Is the self always present in what one makes? Am I trailing pieces of myself? Short answer: Yes. Silvery hairs that knit bird’s nests under the furniture, an unending squall of search terms, CCTV, God forbid droplets of aerosolized spittle. And so are you. We’re just snagging on things, leaving remnants behind, like lambs wool on barbed wire.
Sometimes in art, we find forensic traces of the artist. The handprints of hunter gatherers in the Sulawesi Caves (from c.37 900 BCE, the oldest of their kind) or the painters whose visual anomalies unintentionally altered their work (Monet, cataracts). Other times the clues are more qualitative, like the stylistic ‘family resemblance’ of works by any one person. During the Renaissance, the popular belief was that ‘every painter paints himself’, later mirrored in literature by the refrain ‘all writing is autobiography.’
In the 3rd Century AD Plotinus gives us the first philosophical appraisal of self-portraiture. In The Self Portrait: A Cultural History, James Hall writes that Plotinus ‘believed that self-portraits are produced not by looking out at a mirror, but by withdrawing into the self.’ Plotinus wrote,
‘Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work.’
This is a interrogatory process-based idea of the self-portrait, in which we sense the artist’s pursuit of betterment and self-understanding. Maybe even of self-care.
During the initial stage of the COVID-19 Lockdown, Cape Town-based Georgina Gratrix, produced a self-portrait daily for 63 days. Each day remaking herself anew. I view the work on Instagram at @gggratrix (surely an ‘online viewing room’ now that we’ve started bandying about that term). There is a sense of this series being part of an appropriate social media presence – with references to her pets, make-up, and pantsless (hee hee) zoom meetings. The parts of life we expect to see mediated through Instagram.
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April 22nd’s face peers out from behind a sunlight-soap-green facemask with holes for Gratrix’s features (including two sets of eyes). The aperture for the mouth seems to smile but her own pouted lips curve downward in an expression of annoyance. The facemask, the very symbol of self-care with its promises of Q10 and smoothing serums, clearly isn’t cutting it. Perhaps we’re still cooling off from April 17. On that day (face livid orange and black, teeth bared, eyes rolling) the portrait is captioned: ‘when someone forgets the shopping bags or actually when people complain on the community Facebook page that nightly clapping for healthcare workers disrupts their children’s sleeping patterns.’
Gratrix is known for oil paintings so heavily layered that probably none of them are dry. She teases out enormous gloopy bouquets, parodies her friends and sends up stereotypes such as the ’TV Detective’, the ‘married woman’ or ‘The Belgian Collector’ in bright, hasty colour with rashes of extra eyes blistering across their pudgy mugs. The parade of lockdown self-portraits uses watercolour rather than oil but retains her squelchy womanly sensibility. They are the progeny of Argus and a buxom Irma Stern. Expressionistic in the most literal sense, these direct and intimate close-ups plot the emotional rollercoaster of lockdown, like diary entries, describing the trending claustrophobia, stir-craziness … an occasional good day.
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Many, including the last (May 31st), show another increasingly-familiar mask: the face-covering used to reduce transmission of the virus. Her face and the mask are almost identical shades of fuchsia; almost one thing. The mask is transparent so that her expression is unmuzzled. She seems fine, nearly smiling, having perhaps adjusted. These paintings are cheerfully coloured and briskly rendered, but as with all self portrayals they are introspective. They log Gratrix’s intermittent unravelling and pulling oneself back together and bring to mind a line from Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones in which a pair of acquaintances ‘step out occasionally and speculate who had been damaged the most.’
Not everyone has been so obliging when it comes to masking up. On the same day, May 31, Shane Malone is over-dressed for a grubby supermarket aisle in a grey suit and white shirt. He jauntily pulls the breast of his blazer over his face, dark glasses peering over the lapel. The caption reads: ‘The only mask I’ll ever use’.
