Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Constructing the Self 30 Self-Portraits at SLC’s Main Library

Sam Wilson

DaVinci. Okay, there, I’ve said it, and now 15 Bytes can join just about every other publication you’ll read this month where you’ll find mention of the famous poet, engineer, painter and courtier from the little town of Vinci. Of course, you’ll also be reading about a code.

But not here. I won’t even take the time to mention how silly the novel is, and as far as the film goes, well the book is always better, isn’t it, so you can just imagine what the celluloid Code must be like. But I will mention Leonardo daVinci, the man behind the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa. Literally, he is the man behind the Mona Lisa, at least if one accepts the theory of Dr. Lillian Schwartz, who believes the Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait. The source of that enigmatic smile, then? The artist liked dressing in drag.

What Mona/Leonardo’s smile tells us, whichever theory you hold to, is that portraiture still fascinates us. Not stiff, formal portraiture, the type commissioned by people of power and status – think about it, when was the last time you spent any amount of time in a museum gallery of 18th century portraiture? – but real portraiture, artistic portrayals of a person unfettered by the guiding hand of the patron. But how often does this happen? How many people can afford to commission a portrait of themselves? And of those that can, how many want an unvarnished (speaking figuratively) version?

Which leads us to self-portraiture and the current exhibit at Salt Lake City’s Main Library. Constructing Self: Thirty Self-Portraits is an exhibit of, you guessed it, thirty Utah artists portraying themselves and is being held in honor of the Utah Art Festival’s thirtieth anniversary. Portraiture and self-portraiture have managed to weather the artistic storms of the 20th century, faring much better than, let’s say, history painting, the former king of the mountain in artistic circles. Many modern artists – from the early ones, Cezanne and van Gogh, to more recent ones like Chuck Close, Lucien Freud and Andy Warhol — have made portraiture a central part of their oeuvre.

But, ask yourself, when was the last time you saw a portrait in a Utah exhibition? (Let alone an entire exhibition of portraits). And maybe for good reason. Unless you know the person, or the sitter has an intriguing smile, why care about portrait art? But there is something about self-portraiture that interests us in a way other portraiture does not. And maybe that is because when artists step forward to depict themselves, we expect something more than an agreeable likeness that will be pleasing to the paying customer. And something more is what you’ll find in this exhibit.