A call for entries came in the mail a couple of weeks ago for a “Self-Portrait” exhibition at a local gallery. It had come the day after I happened to be taking some photos of myself and I decided I would submit something. The show is an annual one and I put something in it last year. Last year’s entry started out to be a pinhole camera made as a mask of my face, with one of my eyes containing the pinhole. I really liked the idea of myself as a pinhole camera, but my execution of it was embarassingly bad. So, instead, I just entered a pinhole print (figure 1, right). So what is a self-portait and why do artists create them? I woke up tonight thinking about how self-focused I’ve become the last couple of weeks. I certainly don’t like thinking of myself as conceited or self-absorbed, but that shoe seems to fit right now. What’s the difference between a “self-portrait” and a photo of myself? Wikipedia got me started thinking about the self-portrait. But why do artists create self-portraits? I’ve both painted and photographed myself at various times in the past. I think that often I use myself as the subject simply because its more convenient than asking someone else to model. But using oneself as a model isn’t necessarily the same thing as a “self-portrait”. I’m more likely just exploring something else and use myself as the subject. A rock might have worked just as well. Painting takes a lot more time than a photo, and painting myself in the past was definitely about trying to figure out myself and what I was up to. Here’s a website with lots of links to artist self-portraits. And your can watch and listen to Chuck Close discuss his exhibition “Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005” at the Walker Art Center in 2005. I recommend linking there and skipping the rest of this posting, but its your call. Another thoughtful article I found on self-portraits is Jeanne Ivy’s Self-Portrait Page. She concludes:
Self-portraits, we have found, can be carefully staged to show the audience only what the artist wishes to project, or deeply revealing, inadvertently displaying feelings of anguish and pain. Self-portraits have been used to test new techniques, make a signature mark, launch into self-study, remember the past, and as a way to release emotion. Whichever way artists choose to construct their images, they are each forced to study their own personas both physically and emotionally. What do artist’s find when they search the mirror? For some the self-portrait is cathartic experience, a letting go of pent-up emotions. For others, the process reveals new insights about themselves and their work. For all artists, the self-portrait is an exploration, an opportunity to see beyond the image in the mirror and begin to search into the soul.
Losing wisdom… I have an old self-portrait hanging in my garage made from acrylic paint, my beard hair, a dental appointment slip, dental x-ray and my third wisdom tooth. Each of my wisdom teeth were pulled out individually in my 20’s and 30’s. The third one came out in Colorado by a dentist using a book as a reference as he pulled it. He had to crack it loose, then pull it with a fancy pair of pliers. It was a horrible experience, bleed for over a week until a piece of bone worked its way out of the cavity. That painting means something to me (not sure what), but I keep it out in the garage. I exhibited it once in a group show and I’m pretty sure nobody liked it. Its really more of a (near) death mask than a self-portait.
Candid self-portrait? I was surprised and delighted by the image at right when I got my film back from the 1-hour photo place. I didn’t remember taking it. I feel pretty sure that I didn’t intentionally take it. I suspect I was just advancing the film and checking the zone plate on the front of the camera, clicking off the start of the roll. Or maybe it was intentional and I just don’t remember taking it. But either way, it is a bit “candid”, taken with little or no self-conscious forethought. I like that the image is vague, fuzzy and seems to visually reflect some of the complexity and confusion I’m experiencing. And the fact that I wasn’t trying to take a picture of myself, makes it that much more real to me. I’ll probably put this one in the “Artist Self-Portrait” show next month. So why do you think artists create self-portaits?
Collaboration… There’s an artist in California named Wayne Martin Belger who makes finely machined pinhole cameras out of aluminum (and other materials). His cameras combine the polished surface of aircraft aluminum with organic materials like bone, insects, plantlife, and other things he assembles and machines into fine art. The cameras are designed for the subjects they will make images of. Both the camera and the prints taken by the camera contribute equally to the resulting remarkable art. We’ve corresponded a few times since December. I was preparing a short interview with him for the Pinhole Visions website (that I haven’t finished yet). So I wrote to Wayne to let him know about my cancer and that it had delayed the posting of the interview, and also to see if he might be interested in collaborating on something related to the cancer. I have no idea what that might be, but Wayne left the door open, so I’m giving that some thought. Sort of a “donate my cancer to art” thing. We’ll see where that goes.