). My next interpretation was to replace the recognizable self-portrait with a trace of self: my handwriting and diaristic writing as image and subject. In the ‘80s and ‘90s my work turned more towards representation of the politically gendered body and of political and theoretical language – so instead of writing that had a diaristic function my paintings represented the word “painting” or “sign” or “trace” or, in one case, the letters that spelled out “personal writing”. So certainly not conventional selfportraiture yet emerging from a consciousness of my “self” as a character in the game art or the game life.
In the past three or four years I’ve actually turned back towards a kind of selfportraiture, sometimes abstracted, sometimes figurative though not traditionally representational, more like a figure that is an avatar of self.
But because I have this close experience of types of self-portraiture I also can be quite critical of artists who use self-portraiture as a default and unfortunately who just aren’t that interesting! There’s a particularly contemporary wrinkle to this: just like painters may draw themselves because they are the only model who will sit still long enough, now young artists turn the video camera on themselves doing some task or something to their body. I often find that such work can become insular and kind of boringly generic, the opposite of what you hope for in selfportraiture, and I start to long for the reach of cinema, of fiction used to create a structure, a more complex, layered, exteriorization of thought and experience. So looking at the umpteenth variant of what was interesting (and structured) in early Joan Jonas or Yoko Ono, I crave Kurosawa and Ozu, Truffaut and Godard. Think of Toshiro Mifune as a kind of second identity for Kurosawa, or “Antoine Doinel/Jean-Pierre Leaud” as a fictionalized Truffaut and Leaud, again, as a slightly more innocent variant of Godard.
JG: I love Florine Stettheimer...! and I agree with you about what can happen when young artists endlessly turn the camera on themselves. There's a fine line -- or maybe not so fine! -- between propagating a narcissistic 'reality' type spectacle and putting yourself out there. Self-editing is important and difficult, and there's a difference between inviting the viewer into some intimate space, and abusing them with a personal need for catharsis. Revealing certain things about yourself, as opposed to anything and everything, demands a certain kind of restraint; it requires an awareness of something beyond yourself, including the viewers you’re trying to communicate with.
MS: I think that is right, what you say points to the fact that ultimately a selfportrait has to be a work of art beyond just narcissism. You have to understand what is interesting about you: visually, narratively, politically. Hopefully there is something interesting! It’s the same as with actors: they have to understand what is interesting about their appearance, the specificity of their body or voice, and use those qualities, whether they are endowed with great beauty or not. So finally it is the mind of the artist that must be portrayed because it is the mind that gives the artist a meta-understanding of what their body, their image means beyond themselves and that gets back to and ties in with the importance of form.
Florine Stettheimer’s self-portraits are wonderful on a number of levels: her color is intense and rich, her surfaces are beautiful – a white will not just be a flat area but really a sculpture, a bas-relief, and her self-portraiture is usually relational: she exists as part of a matriarchy and a sisterhood of women, her mother and her sisters, and she usually lurks quietly at the edge of the work, a shy presence within a social grouping. She is self-effacing as an image yet the one who is overseeing and pulling it together. Another self-portrait I love is absolutely the opposite in presence, is Max Beckmann’s Self-Portrait with a Cigarette from 1923. There are many other Beckmann self-portrait drawings and etchings from that time and earlier (and of course some wonderful other works) but in that one he uses his physicality – a short, squat, strong figure made more so by the way he crowds the small mirror frame and shallow space he has set for the canvas, and he uses his drafting skills to represent his painting hand holding up a cigarette like a weapon. The intensity of his gaze goes beyond just the fact that he is focusing on himself as subject to dominate the viewer as an aesthetic project. The color of the painting is extraordinary, that tough mustard color ground!
Other works that spring to mind, a late painting by Edvard Munch where he just leans into the frame from the side, an eerie presence, older, shambling tall man lurking in his own painting. There is also the beautiful late Bonnard of a balding bespectacled skinny man wrestling his image in the bathroom mirror.
Well, there are so many amazing self-portraits. I realize I’ve just included paintings. I think of video performance art as slightly different. The artist uses her body as an actor or an object. But to complete my thought about the importance of understanding and using the specificity of your body I think Joan Jonas is someone who has always done that very effectively and that is even more noteworthy as she continues to use her body in recent performances. She always has had a kind of Buster Keaton solemnity to her features and it is if anything more effective now that she is older and not relying on the beauty of her youthful body. She becomes a kind of mythic little embodiment of artmaking and of a kind of courage and resilience, as well as of watchful awareness of details of the world she is showing us.
JG: Can we go back for a moment to what you were saying before, about selfportraiture being important to your work's beginnings? Perhaps there is a moment for many young artists when self-portraiture is particularly rich or useful. When I was in my 20s I had the opportunity to study painting in Paris and London. I spent a lot of time, just about every day, roaming through museums, (which, happily for me, offered free admission for students). I was particularly drawn to portraiture and self-portraiture, in both literature and art. James, Proust and Joyce were favorites; I was drawn to Manet and Fragonard, and to Watteau's melancholy clown. When the Musée Picasso opened in Paris, I was living nearby, and I visited frequently. The first installations tracked his early development, which was largely an exploration of the human condition through portraiture, which I found especially compelling.
