Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Mirror Mirror: New Media and the Contemporary Self

“Body Archive 12.13.2007” by Amy Jorgensen

by Jason Metcalf

Jeff Lambson’s current curatorial endeavor at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, explores contemporary portraiture through a broad variety of artists and mediums. Mirror Mirror: Contemporary Portraits and the Fugitive Self is presented in three distinct sections: Rituals that Shape Identity; Facades, Mirrors and Masks; and The Real Self, the exhibit focuses on “the factors that shape the ways in which we view ourselves, and how we choose to present ourselves to others.” In this exhibit Lambson produces an across-the-board survey of contemporary portraiture, highlighting excellent local Utah artists alongside emerging and canonized national and international artists. Contemporary portraiture is arguably a classification that is consistent with the majority of artwork being produced today. However, Lambson
focuses on works that show how portraits being created at this moment are significantly different than those of past periods, a result of increased globalization and an ever-present proliferation of new media and digital technologies. These new technologies and methods of communication have in many ways dramatically changed the way that we portray ourselves and others.

Mirror Mirror includes a broad spectrum of new and traditional media: painting, sculpture, installation, video, photography, and web-based work. It takes up most of the museum’s lower level in a mazelike group of relatively compact rooms, both in an effort to have enough wall space to display all of the works, and also to create environments for projected video installations and interactive works. The artworks are both whimsical and serious, and utilize sincerity and irony as vehicles of meaning and conceptualization. Some works are attractive and appealing objects, while others find identity through alternative perceptions of form.

Rituals universally define the human race, and provide a common ground where similarities and affinities can be discovered. Przemyslaw Pokrycki’s photographs — “First Communion,” “Neighbors of My Brother”; “My Uncle’s Funeral”; “Baptism, My Neighbors” — are, in the artist’s terms, documentation of rituals or “rites of passage.” Taken in the artist’s native country, Poland, the photographs show large interior gatherings of family or friends who have joined together to celebrate meaningful events. The subjects are fully aware of the camera lens, posing in solemn understanding of the event’s importance. Though taken half a world away and in a different religious culture, these photographs function as a looking glass for the majority of the museum’s audience — LDS students and families — who go through similar “rites of passage:” sacraments, baptisms, missions, and temple rituals. The works may even be more poignant for those who do not pass through these rituals and sometimes struggle to find their identity in a society that defines itself by these checkpoints.

Utah artist Amy Jorgensen’s photograph “Body Archive 12.13.2007” provides a compelling counterpoint to Pokrycki’s work, showing the ability of “photography” to document both the broad spectrum of the communal as well as the very personal. The artwork was created by the artist placing photographic emulsion directly on her body, with the final product becoming a documentation of the act of art making, as well as an aesthetic object with interesting formal implications. The process reveals a stunning yet voyeuristic image that is both beautifully abstract yet literally figurative, for as one investigates the image closely, forensic biological evidence surfaces. Jorgensen directly cites forensic criminology in her statement, and says that the photograph is what she perceives “to be a document of (her) experience, or proof of (her) existence”. Although not hung adjacently, or in the same gallery, Pokrycki’s and Jorgensen’s photographs converse on the meaning of ritualistic behavior and how such specific actions can become impetus in discovering the essence of personal or communal identity.

Still from Kjellgren Alkirex’s Rocking Horse vs. the Rodeo

One of the exhibition’s strengths is the successful execution of the thesis through the display of works that deal specifically with the creation of portraiture and the self. Kjellgren Alkire’s video, “Rocking Horse vs. the Rodeo,” asks important questions about religious and artistic aims. The artist believes the “nature of art and the nature of religion are often very similar. That is to get to the essence of the human experience in a way that is direct and poetic at the same time,” and wants to “subvert our more casual assumptions about the way that art works and the way that church works, or doesn’t work.” Alkire, as his alter-ego “Reverend Roughstock,” wears a western style shirt, and is dramatically lit from above, forming a persona that is an amalgamation of rodeo cowboy and evangelical preacher. Throughout the video, Roughstock preaches and muses the qualities of the rocking horse and the rodeo. The piece nods to a super-present shamanism in artwork of the now—but relegating itself more to the institution than the spiritual. Jeff Larsen’s “PSA1” offers an interesting conversation with Alkire’s video, with both artists paying homage to Spalding Gray’s monologues. In “PSA1,” Larsen, who currently lives in Salt Lake City, dons a handmade, rather pathetic snowman costume, while quietly whispering to the camera in utter seriousness.|2| Larsen’s method of communication contrasts Alkire’s loud, prophetic voice, yet both investigate the power of rhetoric to define and create portraiture.

As Mirror Mirror demonstrates, video has become an ubiquitous and versatile art form in contemporary art. Ben Cooley’s “Valentine for Perfect Strangers” is an excellent example of many new media artists’ use of humor as catalyst for critique and artistic engagement. In the video the artist’s cat, Otto, samples the now vintage sitcom Perfect Strangers, offering an advertisement, seeking personal engagement while asking the question of the viewer “will you love me back?” Otto superimposes his cat face over the Balki Bartokomous character and posts the video online, in an effort to “truly connect with a stranger one-on-one.” Otto even turns philosophical as he quotes Walter Benjamin — “the only way of knowing a person, is to love them without hope.” The work leads the viewer to question individual intent in using social media networks such as Facebook, and suggests that ultimately we are interested in personal physical relationships. Valentine is a keystone work in the exhibit, as it asks the viewer to consider how we present ourselves to others.

Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s “Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait” |3| is a critically acclaimed artwork/film and has found significant theoretical backing from figures such as Michael Fried (who visited the MOA only a year ago). Through the lens’s unwavering attention on the soccer star — and not the ball — the film reveals a side of sports players that goes unseen in coverage of athletic events – revealing and creating a distinct portrait with exquisite subtleties of a legendary athlete, through subverting the standard modes of sport documentation. The film is a masterwork, and no survey of contemporary portraiture would be complete without it. It would be great to see “Zidane” screened several times in the MOA’s auditorium.

Still from Douglas Gordon and Philipe Parreno’s Zidane

Mirror Mirror showcases an impressive roster of world-class artists, and it is an exciting prospect to see such work being exhibited within the state. Most important, the exhibit presents a blend of canonized, emerging, and emerged national and international artists, along with a few of the very best artists currently living in Utah. Such an exhibition structure is exactly what Utah needs to further its placement within a national and international art-world dialogue.

It would be interesting to see fewer artworks hung from each artist within Mirror Mirror—an act that would thin-out the exhibit, heighten dialogue between individual pieces, and ultimately strengthen the overall thesis of the exhibit.

Overall, Jeff Lambson’s Mirror Mirror is successful in articulating and presenting a survey of what is going on in contemporary portraiture. The many media that are present in the exhibit represent the versatility and multi-disciplinary nature that artists work in today. As globalization continues, and the exponential growth of technology perseveres, the complexity of our individual and communal identities increases and multiplies—prompting artists to create new ways of representing and expressing who we are. These new phenomena are not easily defined, as is evidenced in the multiple attempts by current scholars to explicate contemporary artistic and cultural practices. Lambson leaves the definitions to the viewers, as he provides an abundance of opportunities for an examination of the significance and relevance of contemporary portraiture, but most important, Mirror Mirror is an opportunity for reflection and introspection as viewers engage with and question their own identity and purpose.

Mirror Mirror: Contemporary Portraits and the Fugitive Self is on exhibit at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art through May 8, 2010.




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