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Shane is contrarian. Pitching himself as a successful, well-connected art dealer, he preaches the gospel of how to hand out business cards and close deals, rounding out the image with hair gel, braggadocio and a gold chain. His Instagram (@shane_yes_shane) catalogues twin obsessions: himself, and his work. That work, a vocation that he lives and breathes, is promoting the photographs of Russell Bruns, an emerging (what does that even mean anymore) photographer from Johannesburg. Where Russell is self-effacing, Shane espouses self-help truisms. Where Russell is content to labour behind the lens, Shane is pleased to be papped. In fact he is photographed with Russell’s work in international locations from the pavement outside the V&A Museum to the arrivals lounge at Cape Town airport to Bruges, Paarl, Swansea, Muizenberg. And the ‘real’ exhibitions are stacking up too. Shane has “shown” Russell’s work at Zietz MOCCA in the group shoup ‘The Main Complaint’ and as part of a residency programme at Cultureland in Amsterdam, both in 2019.
In an Instagram post from 2018 Shane kneels in the shadow of Robert Therrien’s Table and Four Chairs in the Tanks, holding one of Bruns’ photographs. Dwarfed in size but not ego, the pic is captioned: ‘Group Show with Robert Therrien @tate. Always happy to offer other artists a platform for exposure. #strongertogether #givingback #probono #roberttherrien #tatemodern #seatedbyshane’. The photograph he is holding is of a sunset in pale lilacs, blues and oranges. It references the cover image of Roe Ethridge’s artist book, Shelter Island. Like much of Brun’s work it is poignantly mundane and in the Wolfgang Tilmans lineage. Other works show tragically ordinary tableaus. A hurried working class breakfast of pink yoghurt and banana or a thoughtlessly arranged desk.
In another post from 2019 a screenshot of Shane’s sms inbox shows a brief exchange with Larry Gagosian: ‘Hey Shane, all the best for 2019. Let me know when you have a moment to talk business. Send my love to Andy. Lazza’ to which Shane replies ‘Out of office!!!’ In another tab Elon asks ‘you back boet?’ He is left hanging. Shame. The comparison between Bruns’s understated photography and Shane’s narcissistic presentation is absurd.
It turns out that in art, unlike in life, I like to be lied to – because Shane himself is a mask; a gauche and inscrutable persona. It isn’t immediately obvious, because of the way a social media avatar is now shorthand for a whole person, but he is a creation of Bruns. Perhaps he began as an attempt to address the absurd demands of the art industry in which one is expected to balance being an artist (engaging sensitively and earnestly with your work) and being a salesperson (building hype and mystique). Like Larry Bell, of the Light and Space art movement in 1960s Los Angeles, whose alter ego Biluxo Benoni (aka Dr. Lux) enabled him to exude confidence and charisma he was otherwise lacking, Shane addresses this paradox of self-representation. He allows Russell to armour up with a metonymic compartmentalisation of self – which has grown into its own enigmatic personality.
But Shane is also a device; an entertaining mechanism to funnel attention towards the photography. Bait and switch. To this point Bruns asks: ‘How do we use photography to look at certain issues – when photography is the issue. Because now photography is the everyday, I needed to do something to re-engage the viewer’. At his Cultureland show he transformed into Shane in the gallery. The metamorphosis involved a full length mirror and an entire can of deodorant. The spectacle turns a gallery space and the artworks therein (where the rules are well understood) into something new that demands inquisitiveness and reevaluation.
We see in even the most elaborately constructed self-portrayals, psychological stowaways and unintentional honesty. In pediatric nursing, children’s drawings of themselves are observed to change based on feelings of anxiety and depression. And in the case of eating-disorder patients, self-portraiture can be a useful tool for carers to gauge self-perception as it may differ from actual body composition. Phenomenons that allow self-portraiture to be a useful (if open-to-interpretation) diagnostic tool. In contrast, Hall writes that ‘Self-portraiture in the twentieth century[‘s] most distinctive quality is its tendency to conceal or suppress the face and head, thereby thwarting traditional physiognomic/phrenological readings. Masks, mask-like faces and masquerade are a typical trademark of the modern self-portrait.’ Hall suggests a will to show, but not too much, a dance of disclosure that can be seen in the work of Gratrix and Bruns. Balancing fiction with confession and ego with identity.