While some might disagree, there is a school of thought that every piece of art is a self-portrait, unintended or not, revealing as much about the creator as the subject. Southern Californian author Ross MacDonald wrote:
Like burglars who secretly wish to be caught, we leave our fingerprints on broken locks, our voiceprints in bugged rooms, our footprints in the wet concrete.
For “Selfish,” curated by artist/teacher Sean Cheetham at Katherine Cone Gallery through June 22, twenty artists leave their marks in oils and acrylics, their brushstrokes revealing who they are, even as they create a vision of who they (want us to) think they are. Some are poignant, some wistful, some idealized, some brutal. (And Marc Trujillo has placed himself as a worker in the window of a fast food chain–think about it).
Self-portraiture is medium for artists to directly study themselves, to paint what they know best (and yet perhaps least). The subject of self-knowledge has been a topic of philosophical debates and volumes of wiritings for centuries: Who I am? What is the Self? What is my self? Can we ever really know ourselves? How much of the self is projection and reflection? By acknowledging the self, or an aspect of it, have we changed, and therefore are now something new with potentially unknown aspects?
The majority of artists have stayed within the traditional “head and shoulders” poses and conceits seen in classical portraiture–even Trujillo’s profile, submerged inside the fast food window adheres to this format, though his face is barely recognizable–and the few who deviate have done so to effect. In Pull my finger… Sergio Sanchez gazes down at his baby, the infant faces the viewer, one subject so rapt in loving focus and the other with a smile and a potentially full diaper (perhaps in decades those roles will be reversed). The painting shows Sanchez as a devoted and amused parent, full of wonder. The child is the central focus of the painting, much as the inner self is (ideally) the focus of the self-portrait. And yet, a child can be a form of (collaborative) self-portraiture, a blank canvas that takes on a life of its own no mater how the original creator/s strive to keep it in within their vision. As painted, Sanchez’s child greets the observer with a half smile, an unconcerned air–the immediate, the present are all that is needed, but as self grows more, needs are recognized and must be met, aiding or hindering in the self’s development.
Richard Morris‘ Self Portrait, The Temptation of St. Anthony refers to the oft-painted father of the monastic movement whose temptations as he traveled through the Egyptian desert were the subject of artists from Bosch to Dali. Here the artist as St. Anthony rides a subway train through a tunnel as two nude, faceless women lure him (paging Dr. Freud!). Issues with love, sex, and romance appear in other works by men in “Selfish,” curiously not in those by women, (discuss amongst yourselves the whys and wherefores of that!), the exception being Korin Faught‘s Romantic Me.
Painting is a much slower process than photography, and the current age of instant snap and post photo self-portraits have made shallow immediate self-examination easy (Wow, I so have bags under my eyes, delete!), though photography does aid the painter, no longer forced to work of sketches , studies and memories. The act of painting allows for the deeper exploration seen in “Selfish;” The work becomes a mediation, concepts and ideas may change during the process.
In Fuck Romance, Kevin Llewellyn paints himself taking a phone photo in bathroom, the title scratched into the paint. Is he done with romance, angry because a failed one, shifting into another phase? Does it show the progression and end of a relationship? Or is it just a pose? (And yeah, pretty much phone photos have fucked the thrill of attraction, at least in its early stages. When someone you barely know says “Send me a picture of you naked,” is that a compliment? How about coffee or a movie first?).
Ryan Cheetham depicts himself as a Dick in Box a reference to the Saturday Night Live skit, though what meaning of “dick” he ascribes to himself is unclear. TMI, bittesweet.
Eric Pedersen‘s self portrait #Pedersen also references modern communication, sex, and self-reflection. A series of phrases with hashtags, scratched into the painting and then spray-painted into the floor below, center around romance, self-abasement, and the penis, a visible extension man’s selfhood.
Hands also are an extension of the artist, regardless of gender. Notoriously hard to paint, they feature in several artists’ works. Jonathan Hart‘s Selfish Red Hand plays upon Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark” in which a man seeks to remove the small, hand shaped birthmark on his wife’s cheek. In his quest for perfection, he kills her. In Julio Reyes’ classically-styled Self Portrait one hand clasps his scarf as his eyes cast downward, self-conscious, charming. Candice Bohannon Reyes, embraces herself With These Hands, showing the artist’s profound relationship with her tools.
Natalia Fabia‘s hands hold her candy pink hair as she gazes playfully sideways in Pearhead, the titular fruit entwined in her tendrils. In Zorra, (shown up top) Sonya Palencia also glances sideways, but with vulnerable wariness, her hands resting lightly on her clavicle. The composition enhances her very human hands and arms while her liminal connection with her fragile yet dangerous animal nature is indicated by a spider pendant and animal fur hat.
A wreath of white lilies–a symbol of death and rebirth, of virginity and motherhood–rests atop Kate Savage‘s head in Sita / Springtime. In the Hindu epic Ramayana, Sita is wife of the hero Rama, representing both chastity and fecundity. Sita is also the an early Vedic fertility goddess celebrated for bringing agricultural bounty. Savage’s low cut white dress plays upon the Ramayana‘s Sita, while the entire painting draws on classical Western imagery of spring, virginity, rebirth.
Head coverings appear in several of the paintings by men in “Selfish,” shading Jeff Nentrup‘s eyes, emphasizing Wayne Johnson‘s, balancing Stephen Schirle‘s strong profile. The rest of the men confront the viewer with their stares, the organic shades of the background their clothes emphasizing their inner searching. Sean Cheetham, Hollis Dunlap and Johnpaul Altamirano present themselves directly full face, open eyed and close up. The final close-up is extreme: EL MAC’s Asymmetry explodes with color and graphic shapes.
On his website, Richard Morris quotes painter A.C.Leighton, appropriate for this show:
The true artist paints for himself. He seeks achievement and does not need to be merely pretty. He consciously enters character into his work. He craves knowledge and must study continually to obtain it.
By painting themselves, and always clearly for themselves, even within the context of curated call for self-portraits, the artists in “Selfish” have striven to meet Leighton’s admonition.
“Selfish,” curated by Sean Cheetham
Through June 22
Katherine Cone Gallery
2673 South La Cienega Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90034
Tuesday – Saturday 11am-6pm; and by appointment
Photos 3, 15, 16, 17 and 24, 25, and 26: Eric Minh Swenson/thuvanarts.com. Used by permission.
Photos 1, 21, 22, 23: Courtesy of Katherine Cone Gallery.
All others, Lisa Derrick/CARTWHEELart.com