Scenes of Selves, Occasions for Ruses
At the Surrey Art Gallery until December 16
Scenes of Selves, Occasions for Ruses is an intriguing examination of contemporary self-portraiture. Images range from miniature oil paintings in the manner of the old masters to life-size digital scans, and from pencil drawings of women with a shared name, their images sourced online, to the biometric “constellations” of facial-recognition software. The local, national, and international artists surveyed in the show are Jim Andrews, Eryne Donahue, David Horvitz, Roselina Hung, Elizabeth Milton, Pushpamala N and Clare Arni, Carol Sawyer, and Carrie Walker.
How we publicly portray ourselves—how we construct and project our personas—has undergone profound shifts during the digital revolution. In the 20th century, the word persona evolved from denoting a character in a play to meaning the public self that we present to the outside world. In terms of Jungian psychology, especially, the persona is created in response to the situations or circumstances in which we find ourselves: it’s an adaptation that enables us to hide our inner thoughts and feelings. Twelve years into the 21st century, our situations and circumstances are comprehensively mediated by computer technologies. Social media, smartphones, photo sharing, Second Life avatars, and a gazillion cunningly designed websites have vastly expanded and complicated the means of self-representation.
At the Surrey Art Gallery, curator Jordan Strom contemplates these conditions and also surveys contemporary self-portraits as they intersect with a notion of “archives”. For the purposes of the show, an archive seems to include everything from colonial photography and family albums to Wikipedia listings and medical imaging.
A traditional understanding of the archival is evoked in the black-and-white photos, souvenir fragments, and “historical” references that constitute Sawyer’s ongoing project Some Documents From the Life of Natalie Brettschneider. As a fictional character enacted by Sawyer over a number of years, the New Westminster–born singer Brettschneider is seen in a range of locations and circumstances, most of them a long way from grand. She’s photographed performing in a dubious oratorio at the “Cloverdale Opera House” in 1912, modelling hats in Paris in the 1930s, dramatically posing with the charred skeleton of a tree near Kamloops in 1949, and leading a pots-and-pans musical ensemble at the Cloverdale Jaycee Follies in 1951.
The exhibition’s wonderful invitation image, Last Known Photograph of Natalie Brettschneider, Vancouver, 1986, shows a little old lady (we suppose), sitting in a garden and hiding behind the mask of an enormous rhubarb leaf. With humour and inventiveness, Sawyer invests Brettschneider with an earnest yet hopelessly marginal dedication to her discipline. She also creates a gentle meditation on the making of art, the assertion of identity, and the traces we may or may not leave behind us.
In Public Access, Horvitz inserts small, face-averted images of himself into his photo-documentation of the California coast. The artist has uploaded his images to the Internet to illustrate each location’s Wikipedia entry, for instance, “File: Silverstrandstatebeach.jpg” or “File: Davenportcalifornia.jpg”. Subsequently printed in blue ink on white paper and mounted in three long horizontal rows on a concave wall of pale wood, they speak to what Strom describes as “information circulation and the impermanence of digital artifacts”. With its strategies of comprehensiveness and seriality, Public Access reads like an early photo-conceptual project updated to the digital age. Paradoxically, however, it focuses on the natural world—on beaches, coves, and ocean vistas—rather than on, say, gas stations or industrial buildings.
Hung uses both personal snapshots and art-historical portraiture as source material for small, highly realistic oil paintings of herself, which she renders with exquisite facility. Some of these portraits, such as She wanted to do more than just pass…, are allegorical and clearly modelled on art-historical precedents (in this case, Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Woman With Unicorn). Others, such as Self-Portrait (The Past Five Years), explore the ways that contemporary lives are densely documented by incidental photographs.
Part of what’s interesting in Hung’s imagery is the tension between the incidental and the labour-intensive, the ephemeral and the lasting. In fact, that existential tension occurs in most of the self-portraits in Scenes of Selves. Eventually, death will take us all out—and time will pretty much obliterate whatever means we choose to represent ourselves.