by Patricia Albers
The title first: This Is Not a Selfie. True. Nor does the current exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art involve Jay-Z or any Real Housewives of San Jose. But decouple its clickbait-title from its subtitle – Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection – and where’s the buzz? So, presumably, went the marketing discussion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where the show was organized by the curator Deborah Irmas from the collection her parents donated to LACMA in 1992.
How does the selfie differ from the photographic self-portrait? asks SJMA’s introductory wall text. What does the photographic self-portrait look like from the vantage point of our “Age of the Selfie”? Such questions merit examination. But while SJMA exploits them in its promotional material, it fails to explore them in the galleries. In fact, it glosses over the distinction by including a contrived exercise in audience participation. Viewers are encouraged to pause in their tour of the galleries to take selfies in a faceted mirror (“Self-Reflection”), and are then invited to post them using the hashtag “#NotASelfieSJ.” The results flashing on a screen at the exit underscore the shift of the photograph from, what photo historian Geoffrey Batchen called “a memorial function to a communication device.” Witness the accompanying messages: “When I got to see the museum,” “New bathroom mirror ideas,” “New stuff at sjma!”
Back in the non-digitally networked world, mirrors show up in a string of meditative self-portraits, among them those of Ilse Bing, Nan Goldin, and a pregnant Diane Arbus. The photographer’s classic self-imaging device, the mirror, serves – like the camera – to frame and visually double its subject, and, often, to reflect a private search for physical manifestations of the inner self. Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1988 self-portrait, taken shortly before the photographer died of AIDS, emblematizes this introspective approach. Although a mirror, as such, is missing, the small skull atop the walking stick the photographer grips serves the same purpose: its empty sockets reflect, in effect, the haunted look in the so-called mirrors of the soul, Mapplethorpe’s eyes.
While that type of self-portrait is represented here, photographs that confirm our era’s rejection of the notion of an essential inner being frequently upstage it. More than half of the works here are post-1970. Taken collectively, they suggest that self-portraitists have abandoned the idea of the face, especially the eyes, as the locus of individuality. Catherine Opie’s dye coupler print, Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993), for instance, displays the photographer’s back incised with a child-like drawing of an idyllic house, rainbow, and hand-holding couple in skirts, an assertion of her queer identity. The five photolithographs in Bruce Nauman’s Study for Hologram (1970) zero in on the artist’s neck and lips, pulled and squeezed like so much rubber. In playing with the neck and lips as a depersonalized art medium, Nauman elasticizes the boundaries between performance, body art, and self-portrait.
With Wolfgang Tillman’s quasi-abstract Lacanau Self-Portrait (1986), the category “photographic self portrait” implodes altogether. Is this a snapshot of sand dunes? Why then the Adidas logo? Is the picture a mistake? It turns out that while walking on the beach in the commune of Lacanau, France, Tillmans aimed his camera downward, capturing a fragment of leg and the mound of his knee emerging from his pink shorts. Eventually, the contents of the picture snap into place. But what’s it about? Here the self exists somewhere in between biological organism, consumer and oblique downward glance.
Tillman’s picture hangs near Nauman’s in one of the exhibition’s more or less obvious groupings. Another wall hosts black-and-whites in which objects serve to foreground their creators’ professional personas. Danny Lyon, who documented the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, lounges atop his own bike. Industrial photographer and equipment inventor O. Winston Link announces his achievements with a panoply of cameras, flashes, cords, stacked boxes of Sylvania flashbulbs and a work-aproned assistant.
Beyond such comparisons served up by the curator lurk plenty of others: the show’s real theme and greatest strength emerges in the diversity of images in which photographers turn their cameras on themselves. Half the fun is finding connections between them. Tillman’s picture, for one, resonates with – who’d have thought it? – a backhanded self-portrait, Italy (1932), by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The quintessential humanist photographer lies atop a stone wall. The village scene that surrounds him is sharp, but his own body, one bare foot excepted, appears as a blurry lump.
Elsewhere, photographers play with the multiplicitous self or seek visual analogies for inner states or explore the self-portrait as manifesto. But the exhibition’s most fully realized through line is that of masking and performance. It’s heralded by Nadar’s albumen silver Self-Portrait in an Indian Costume (c. 1863) and epitomized by Claude Cahun’s 1929-30 photomontage, I.O.U. (Self-Pride). Using a chain of face pictures, Cahun deals out a series of gender-fluid personas, accompanied by written text, part of which reads, “Under this mask, another mask.” Cindy Sherman weighs in too, with her Untitled, Film Still #5 (1977), informed by the notion that our media-saturated society denies the possibility of authentic and cohesive subjectivity. Scottish artist Douglas Gordon picks up Sherman’s thread with his wallet-sized dye coupler print Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain, Andy Warhol, Myra Hindley, Marilyn Monroe (1996). Wearing a tacky blond wig, the artist collapses his identity into those of the musician, the artist, the mass murderer and the movie star, all famed for their signature blondness.
Performance takes a different turn in a trio of prints by the Japanese-born, British-educated Chino Otsuka. The images belong to Otsuka’s series Imagine Finding Me, in which she photoshops pictures of her adult self onto decades-old snaps from her childhood. Their settings include a beach in Japan and a hotel in London. Thus Otsuka, “a tourist in my own history,” pictorially revisits places from her transitory early years. Child and adult hang out together over the abyss of time. Photography’s enhanced capacity for fictionalization tugs hard against its lingering aura of truthfulness.
The Irmas Collection comprises nearly 140 works, of which 66 are on view at SJMA, including, happily, quite a few by artists rarely exhibited in the Bay Area. Besides Otsuka, there’s the Italian Luigi Ontani. In Rosindia (1993), he imagines himself as a blue-skinned Hindu goddess as she would have been portrayed circa 1890. While Rosindia is hardly the most compelling image in the show, it enlivens the proceedings like the arrival at a costume party of a newcomer with a really good disguise. Then there’s the goofy self-portrait-as-foot-puppet (c. 1935) by the one- time Condé Nast guru Mehemed Fehmy Agha, engaged in comic relief, perhaps, from the whirl of art directing Vogue; and the faux-vintage Unknown Artist (1993) by the Berlin-and Los Angeles-based Warren Neidich. Neidich, who is African-American, has photoshopped himself into 20 iconic art world photographs. Among them is Nina Leen’s group famed portrait of 15 abstract painters, dubbed The Irascibles, and two snapshots of Andy Warhol standing around with his groupies. Thus the artist inserts an African-American presence, his own, into a narrative from which African-Americans have been mostly excluded.
Speaking of Andy Warhol: tucked in a quiet corner is a 1964 photo booth strip, all deadpan, all surface. Two of the four pictures are missing the top of his head. Self-portrait or selfie? Like the smartphone, the photo booth is both camera and darkroom. Like the smartphone too, it spews out pictures and has nothing particularly to do with fine art. Here's my mug at the moment. My brand. Hey, want a picture? It’s been said before about Warhol’s photo booth strips: in spirit, if not technology, this is a selfie.
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“This Is Not a Selfie” @ San Jose Museum of Art through January 14, 2018.
About the Author:
Patricia Albers is a Bay Area writer, art historian, and teacher. Her books include "Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life" and "Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti." She is currently working on a biography of photographer André Kertész.