Notes on Portraiture in the Facebook Age

September 13, 2010 · Print This Article

“But saying no to the internet is not a simple exercise of willpower. The encroachment of the internet into our everyday lives often seems irresistible not merely because we like it “too much” but because we palpably risk social exclusion if we can’t keep up, if we lack online presence. It can make us seem vaguely suspicious, as though we have something to hide. Thus the vaunted network effects that the Web harnesses begin to come at the expense of our autonomy: We have to maintain a Facebook page. We have to shop through Amazon.com. We have to Google ourselves to check up on our reputation. We must get a smart phone. We must yearn for unlimited data plans.” — Rob Horning, “Children are our future: Resistance, Addiction and the Digital Natives.” The New Inquiry.

Rob Horning’s essay for The New Inquiry is one of the best (and scariest, of an already scary genre) I’ve read lately on social media identity. Although I’m not part of the generation of “digital natives” that Horning is writing about, I recognize that acute sense of pressure that Horning describes, one that says if we’re not participating in social media, we’re invisible, and thus irrelevant. I think for writers that may be doubly true, since so much of social media involves the written word, albeit brief snippets and truncated chunks of it.

Social media is above all a performative act, and it can be fun to think of oneself (or those aspects of ourselves we want to project publicly) in terms of characters that we construct and subsequently play-act. That character is you, but of course it’s not exactly you. It’s the You that you want to project to others. For example, the written voice, the “I”  that I project on this blog, or as a (god help me) Twitter user, or on my Tumblr (which I am kind of obsessed with and into which I have been pouring way too much energy lately) is a version of me that I project for you. It’s a version of me that I feel fairly comfortable with, but of course it isn’t really me. It’s a tougher and bitchier and snarkier and generally more self-confident version of me.

Sometimes I think my husband has a crush on Internet Me. Poor guy. He has to come home to harried, neurotic, still in her pajamas and bitchy-in-a-not-funny-or-even particularly smart-way Me.

Such are the sweet lies that social media tells.

When we do try to swim in the stream of social media–when we carefully choose our portrait pictures and avatars and monikers and privacy settings, when we decide who we want to follow and who we will allow to follow us–we’re constructing a falsely unified picture of ourselves. In this, social media simply re-iterates the fragmented identities and fictions of a cohesive Self that all those post-structuralists were rambling on about decades ago. As Horning observes: “We think we are presenting a coherent picture of who we are online, only to recognize suddenly that we are not so sure of that identity ourselves.”

I’ve been thinking about how online portraiture is particularly reflective of this phenomenon. As I was reading Horning’s words, for example, an image suddenly popped into my mind: that of a close friend, her face blurred almost beyond recognition, her upper body momentarily frozen in a pose that suggested she was either dancing, looking at herself in a mirror, or in the midst of a brief, catlike stretch. The image started out as a photograph, but it became a portrait, made by an artist named Ryan Haugsjaa.

My friend was startled to learn that a stranger had, unbeknownst to her, chosen her photo randomly out of the hundreds of thousands of Facebook users out there and painted a portrait based on it. She told me she thought it was cool, but also sort of creepy.  When she went ahead and posted the portrait on her own Facebook page, I was fascinated by it, largely because I thought Haugsjaa had somehow chosen just the right photograph to represent her — an image that, to me anyway, contained the essence or punctum, as Barthes put it, of my beautiful, free-spirited friend. But of course, Haugsjaa had no way of knowing that.  Do strangers see what I see when looking at Haugsjaa’s portrait of her? Probably not. On Haugsjaa’s Facebook page, my friend is just one in a series of named yet ultimately anonymous subjects, an illustration of a concept that Haugsjaa has been exploring for about a year now: “the proliferation of images on the internet, internet privacy and how it will affect our lives in the future,” as Haugsjaa explains in his artist’s statement.

Ryan Haugsjaa. Danielle M. Acrylic on inkjet print. 10" X 8.

Ryan Haugsjaa. Emily. Acrylic on inkjet print. 10" X 8"

Haugsjaa isn’t the only artist to have drawn from Facebook’s enormous pool of images as subject matter for art. Paul Campbell and Matt Held of “I’ll have my Facebook portrait painted by Matt Held” fame have also made portrait paintings based on Facebook profile pictures.

Matt Held. Miriam, 2010. 24" x 30." Oil on Canvas.

Paul Campbell. "Danielle," 2008. 48 x 72" / 121.9 x 182.9 cm.

But whereas both Held’s and Campbell’s Facebook paintings tend to radiate an air of sunny whimsicality, Haugsjaa’s are more off-putting; they are purposefully strange and estranging, too. I find Haugsjaa’s portraits to be especially compelling when viewed in thumbnail size and stacked in one long  grid, as they are on the artist’s album page.

The fact that Haugsjaa’s  use of these images is unauthorized (and in a few rare cases, unwanted) adds a sense of illicit voyeurism to the process of looking at them. Arguably, there’s something slightly aggressive both in the way the artist searches for and selects his subjects, as well as in the way he alters their carefully constructed photographic personas into images that shimmer somewhere between the monstrous and the familiar.

