August 11, 2013

Self Portraits Tweaked, Relationships with a Loved One

A self portrait is a representation of the artist, by the artist. It is a look at the individual as he sees himself. But the focus is shifted by adding a loved one into the mix. The relationship itself becomes the focus of the portrait as the individual alone takes a backseat. Just as a self portrait is a look at a person from his point of view, the self portrait with a loved one is a look at a relationship from their point of view.

Kate Teale explores the relationship between her and her husband in her series Through the Night. To do so, she suspended a camera over her and her husband's bed that was set to take a picture every half hour for one night. The resulting paintings are personal, intimate, and have a beautiful, quiet comfort to them.

The act of sleeping next to one another strips all of the complications of life away to focus purely on the unconscious, natural comfort that exists between two people who care for one another. Sleeping in bed is an experience usually reserved for only those involved. And because of this, these portraits are a rare inside look of a relationship for the viewer and a conscious look at an unconscious activity for the artist.

One of the things you may notice about these paintings is what I'm going to call selective detailing. Certain elements in each painting are excentuated, detailed, and full of color, therefore drawing the eye towards it. While other elements remain flat, have little value distribution, and give only a suggestion of what is there. But if the artist has skipped certain parts, does that mean that these paintings are unfinished?

I would say no, but to illustrate the choices made by the artist and to let my humble readers decide for themselves, below are two paintings based on the same photo. One, at the top, follows the style used in the rest of the series above. The other, on the bottom, uses detailing, color value, etc. evenly throughout the entire canvas.

If a person were to ask of these works, "What is important here?" the top painting answers with assuredness and clarity, but does the bottom painting achieve an equally strong reply? While in the top painting, the focal point is clear and concise, the eye follows a much more broad and random pattern in the bottom piece. As much detail and attention is given to the sheets and pillows as it is to the people nestled among them, so what is the viewer meant focus on? To keep her subject clear and intention concise, Teale has made the decision therefore to ignore the information that she deems unimportant. It is an intentional skipping of information, and because it is intentional, the painting above is complete and whole as it is.

Italian photographer Anna di Prospero created a photographic series in 2011 she calls Self Portraits with my Family. She provides a description of the project on her website:
This series of self-portraits with my family comes from the desire to create a research based on my intimate bonds. In every picture I let the family relationship turn into a source of inspiration. For me, the most important part of this work was obtained the involvement of my family during the shooting and thanks to this experience I discovered unknown aspects of my loved ones.

Considering the quote above, it is obvious that this series of photos was a very personal exploration for the artist. Unlike Teale, who painted an experience well known to both her and her husband, creating these photographs required closely working with a family member in a new and challenging way. I think these images are so gorgeous, the superimposed light and imagery adds interest and the intimate poses between the artist and her family member speak strongly of the bond between them.

The two artists previously mentioned intentionally explored their relationship with another loved one. Now I want to talk about a beautiful portrait of a relationship, that was completely unintentional, during a performance piece that had little to do with the artist herself.

Marina Abramovic, the self-proclaimed Grandmother of Performance Art, and Ulay (pictured above) spent 12 years in the 70s and 80s in a romantic relationship that coincided with the collaborative creation of performance art works. Eventually though, the relationship peitered out. Their last piece together, The Lovers in 1988, involved them each starting from one end of the Great Wall of China and walking towards each other, meeting in the middle to hug, and go their separate ways, affectively ending the relationship.

In Spring of 2010, MoMA hosted Abramovic's retrospective featuring some of her most profound and influential performance works throughout her career. The Artist is Present was the title and featured piece she performed for the exhibit. It's idea is simple, its execution and implications, more complex. She sat in a wooden chair and in turn a person could sit in front of her and hold her gaze for as long as he or she wished. Gazing so intently at someone is a rare and intimate experience that can be intensely emotional as well. Check out the Tumblr Blog, Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry, to get a better idea.

This performance piece is not about Marina Abramovic. It is about every person who chose to sit in front of her. She gives all her energy, all her focus and attention to each person in turn for as long as they wish to sit there. "When they're sitting in front of me, it's not about me anymore," she says, "Because very soon, I'm just a mirror of their own self."

photo sources: one, two, and three

On the first day of her performance, without her knowing beforehand, her former lover and collaborator Ulay sat across from her. Her reaction, consistently stoic throughout the rest of the three month performance, turns the focus around to both her and her former lover, as well as their intimate relationship. It is an unintentional self portrait and a beautiful moment. Watch it below:

I've lost count of how many times I've watched this video. I think my favorite part is that you can see their silent conversation as they look at one another. This conversation could not necessarily be put into words, but it is a conversation understood and reserved only for themselves. I definitely feel that this portrait, among the ones in this post, is the most emotionally charged. Which is interesting because it is the only one that does not feature any physical closeness.

To learn more about Marina Abromovic and her work, I highly recommend the 2012 documentary, Marina Abromovic: The Artist is Present, from which the above video clip is taken. (The quote and much of the information provided about Marina and her work in this post is also derived from this documentary.)

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