Self-Portraits–Autumn Exhibitions in London 2023

In the fall of 2023, London became the site of several major exhibitions or survey shows that brought to the fore the question of the identity, both artist and the artwork. The following commentary takes a series of Self-Portraits as a focus of attention. The self-portrait is of course persistent through art history, but in late modernity it becomes ever more diffuse and ubiquitous due mainly to the advent of social media. There are various figures that are attached to this focus, performance, repetition, suspension, otherness, sacrifice, desire, appearance, simulation, staging, drama, seriality, voice. In turn a grammar circulates within these, question marks, full stops, commas, footnotes, brackets, all indicating a fluctuation of such elements as minor or major, mediation and cipher, fragmentation, or limit. Is it assumed that the self-portrait stands in for the direct speech of a subject or is it on the contrary the impossibility of staging such an act? Can such an offering occur without the equal possibility of withdrawal happening as a sign of aesthetic ambivalence? So many questions, within in what is a likelihood of a whole sequence of suspended resolutions, which in part explains the persistence of the construct.


Marina Abramovic @ Royal Academy

Until 1 January 2024

The exhibition at the Royal Academy of Marina Abramovic is really an exhibition divided into two halves, the first half with her collaboration with Ulay, and the second half as a solo act. Yet it does not quite appear as such, because already it is as if the faciality of Marina dominates in a way that might make one believe that she signifies memory and he, oblivion. Not that such a pairing of memory coupling with oblivion is intended to be the case but certainly it might have been destiny, if any such figure exists. Indeed, the overall sense of the show itself is of an enormous act of self-portraiture finally consuming all the various gestures and actions which constitute it. It is like an image of the self that can restore itself continually despite the threshold state it enacts as if it is the retelling of a story that always gets better each time it reiterates until a point is reached that the original impetus is lost.  Everything is lent a second life whether with a mythic like framing, exaggeration, or documentary evidence rediscovering itself as art form. The most formative influence with this is of course that of Joseph Beuys but later the figure of Maria Callas becomes a dominant figure to emblemize an operatic dimension to the life of the artist. This might in turn be a case of another double appearing, a self that is capable of new guises at every turn, but one guided by enormous will to make manifest through the projection of identity within the staging of a drama. There is a rhetoric that accompanies this, high fashion mixed with mysticism, performance of the self, coupled with confessionals, attention to appearance and fiction, all in various configurations and circulations. It is gestural without ever being literary, increasingly grand in the tendency to evoke heavy matters such as thresholds, traumas, limits, abjections, and transgressions. At times there is the scent of a danger in the encounters, but always enough control to prevent limits being opened. This then is a source for vicarious pleasure that the work affords to the audience. In any overall assessment of the operation which has been performed what we are witnessed to is the transition of a body of work making a transition from the possession of an outsider and at times transgressive status into a mainstream authoritative practice that is self-aware of its historical position. The portraiture of the self thus travels from that of an outsider looking into that of an insider surveying the field of encounter from within. In effect this brings with it a sense of transition not only of the minor to the major but a sense of being able to be the source of authority within the emergence of a post-historical field of becoming in which the index for what was formally history, has become instead virtual. Close up, and personal, the work is transferred from being live to becoming an archive in which the self-portrait exists as a portal of the work’s afterlife.


Sarah Lucas @ Tate Britain

Until 14 January 2024

Eating a Banana 1990 Sarah Lucas © Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas’s presentation of the self through the medium of photography creates a narrative foundation for her overall construction and assembly of her work. There is within this an undercutting of high seriousness, even to the point of being tongue in the cheek. They utilize puns and play upon multiple readings that draw them close to the texture of everyday life. The props employed work on chains of association that open out humour. Eggs, bananas, melons, cucumbers, cigarettes, are all part of such stock like props that suggest the self as a site of performativity. A strange mixture of the comic mixing with references to transgressive theorisation, which has a tone that is drawn from an English sensibility of naughtiness, but in ways that overturn stereotypes, particularly those of gender. Modernist codes are invariably dispensed with in this process of subversion of lowly and sophisticated elements as ciphers of experience. The works in question are invariably at risk of lacking in mediation but that is invariably offered, if only in expletive form.


