Artist self-portraits have historically fascinated the public eye as they have become artists’ most personal and intimate expressions, but this trend has taken a particularly big turn in the past two decades among contemporary artists. As a young art student in the mid 1980s, I remember developing an obsession with the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her self-portraits. I was astonished by how her powerful paintings pulled the viewer into her private world to witness the beauty and the horror she experienced in her personal life.
“Artist self-portraits have historically fascinated the public eye as they have become artists’ most personal and intimate expressions.”
Iké Udé, Sartorial Anarchy: Untitled # 4, 2010. Pigment on satin paper, 40 x 36 in. Edition 3 of 3. Courtesy of the artist.
The Mask And The Mirror
Artist self-portraits have historically fascinated the public eye as they have become artists’ most personal and intimate expressions, but this trend has taken a particularly big turn in the past two decades among contemporary artists. As a young art student in the mid 1980s, I remember developing an obsession with the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her self-portraits. I was astonished by how her powerful paintings pulled the viewer into her private world to witness the beauty and the horror she experienced in her personal life. Through the depiction of her own body and the use of visual metaphors, she let loose her emotional and psychological anguish, her spiritual and moral orientation and most importantly she revealed that art operates somewhere between the artist’s conscious and subconscious. Ultimately, Frida Kahlo became the narrator of her own story: a story both tragic and heroic.
In 1993, when I began my photographic self-portraits series called Women of Allah, I began to pose for my own camera. During the process, I often wondered how my approach and motivations compared with Frida Kahlo’s, as she had become such an important influence. I came to realize that I did not approach my self-portraits as a form of autobiography; rather, I performed a role. I was the narrator of other people’s stories. My subject was the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and my characters were the warrior Muslim women.
In curating this exhibition at Leila Heller Gallery, which will be on view in Chelsea from November 3 through December 21, I had no theoretical or academic premise in mind. I simply intended to juxtapose a group of artists from various cultural backgrounds, generations, and professional careers, who have made important contributions in the genre of self-portraiture through photography, painting, filmmaking, and live performance.
The Mask and The Mirror essentially follows a few popular trends by artists, some of whom are iconic, internationally known names such as Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Marina Abramović, and Matthew Barney, who have been instrumental in defining the genre of self-portrait and the notion of using the artist’s body as a canvas for artistic expression.
Several prominent and mid-career artists whose primary focus is not self-portraits, but have on occasion indulged in incorporating their own physical body into their art are included in this exhibition, such as Y.Z. Kami, Paolo Canevari, Lyle Ashton Harris, Nicky Nodjoumi, Shahram Karimi, Youssef Nabil, and Shahzia Sikander. Finally, there are few emerging artists such as Bahar Sabzevari and Fereidoun Ghaffari whose participation in this exhibition marks their first public showing in New York.
Youssef Nabil, Self Portrait with Roots, Los Angeles, 2008. Hand colored gelatin silver print, 10.5 x 15.5 in. Edition 6 of 10. Courtesy of the artist and Yossi Milo Gallery.
When looking at this diverse group of artists we have gathered, one detects certain conceptual parallels. There are artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Lyle Ashton Harris, Van Leo, Andy Warhol, and Youssef Nabil whose approach to self-portraits have been a way to examine their own obsessions and persona. Matthew Barney is a performance artist who creates mythologies and then embodies his own allegorical characters. The melancholic self-portraits of Y.Z. Kami and Fereidoun Ghaffari share an austere and rather mystical resonance as if to reach toward their own human psyche. Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Iké Udé, and Van Leo disguise themselves as fictional characters, yet their images are highly suggestive of the artists’ own fantasies.
There are several Iranian artists in the exhibition whose self-portraits function as a form of social commentary. Among them are Ramin Haerizadeh and Shahram Karimi whose blunt and unapologetic self-portraits create political satire, ridicule tyranny and people of power. Bahar Sabzevari’s self-portraits speak to us about the plight of Iranian women who are pioneering a new form of feminism as a tool of resistance against their authoritarian regime. In contrast, Shahzia Sikander, born in Pakistan, quietly breaks the rules of classic miniature paintings and carefully places herself as a contemporary Pakistani woman within the predictable traditional motifs and narratives.
Ultimately, this exhibition serves as a small glimpse into a long history of artists’ self-portraits, which will evolve further and be expanded upon by future generations of artists.
*** “The Mask and The Mirror” an exhibition of self-portraits curated by Shirin Neshat will be on view from November 3 – December 21, 2011 Leila Heller Gallery, 568 West 25th Street.
*** This article was published by NY Arts Magazine, 2011. NY Arts Magazine is published by Abraham Lubelski. Sponsored by Broadway Gallery, NYC and World Art Media.