Picasso famously told Gertrude Stein, before embarking on what became one of the most famous portraits of the twentieth century, that she needed to understand that it would not look like her. Picasso taught the world a new way of seeing, though, and his pre-cubist portrait of Stein looks a lot more like her now than it must have done at the dawn of the 20th century.
Art mythology asserts that the camera made realistic painting obsolete and brought on the invention of Abstract painting. Whether that’s true or not, in the age of the selfie, when XKCD’s graph shows the number of people carrying cameras approaching 100%, and moderately good photography is within reach of almost everyone, artists with an interest in portraits, and especially in self-portraits, have to raise their game if they want an audience to pay attention. As Mestizo curator Renato Olmedo–González phrases it, one possible solution is to forge a new, original—and possibly more genuine—self to portray.
Olmedo-González gathered four artists to explore the boundaries of today’s self-portrait, who among them employed painting, photography, performance, video, and site-specific installation in their works. None are conventional portraits, though in a time when new approaches diffuse rapidly throughout world culture, any such statement needs be taken with a grain of salt. Were the four photographs by Mari Hernández influenced by the Untitled Film Stills of Cindy Sherman? While there is no particular resemblance, both artists dress up elaborately as exemplary characters: Sherman’s are ambiguous and universal, while Hernández’s are localized facts of life. In “Golden,“ Hernández becomes a material chica showing off her bling. In “La Quinceañera,” money makes a more literal appearance at this definitive rite of passage. In “As Julie Pastrana,” she channels the woman who, in the 19th century, made her fortune and found everlasting fame as the world’s ugliest woman. In the main, even the lowest-status male still ranks above even the highest-status female, and these three portraits capture the limited paths forward open to those already disadvantaged by national origin, but who happen to be women as well. The one exception here comes with a sophisticated pun: the title of “Mari Posas,” a relatively straight photo of the artist, means ‘Mari poses’ in Spanish, while the image shows her distracted by mariposas—butterflies—circling her head like stars in a cartoon image of someone stunned. But they’re not stars, they’re butterflies, symbolic of transformation and transcendence, and “Mari Posas“ conjures up hopeful alternatives.
Alex Moya has three projects here, each a frontal assault on media images and the damage they can do. Whether he projects search-window results onto his face and body as he strikes active, expressive poses in “Googled Self-Portraits,” or inserts himself into glossy advertising images in “Self-Portraits (Neo-Voguing),” Moya’s compositions strike an ambiguous note that invites closer inspection, though their visual density makes that challenging. It may just be a matter of our respective ages: as a presumed digital native, Moya and his target audience may be far quicker than a digital immigrant like myself. As I watch younger consumers flip rapidly through material I tend to take more time evaluating, I sometimes feel like those first passengers on primitive steam trains who marveled that they couldn’t properly see the things they were passing so fast; so fast being twenty miles an hour. A valuable clue to Moya’s process may lie in “Chew and Spit,” four stills from a video in which the artist chews up glossy advertising pages and uses the cud to write out a slogan: “Your design will not design me.” Evidently, immersion, even imaginary entrance, into the procedures, of which these photos are artifacts, is part of seeing them.
By far the most instantly accessible images here are Willard Cron’s camp extravaganzas. For one thing, his good will is contagious: who can resist his blue skin contrasting with his brightly colored wigs, from which his mustachioed face mugs playfully as he cavorts about? At the same time, alert viewers—one might wonder if there will be any other kind—must know the anguish and suffering inevitably visited on such a generous individual. Then there is the lovely, pale blue skin tone Cron has chosen, which is reminiscent of Shiva’s. Much as we enjoy this quirky, cosmetic touch, it isn’t real, and behind it lies one of the greatest human tragedies. There is only one human pigment, melanin, but where it can make eyes blue, it cannot do the same for skin, no matter how much we wish it could. We are all judged on how much melanin we have inherited, and while it makes no sense whatsoever, it cannot ever be completely set aside. Cron’s comedy may lighten the moment and bring about smiles, but the individual freedom he displays exists only in two dimensions: outside the frame waits another story.
Ali Mitchell studied art at the Kimball, and the experience shows in her command of traditional media, with their added flexibility. Like Mari Hernánez, she freely chooses to depict herself as iconic persons or in familiar artistic styles. Here she has painted herself as “Cain,” in an unusual act of self-projection: whoever identifies with the Bible’s first human villain? In “Sometimes When I Look In The Mirror,” she seemingly appears as herself, but it’s impossible to know for sure because, except for the eyes, her face has been mutilated, as our self-images all mutilate our actual faces when we compare ourselves to the norms of mass taste. Her “Self-Portrait After Jenny Seville“ invokes the woman (and the only survivor) among England’s recent painters of grotesque human figures—Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud being better known—but I was reminded more of Matisse’s deeply felt portraits of his wife, though without the green skin. All three portraits have an experimental quality, as though this student is still seeking her own approach, yet her brush lends depth and conviction to her visions in a way the camera cannot.
Mitchell also produced the largest work here, and did so specifically for this exhibition. In “Mirror,” she wrote her thoughts—to all appearances, freely associated from one to the next without a plan—across an entire section of wall. As a self-portrait, it reveals qualities far more intimate than any of the images, painted or photographed. But, of course, words deceive us into questioning them in ways we rarely doubt the evidence of our eyes. It’s the perfect heart, the crease in the center, of SELF_Created. Here is a room full of challenges, questions, provocations, and everyone who sees it should leave it less certain, which means less hobbled by preconceptions, and richer in appreciation for the sheer range of human possibility.
When, in 1906, someone who thought it would be news told Picasso that his portrait of Gertrude Stein didn’t look like her, he is said to have replied, ‘Don’t worry. It will.’
SELF_Created opened at Salt Lake City’s Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts (631 W. North Temple, Suite 700) on September 2 and will feature an artists’ reception during Gallery Stroll, Friday, September 19 from 6 – 9 pm. An “Artists and Curator Talk and Discussion” is planned for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 7-9 pm. The show continues through October 17.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.