Daido Moriyama @ Photographers Gallery

Until 11 Feb 2024

Daido Moriyama is a photographer who eliminates distance from his work. There is a continuous trace that reflect his presence with the objects of his attention. He takes photographs quickly in ways that often transgress proper focus or composition, not for the sake of experiment with form but simply to convey the immediacy of his encounter with the subject. What then occurs when he becomes the subject? A meeting within the realm of shadows, a reflection in mirrored plate glass, a shadow thrown on the ground, slap stick make- up capturing a de-centred trace of a self, all of which are signs of the idea that the artist is always elsewhere to the images fixed by the gaze within the scene in question. There is no rhetoric of photographic truth within this work, but rather a trail of that which is out of tune, untimely, or against the grain. This implies that something escapes representation, or recognition of identity, and what escapes can be understood as the sign which evades thought. What is given over is thereby closer to a splutter or a series of short arrests within the fabric of episodes that present a memory of what precedes it, signs of implication or a sense that is dissonant or discordant. The act of self-portraiture gestures this realm of disclosure of partial arrests or interruption within an entire field of fragments or evasions of anything approaching full disclosure. Thus, each photograph offers enough to become a relation to the next slither of partial evidence or accident of exposure. For this reason, the photographs in question are like pauses within the circuit, a trip wire that speaks of a failure to advance into the light without firstly passing into and through the shadow realm of incompletion.


Endless Variations–Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol @Ordovas Gallery

Until 15 Dec 2023

In the exhibition at the Ordovas Gallery, ‘Endless Variations’ the fact of a couple of chance meetings are cited as the starting point for a connection between the two artists and in particular the aesthetic predilection for serialisation and predilection for colour. Both artists left a large body of work pertaining to the self-portrait and with this the sense of continually returning to it as a subject that was available when faced by a vacuum of what to do next. The repetition of the image captured within the encounter served not only to bring to the fore the sense of a movement-image but also the sense that the destiny of the image could not or should not find finality as opposed to the experience of caesura. This amounts to a subject in a state of continual succession that stretches the condition of what is to what will become. Both artists tended to employ either colour or brush marks in ways that buried the image into lush or immediate overload of sensation, as if then to introduce pleasure into what would otherwise be a grim encounter with faces that could only fix on staring blankly into space. This detour of faciality was evident to both, despite the radical difference on the level of art historical identification and generational attachment. There was an element pertaining to a ritual offering up of the face in both their self-portraits and desire within this for confession, if only to use the face as a mask for such desire. This might find designation as a Catholic relationship to the image in that sacrificial excess is combined with emptiness or lack. Traced within this is also a taste for the Baroque and with this its theatre of light. Rather than a Cartesian investment of the circularity of thinking and being though, painting invests in the obverse of this in that it signals the withdrawal of thought from its gestures of becoming staged within the lapsed in between of this circularity. More than anything else the self portrait signifies this lapse or syncope. In that there is a double figure, that of the solitude of the self, passing in and through the emptiness of the image.


Richard Prince @ Gagosian Gallery

Until 16 Nov 2023

Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman. Double Self-Portrait, 1980

Richard Prince presented, or rather re-presented, his early new image work at the Gagosian Gallery. Everything was rendered as new in that almost all the works were radically reformatted and in turn made fresh to the market in what was a case of shining immediacy.

The question that looms over such a strategy of presenting old work in a new guise then is it in fact old or is it new. This is not just a semantic issue. The only work which was not based upon image appropriation or reconfiguration was a double portrait of himself coupled with a portrait of Cindy Sherman. It is difficult at first sight to work out who is who which of course is the point of the work, as there is no essential means of understanding such difference in the age of simulation. In many ways it starts to serve as a template for the proceeding career of Cindy Sherman with her disappearance into the visual identities of the other. Richard Prince himself became ever more elusive than this, with his spook like disappearance into authorship which always beg to the question of where and who is he?



Lines extend and cross over, nothing remaining fixed as memory intersects with imagination.

Persistent and enduring the self portrait circulates around itself, sometimes taking a stance within the foreground, sometimes as background as if emerging out of the shadows cast by the self. No doubt the greatest body of work pertaining to the self-portrait is by Rembrandt who infused his study of his own appearance with a range of tonalities of lighting and shadow from which forces opened in heterogeneous directions within emotional flight. In many respects it was Rembrandt who opened out the serialisation of the face as a means of portraying the complexity of what endures within the encounter. This cross over of emotional intensity and visual coding and spacing implicated itself within the modern advent of cinema as much as in the art of painting and photography. The question that is posed within modernity was to what extent is the self-portrait responsible as a generative principle that implied that all works have their foundational impulse within it on the level of the gesture it contained. If we take Pollock’s retort of not painting nature, but  ather being nature, it is possible to extend this sense into a reflex across the entire aesthetic template. So, what comes into focus with this, is the fold of subjectification and it is the operation of this fold that is central to what is at stake within late modernity.  The relationship of photography to the self-portrait comes much more to the forefront because of its relationship to serialisation and the introduction of signs. In the photography of Lee Friedlander, Francesca Woodman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, and Nan Goldin there are inventive ways of constructing narratives pertaining to the employment of the self as sign. Clearly this signals a state of anxiety not just on the level of identity, gender, and sexuality but an uncertainty pertaining to authenticity within the culture. In this way the self-portrait becomes a potential sign of resistance but also retreat from a cultural that is saturated by signs of its disappearance. 


Text by Jonathan Miles


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