Self portraiture has been a long standing theme in art, not just photography. From Ancient Egypt to modern day’s digital selfie, the self portrait has been a meaningful and shallow way of expressing one’s self. As a youth I recall seeing Van Gogh’s self portrait. I understand it to be a useful way of studying one’s art. Whether it is painting or photography, the self as a subject has a place in historical reference and as a genre of it’s own merit.I had been introduced to Cindy Sherman during my undergrad and enjoyed her film stills, but self portraiture had no depth until I learned about the life and art of Frida Kahlo. It was a self taught painter, with a disability, forced to use her own image in order to express herself… her torment. Her self portraits document her physical and psychological pain as well as serving as a visual journal of her life with Diego Rivera.
I align with Frida because of my own physical and mental disabilities and living with someone whom was manipulative and destructive. I too painted from within, showing the world what I felt, not just what I saw. For me, the significance of Frida’s influence in my early self portraits trumps that of any photographer. I did not use my own image because I wanted to, it was because I had no other option. I was debilitated with depression and agoraphobia, I could not even leave my bed at times. I connected with Frida on mental level, something I have not found elsewhere.
When it comes to influential photographers in my current work, I look to the work of James Welling and Richard Tuschman. While both artist’s work has been recently introduced to me, I can see how their use of color and light move me to create my own personal pieces. Warmth of the light, coolness of shadows, it’s natural. The introspection of their work is encouraging and moving. Reminding me that not all photographs need to be visually appealing to hold meaning.
Not originally creating work as a photographer, James Welling began his art career in drawing and watercolor. He, like Tuschman, have been impacted by Edward Hopper’s reflective work. In his paintings, Hopper depicts ordinary scenes with an isolated figure in deep thought. His use of
light, color and architectural influence define his style and continue to influence artists today. When I first learned to paint, I referenced Hopper’s use of light and shadow.
I consider Welling a well rounded artist. Not limiting himself to one medium, but making an effort to learn about the different formats of art in order to shape his own. I, myself, have studied art in a similar way. Learning not only about photography, but drawing, charcoal, painting, video editing, acting, set building and jewelry making. All of which have contributed to my own craftsmanship.
I look to James Welling as a diverse pioneer of art. Like Man Ray and Andy Warhol, he isn’t afraid to attempt what others shun. He started working with long exposure Polaroids and tested unconventional methods to intensify colors, such as adding heat. There really is a science to it all and I appreciate the initiative to step outside of the set boundaries to create a niche for himself.
Welling explores color, shapes, textures, mediums and light through unorthodox techniques. His work was stated to be a critical evaluation of photography in contemporary art. His untitled Photograms (1988-2014) are meditative and mood altering, simply by color saturation, lines and gradients. I find his work very organic even though they employ geometric shapes and fractals, which are a part of natural geometry. When I perceive my current work, I make use of shapes, lines and color in a similar manner, to evoke moods and narrate emotions.
In Welling’s architectural images, I find solace and reflection. Each empty room of Wyeth, (2010), give thought to the many rooms of my mind, places I’ve been, lives I lived. They reveal a little bit about myself as a viewer, forcing me to contemplate my past. All of Welling’s work seems to be a study, a form of research. Each time, creating a series of images worth sharing, allowing other artists to grow from. They remind me of my own experiments and how much I enjoy the alternative aspects of photography. I enjoy being hands on. If it is too immediate, the gratification is null. I feel I must work for my art, finding new paths of expression, deviating from the norm.
When I think of my own work, I look back before the Academy. I recall the adventurous attitude I had about photography, the thirst for learning. It was refreshing and now that my work has changed, I am feeling this sense of rejuvenation in my art. I have a firm comprehension on why I love photography and art in general. It’s not just the expression of myself, but the adventure in learning, the
investigation of new and old techniques, science and hands on creation. Just exploring inventive experiments and finding new methods of making art, adding to my tool box, it allows me to experience a bit of personal transcendence. I’m stimulated by the research and my mind is engaged, therefore ideas flow and my work evolves.
In contemporary art today, I had the notion that everything had already been done. It was pessimistic of me, I grew weary of my chosen path. I felt turned off by what I was seeing and questioning myself. After coming to the revelation that I do indeed enjoy creating art and being introduced to artists that I had never seen their work before, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to “see” again until I grew past that. I had to get out of my rut and recall why I started making art in the first place. I enjoyed the study of art and creating hands on.
