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Portrait: Artists deal with self, identity, culture at Free Radical 2014

Artists continue to explore self-awareness and self-presentation through portraiture work of various forms. Multiple artists at the 2014 Free Radical event are worth exploring.
Part of "Cinnamon Taoist Crunch" by Lucas Schurkamp

Part of "Cinnamon Taoist Crunch" by Lucas Schurkamp /Courtesy of Avenue for the Arts

"Expectations by Sara Weimer

"Expectations by Sara Weimer /Courtesy of Avenue for the Arts

Ariana Ortega’s "Appreciation/Appropriation"

Ariana Ortega’s "Appreciation/Appropriation" /Courtesy of Avenue for the Arts

Throughout art history we have seen the common theme of the self-portrait. Whether Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Avadon, Picasso, Warhol or Ai Weiwei, these images have become an important vehicle for artists to explore. These works allow artists to take a long look inside themselves at core issues as well as understand contemporary culture. Because artists act as a pathway for us as viewers to continue to explore ourselves empathetically, this thematic investigation of self plays an important role in how we understand the world around us.

During Free Radical I took notice of a number of works dealing with self and identity. I believe that often the self-portrait of today may not be as cut and dried as its traditional counterparts. Nevertheless we continue to explore the same common lines of inquiry throughout generations. I have decided to break down this work into two categories: self-awareness and self-presentation.

Self-awareness for me is based on internal observation, in order to understand oneself in the context of his/her own history or natural make-up. This can be seen in the works by both Sara Weimer and Amanda Carmer.

Weimer’s piece "Expectations" at the "Mirror Reflections" exhibit is a work made of life masks taken from her grandmother, mother and self. It speaks to the internal observations of self made by genealogical influence. The act of taking life masks is a tradition echoing back across the ages at least as far as the Egyptians. Normally a ritual reserved for persons of great importance, such as kings or nobleman, these masks were meant to stand in after the life of the individual had been extinguished. In Weimer’s work she also performs a ritual. Taking casts of her mother's and grandmother's faces as well as her own, she allows for prolonged intentional exposure to the subject. These casts are made of paper fiber, a fragile material that speaks to the relationship that can exist within a family especially when expectations are involved. Tied together by twine the lifeline still exists and a support mechanism is apparent. This work to me is about trying to figure out oneself in the context genealogy. Taking a long look inside and at loved ones to explore the physical and psychological influences that create biological make up, and how that plays part in who we are.

The role of family is in the forefront of Carmer’s work as well, in the show "Plural" at the 106 Gallery. The story about family is one of personal narrative that plays a critical role in shaping identity. Narrative has also played an important role in photography from still frames to motion, such as the sequential works by Duane Michals. His pieces tell a story, through multiple frames taken from a single vantage point. In Carmer’s work the vantage point changes but the story stays the same. We empathetically follow as the viewer through an undefined narrative involving family, illness and struggle. We are forced to look deeply and investigate, with unanswered questions in the way one would when dealing with hardship in life: having to move forward, into the unknown, without answers, but with considerable amounts of question. As we view the faces and places the work turns and folds back on our understanding of self. What is it about our family history, personal story and genetics that make us who we are? How do we deal with issues in life? How do we act in the face of difficulty and hardship, and what do we do when others are faced with similar dilemmas? What does this say about us, and how does it shape who we are?

If this self-awareness could be categorized into the nature end, the later, self-presentation would be the nurture.

Self-presentation may be defined in terms of those aspects of a person's behavior or appearance that are designed to influence other peoples perception of them. This self-presentation could be anything from the clothes you wear, to the objects in your home or the products that you consume.

In Ariana Ortega’s piece "Appreciation/Appropriation," also at "Mirror Reflections," she speaks to presentation. Western history has been influenced by and had a long history of colonization. Artists have been influenced by and respond to this since the 19th century. Gauguin being a colonialist himself paved the way for what Ontega rebels against today. Gauguin traveled from his home in France to Tahiti. In doing so, intentionally or not he lead to exploitation of another culture for his own personal gain, spread disease and belittled a culture by ignorantly referring to it as primitive. Mass media of today does the same by popularizing fashion trends, removing context and trampling across history. This can be viewed in a positive light of a move towards equality through the concept of the melting pot. It can also be seen as perpetuating a long-standing colonial idea of manifest destiny. Ortega’s work is about appropriating culture via an assembly line/vending machine of multicultural costumes ready to be picked and tossed aside as soon as the next trend comes along. Her work here demonstrates a relevant perspective of cultural pride, respecting others and desire of unique individuality.

On the wall next to Ortega’s piece is Cindi Ford’s work "Artifacts Overlooked." In this piece she examines who she is, and who we are, based on the objects in our surroundings. What is it that these weird things say about us? Why is it that we choose certain objects? Ford's waxed etchings installed to tower over the viewer speaks to the monumental role that these items end up playing in our lives. Her objects are personal to her but the viewer can still make a quick association to his or her own items of choice, be it a piece of spoon or a miniature rooster. These could be objects of function or cultural kitschy knick-knacks that we place around our home. Either way they take part in how we see and react to the world. They are tools, and are a main catalyst for how we interact with life and extensions of individuality. Here Ford’s installation- while on one hand seems as a self portrait through objects- also plays its role as the classic still life. Begging the question of: do we paint still lives as extensions of our personality as well? This continues cycling back, and reflecting on history getting at the human experience and the large questions of philosophy: who are we, why are we here and what is the meaning of all of this?

The final piece that I would like to talk about is by Lucas Schurkamp from the show at Craft House. Schurkamp here plays in the world of the Dadaists and Surrealists. The exhibition of work "Cinnamon Taoist Crunch" shows a collection of work created to play with the psychological conscious and unconscious. Cut up pieces of advertisement and trash reassembled to navigate the viewer through a world that could possibly be as disturbing unconsciously as some of the work is consciously. Schurkamp also deals directly with himself in many works. For example one that says “My favorite is being the fuck quiet.” But also other sketches and doodles that could be referential more abstractly. The piece that I was most drawn to I must admit I don’t know the name of, so I must just call it like I see it. It’s a mask made of cinnamon toast crunch. We are what we eat, we are what we consume – literally and figuratively. At times this can become a scary thing. Lifeless, and expressionless. To me that is what this piece is about. Behind the masks that we form based on what we take in from all of our senses, to digest in our brains and hearts is the truth of ourselves. We create a crunchy, sometimes sugary, shell over our outer coating. Like an exoskeleton made of actions and appearances. This is who we then wear out into the world and present ourselves as. A nice sugar coated…masked creature that has only the form of a human.

A fairly pessimistic view I agree, but we must learn to take off the crunchy exterior. We must go past surface level conversation to a deeper place to understand ourselves together in the context of culture and history. We must engage one another. We are human. We are communal creatures. These are all parts of our identity, sometimes ugly, but also beautiful, unique, individual, with personal lineage, thought, emotion and understanding. I hope that we can continue to talk to each other, learn about each other, grow together and understand each other better together through individuality and self.

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