Now that I think about it, the context for portraiture and especially self-portraiture in Europe is probably different from self-portraiture in an American context. It seems that in Europe, self-portraiture comes out of 19th century literary introspection, and also draws some of its juice from Rembrandt's self-portraits, which combine the mystical with the intensely personal. I saw a lot of Rembrandt in Paris, etchings as well as paintings, and those portraits had a huge impact on me.
Perhaps self-portraiture in American art is more self-exposure than introspection, if not downright exhibitionism. There is the lure of the spectacle, the temptation of self-exposure through mass media; of course, the phenomenon of reality TV has become THE popular medium for self-expression and self-portraiture -- or is it self-caricature? It makes me wonder about how we might 'achieve' introspection today. What are our choices when it comes to making self-referential art, what is the route to self-discovery when we are hell-bent, as a culture, on self-exposure? The two are not the same -- they may even be metaphysical opposites.
I wonder if there are many artists who manage to achieve both introspection and a kind of raw exposure that is contemporary. From the past, perhaps someone like Egon Schiele... which might bring us to self flagellation and self mutilation, and full circle to performance art and feminist video art, actually... Marina Abramovic, et al.
MS: That is very interesting and quite likely that different cultures would invest in self-portraiture differently, or, in some cases probably not at all, at least as we would recognize it. Is self-portraiture more of a Western concern, given our focus on the individual, going back as far as St. Thomas Aquinas and probably farther?
It’s important to highlight some of the differentiations you are making between “self-exposure” and “introspection,” and to point to the current interest at least here in America in phenomena like reality shows, which I would argue are all about play-acting, play-writing, since the shows are if not scripted certainly edited almost live with an eye towards a narrative, which in itself is quite general and not individual. The characters on “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” seem to each not only have but operate out of a Homeric epithet (well, that would establish it as being as old as the hills) which the editors encourage and onedimensionalize: this person is the GAY person, this person has OCD, this person is A CHRISTIAN. They do work that they each then ascribe, mostly falsely, to these GENERIC IDENTITIES: I mean, what does doing ghastly commercial sketches of dancing figures have to do with being a Christian! It’s all absolutely not conducive to because not interested in self-reflection -- that is not a value except as a simulacrum or spectacle -- and certainly not about self-expression via form. So in a world where the generic and the simulacral are actually what is trusted as “authentic” (because the notion of individuality is seen as generic too, but unconsciously so), where “generic identity” is not seen as an oxymoron, are there options for self-portraiture that both work within these conditions and somehow surpass them?
JG: (Portrait of the Artist as a [Generic] Something-or-other....!)
One thing that’s interesting about all these reality shows, as you point out, is that they are produced through an editing process, and are in fact highly constructed ‘realities’, to say the least. In that sense, the portraits they produce are made in the image of the Producer’s Formula, as realized by a team of highly skilled editors who carve something out of the raw footage provided by the unwitting contestants and their judges. The TV audience absorbs it, loves it, hates, it, watches it anyway because it's endlessly (somehow) fascinating, like watching a slow-motion car wreck. But TV audiences occupy a different state of mind than art audiences: experiencing an artwork demands a different kind of attention altogether.
All of which makes me wonder about the viewers of self-portraiture. We've been focusing on the artist and the significance of creating self-portraits; but if, as Duchamp pointed out, the viewer completes the work, is there something special or particular that occurs between the viewer and a self-portrait? I want to move away from painting (just for a moment!) to think about another intimate and apparently complex thing that happens between viewer and performer when they confront one another in an unscripted (though controlled) extended moment. I'm of course thinking about what recently took place at MoMA, for Marina Abramovic's 'The Artist is Present', where members of the public took turns sitting across from Abramovic in a kind of 'high art darshan', or sitting before the guru. The projections of the viewer upon the artwork became palpable; the needs and projections of the viewer at the moment of sitting and staring became the subject of the piece, forming the experience of the artwork for each individual with very little, yet very consistent, input from the artist/performer. Perhaps we can apply what happened there, between viewer and artwork, to what happens between viewers of other artworks, particularly self-portraits.
So my question is: do we as viewers let down our guard a little more than usual when we regard a self-portrait, because we are duped into thinking we are looking at someone else's exposure, when in fact, we are becoming complicit in our own?
MS: Maybe.. I’m not sure. I’m just as moved by a work depicting someone other than the artist, or as unmoved. Also what you say returns to the distinction you had made earlier between self-portraiture that is self-exploratory and inwarddirected, and self-portraiture that is declarative and outward directed, confronting the viewer. A work can do both of course.
(NYC, November 2010)
Mira Schor, ME
oil on linen, 16x12 in. 2008
“She exists as part of a matriarchy and a sisterhood of women, her mother and her sisters, and she usually lurks quietly at the edge of the work, a shy presence within a social grouping. She is self-effacing as an image yet the one who is overseeing and pulling it together...a kind of mythic little embodiment of artmaking and of a kind of courage and resilience, as well as of watchful awareness of details of the world she is showing us.”
Mira Schor is a painter and writer living in New York City. Schor is the author of A Decade of Negative Thinking: Essays on Art, Politics, and Daily Life and of the blog A Year of Positive of Thinking.
“Watteau's melancholy clown… roaming
through museums… hell-bent…”
Joy Garnett lives in New York City, where she paints and writes. She is currently working on a family memoir about Alexandria, Egypt in the 1930s called The Bee Kingdom.