Being able to mirror contemporary culture, it really opened my eyes to what rethinking the familiar meant. It allowed to to be open and receive new ideas, new to me and once I created art and added my experience to it, it became new to the world. No longer did I hold contempt for the contemporary, I embraced it. I am exploring ideas and concepts and questioning the past, expressing the present, so that I may visualize the future. My art is contemporary in the sense that it is expressing today, the present. I am a part of a larger movement, one day it will help define our past.
Part of what makes my work successful is that willingness to try new things, go beyond photography to experiment and bring forth different aspects of the art culture. I use the skills I learned from charcoal drawing to better understand light and darkness, chiaroscuro. While sure I can read about it, I actually learned it hands on, the way master painters learned. I took craftsmanship from my jewelry making class and physical expression from my acting classes. My video editing interests taught me about camera angles and color of light, how both can lead to dramatic changes in the way one sees.
As I learned the technical side of photography, I used myself as a subject. I explored less and worked harder at doing things the right way. I followed the rules and attempted to please my instructors for the sake of a grade. Doing this allowed me to learn many new skills from lighting, to photographic language and marketing myself. Unfortunately it lead me away from my eagerness to learn and experiment. I lost the initial interest of photography, I misplaced it burying it under technique and assignments.
I discovered my interest in psychology and how to communicate with a camera. I took on the project of Duality, exploring the mental side to my photography. I chose to use what I knew as a subject, me and my depression. It was the only way I knew that I could separate my work from the work of other contemporary self portrait artists. Even though many of the methods were the same, compositing and tableau vivant, my work was personal. I learned how to take personal experiences and express them through photography.
Duality eventually became redundant to me, visually and in context. I was creating new images, but nothing was inventive or innovative. I was acting out my life on a constructed stage. I grew tired of seeing myself and telling the same sad story over and over. I became negative and stopped shooting for personal reasons. I only forced myself to shoot for assignments, leaving my work un-exhibited and un-printed outside of the Academy, I fell into a rut. I did not have the enjoyment of photography and stopped considering it as a career.
It wasn’t until my current directed studies class, that I started voicing myself. Previously I tried to do the right thing, or make images according to the Academy’s direction. Trace listened to my venting and read into my posts. She encouraged me to not continue to do what isn’t working. Trace “allowed” me to experiment in order to make changes. These changes started small, making use of color of light as a focal point. I realized that I enjoyed using color to help narrate my images. Then I experimented with changing the aspect of Duality. I took away the one element that had previously defined my work. Like taking off training wheels, I felt liberated and scared.
It was the reconnection with research and experimentation that drove me to really make changes. I abruptly shot an assignment solely for self expression, deviating from the Duality project all together. It was meaningful, if only to me. It was aesthetically pleasing and it helped me navigate my new direction. I was able to visualize a body of work and in put it into terms that were relatable and professional. I had created a new path. I was invigorated, re-energized and loving the medium again.
I am still shooting self portraits, and enjoying the process. I am engaged with my art and considerate of my audience. I am striving for context that is meaningful and content that is aesthetically pleasing. I am active in my art again and exploring the use of medium format film as well as continuing my digital studies. With the introduction of James Welling to my stock of inspiring artists, I am breathing life back into my work.
My latest addition to my thesis, is a reflection of now, I am expressing what I am today. It’s a blend of the constant flux or transition. I seem to be in tune with the optimistic sense of things to come. The use of multiple layers to look like double exposures, replicating my feelings of flux and instability in change. I make use of equivocal spaces to create a tactile plasticity for the viewer to experience that feeling of movement and fluctuation.
My “self” is no longer a clear view of what I look like, but how I feel. It is obscured as if I am unsure of my identity. It allows the viewer to step into the image as the literal subject, allowing them to feel the ambiguous state of being. In conjunction with shapes, color plays a large component to my narrative. It sets the mood whether it is conflicting or harmonious, a combination of colors and shapes will naturally let the viewer navigate through my images, without hesitation.
All of these attributes help define my work as modern. I have a respect for the classics, learned from the Masters and contribute to the contemporary. I am realizing that everything I have learned up till now are allowing me to be a part of today’s modern movement. Blending together the past and the present is what Contemporary Art means to me.
My self portraits are not a part of a trend in contemporary art, like the selfie. My work in self portraits has been established as a reputable genre, a source for inspiration. Like those whom have come before me, I too am becoming a testimonial for self portraiture. I address the question of why with an explanation of changing answers, from necessity and control to the enjoyment of creating autobiographical images to share. My self portraits have been a performance of documenting my psychology to a study of form in nudes. I use myself to create art because it is what I know best.
Themes in Contemporary Art by Gillian Perry, Paul Wood
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