Nan’s battered face. Her right eye, swollen and bloodied, matching her lipstick. I flip through her 1986 photobook The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, contemplating the heroin filled, intimately raw, beloved images of friendship and addiction. I’ll always start and end with her, Nan, pained and alone. Not because I take any particular pleasure in violence. If anything I look at her self-portrait to release some of my own emptiness and cynicism.
We too often create images of ourselves, manicured and severed from all internal ugliness to the point of exhaustion. It is a rare relief for me to see an image of a woman that reveals what I labor to hide within my own.
Self-portraiture as a method of artistic expression has no discernible origin. Some earlier examples can be found in antiquity, though art historians will point towards the mid 1400s as a starting point, when Jean Fouquet and the Alexander Durer began to first represent images of their own likeness outside of any other narrative context. The spike in this phenomenon is often credited to the growing availability of mirrors at the time. Mirrors brought a heightened awareness of appearance, and more deeply, of self-recognition.
Self-portraiture within painting also worked to cement the artist as an identity. The self-portriautre in Diego Velazquez’s 1658 Las Meninas pushes beyond vanity. We start to get into the murky waters of symbolism. In Las Meninas personal nature of the subject—Velazquez—is molded into the production of an objective identity—Velazquez, the painter.
Frida Kahlo’s painted self-portraits have now all but over-saturated popular cultural imagery. Poetic and pained, much like Goldin, Kahlo was famously quoted expressing that her self-portraits did not meddle with the surrealist tricks of her contemporaries, but instead expressed su realidad. Beyond engaging her ubiquitous, now almost iconic, features, Kahlo took the act of self-portraiture and mirrored it inward, revealing her likeness through her inner turmoil.
Here the labor of self-portraiture comes full circle—at once an image can evoke awareness of one’s likeness, a construction of one’s public identity, and a reflective introspection shown outward, culminating in the performative spirit of the artist.
The ‘selves’ who have been marginalised through dominant paradigms of political understanding have had to come into representation in order to posit a challenge to the paradigms themselves. Bringing these ‘selves’ into the centre of discourse has been one important strategy in this politic; self-portraiture is but one type of self-representation which acts this way.
— The Art of Reflection: Marsha Meskimmon, p. 151
Photography changed everything. The art of reflection, reserved solely for the artiste became art in the age of mechanical reproduction. The—albeit incomplete—democratization of mass mediums of image making allowed for new subjects to construct in their own likeness. The act of self-portraiture twisted into an act of subversion. Female artists, particularly in the rise of the second wave, chose photography as their medium and the body as their site. Performance, inherent within self-portraiture, directly addressed the separation of subject and object that had, for most of art history, left women on the receiving end “the male gaze.”
Feminist artist Hannah Wilke provides an ideal example with her “performalist self-portraits,” particularly the 1974 S.O.S Starification Object Series. In Wilke’s 28 arresting self-portraits she presents herself in the flesh, with vulva-shaped sculptures molded out of chewing gum adhered to her face and exposed chest. Covered in these sculptures, a topless Wilke takes on fashion-inspired poses, projecting and at the same time rejecting those tired tropes. The title of the work implies the “starification” or idealization of the woman, the ritual “scarification” for beauty, a distressed call for help.
Women were in fact Wilke’s harshest critics. They labeled Wilke a self-aggrandizing narcissistic who promoted bad feminism. Art critic Lucy Lippard wrote that Wilke confounds “her roles as beautiful woman and artist, as flirt or feminist.”
“Keen’s moral condemnation of the selfie as an act of narcissism is plainly unencumbered by any consideration that narcissism, as a personality trait, may not only be what capital expects but also demands from young girls, in order that they be legible as girls at all.”
— The Young-Girl and the Selfie by Sarah Gram
In par with the millennial regurgitation that inspired it, too much has already been written about the selfie. It is the ill of Internet fueled narcissism, the plague of the teenage Tumblr princesses, the digital disintegration of the self into byte-sized social media nods. It is the Young-Girl’s performative product, necessary for legibility and social capital compensation. This work entails an uncomfortable balance of physical self-awareness, social gracefulness, and proper deployment of expected norms.
If Wilke’s work was meant to challenge the performativity of femininity—inflated narcissism her supposed failure—the selfie is even less critical and all the more blatant in its self-aggrandization. At least with Wilke’s images, her “self” in its more-or-less authentic sense, still comes through to the surface. Even in her vapid posing, her chilled and confrontational gaze challenges the viewer. She is posing, but she is not palatable.
Perhaps Cindy Sherman serves as a better parallel to the millennial selfie. Her famed Untitled Film Stills appropriate female cinematic tropes, inserting Sherman as the nameless canvas, directing herself in front of the male gaze (the term was coined by feminist theorist Laura Mulvey a year after Wilke’s S.O.S). Sherman’s malleability makes her personal identity irrelevant. These selfies are not about self-expression or self-identification; they purely rest on the language of labored feminity.
An art that before relied on inner reflection and outward identification now stands alienated from its source, rendered as a flickering capture of an everyday gendered performance.
“Both my writing and my art centers around the self [female] in relation to the external… I feel as if the female self is always under a certain pressure to perform externally and often her internal needs/wants are sacrificed to play out this role that she is cast in.”
— Gabby Bess, in The Bushwick Review
I first read Gabby Bess’s Alone With Other People almost three months ago. I had just moved to a new city. I applied the mask of the “young female creative professional living in Brooklyn.” I exerted ambition and self-assurance, and openness, and confidence. My rituals of greeting new acquaintances, my Internet activities, my movements through crowded subway stops, entailed performative acts of self-realizing. Selfies, social media, silent stares from strangers. Fake it till you make it.
Alone With Other People combines a selection of varying poetic formats that evoke the very displacement Bess expresses within her writing. I read the book in one sit and felt a little sad and a little lost afterwards. Filled with sad humor and disillusionment, I felt like Bess reflected something I have felt and could not put into words—the displaced exhaustion following all of the emotional labor necessary in performing myself. Bess’s novel is in conversation with the various iterations of self-portraiture that have left women straddling between the burdening freedom of self-making with the continually engrained mandate to perform the Young-Girl. Bess writes:
From here I constructed my identity
and set it aside for myself and others to admire.
When I give advice it is essentially saying, “Oh,
be more like me” and I can say that and point
to a diagram that I have drawn up in the time
that I have spent alone, bettering myself.
If we follow Judith Butler and call gender a performance with no final act, only an eternal reprise of self-making, at what point do we separate performing for others from performing alone?
Self-portraiture, particularly when the self in making is female, has deformed into an act of alienation, of severing and denial. Bess’s collection, if read as a form self-portraiture, manages to reveal both the emotional labor of this performance with the bruised and lonely confusion meddling within. I saw in Bess’s poetry what I saw in Goldin’s bloodied eyes—a female gaze, eternally performing for the camera, peering with despair, hoping for someone to look back and see themselves within.
Buy Alone With Other People by Gabby Bess here.
By: Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Managing Blog Editor