This is amplified by the fact that Haugsjaa’s paintings aren’t paintings in the traditional sense of the term–they’re more a kind of mash-up of digital photography and painting. As Haugsjaa explained to me in an email, he’s actually “painting into” the existing photographic images, rather than representing that image via painted renderings of his subjects. He prints the Facebook image using a standard inkjet printer and photo paper and, while the printout ink is still wet, he “modifies” it using acrylic and oil paint, which mixes with the ink in a single layer. The resulting images appear to be dripping off the carefully designated, postage-stamp confines of the square, as if the subject’s carefully constructed identity were literally melting–or slipping away from–our gaze.

Artist Dominic Paul Moore, who lives in Chicago and co-directs ebersmoore, has also made a series of graphite drawings based on social media portraits. His “my(death)space” series is based on the My Spaces pages of young people who have died, which Moore found through the website MyDeathSpace.com (and which is a kind of a conceptual art project in and of itself. Spend some time clicking around in there and tell me it doesn’t start to freak your shit out after awhile).

Dominic Paul Moore. Wild Will, 2008. Gouache and graphite on yupo.

Dominic Paul Moore. RIP Michael, 2008. Graphite on yupo.

Dominic Paul Moore. Mandii, 2008. Graphite on yupo.

Moore’s carefully rendered graphite drawings are like tombstone rubbings of virtual grave sites — both the web page and Moore’s drawing of it are a type of repository for an identity that will henceforth cease to be updated. Doesn’t it seem like a million years ago when only movie stars got to have their “selves” live on forever through celluloid? Nowadays, we all can, through the magic of our preferred social media network. In fact, we can’t get rid of our pesky Internet doppelgängers even if we want to. Even after we’re dead.

To whatever extent our online selves reflect our offline selves, Haugsjaa and Moore’s portraits make it harrowingly clear that our online profiles and virtual personas have, in a very real sense, escaped us. They/We are up for grabs, ready to be data-mined, added, followed, memed, and retweeted. The opportunity to have one’s portrait painted was once available only to a select few: typically, the very rich or the very poor. Social recognition used to be a privilege. So why does it now seem more like a punishment?

Triple Candie Lecture at Gallery 400 Tonight!

September 13, 2010 · Print This Article

In my book, this is a must-see. NY avant-gallerists Triple Candie lecture at Gallery 400 tonight! Here are the details:

Triple Candie ” For Teaching Porpoises Only: A Lecture Demonstration”
September 13, 5-7:30 pm
Gallery 400 Lecture Room

Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett co-founded and have served as co-directors of Triple Candie, a not-for-profit contemporary art venue in Harlem, since 2001. Triple Candie is a place-based, research-oriented gallery that produces exhibitions about art but largely devoid of it. A typical exhibition consists of reproductions, surrogates, models, stage-sets, or common objects that are displayed using a combination of rhetorical devices. Given their ephemeral nature, frequent use of historical subjects, and lack of any obvious artist-agent, Triple Candie’s exhibitions have often been referred to as “curatorial performances.” Bancroft and Nesbett live in New York City. Triple Candie was highlighted as one of twenty-five worldwide trendsetters in the September 2007 issue of ARTnews. They were co-publishers of the award-winning Art on Paper magazine until 2004. Bancroft holds a master’s degree in contemporary art history from the University of Washington, Seattle and a bachelor’s degree in painting from Michigan State University. Nesbett holds a post-master’s certificate from the Institute for Not-for- Profit Management at Columbia University, a master’s degree in art history from University of Washington, Seattle, and a bachelor’s degree in visual studies from Cornell University.

Praise for Mayor Daley’s Support of the Art Institute

September 13, 2010 · Print This Article

Awwwww! The soon-to-be former Mayor Richard Daley is turning into a big ol’ cuddly teddy bear right before my eyes! Last week, I wondered aloud whether Mayor Daley’s support of the city’s museums and other fine art institutions was viewed as positively as his contributions to the theater community. I was subsequently referred to this blog post written by Gloria Groom, The David and Mary Winton Green Curator in the Department of Medieval to Modern European Painting and Sculpture. Groom has nothing but praise for the Mayor, noting that “Daley has always been a big supporter of the Art Institute—coming to see exhibitions in the early hours before the public, attending openings, and always enthusing about the many projects we have underway. So selfishly, my reaction [to the news that he will not run for another term] is . . . Darn!”

She goes on to describe the Mayor’s delighted reaction to her “elevator pitch” to him of her upcoming exhibition exploring the relationship between avant-garde painting and the fashion industry during the Impressionist period. Read Ms. Groom’s commentary in full here. The exhibition she is planning sounds truly amazing, btw.

FYI: In case you missed it, The Atlantic’s website posted a long article last week assessing Daley’s legacy – read James Warren’s “The Daley Years” here.

Was Daley Good for the (Other) Visual Arts?

September 9, 2010 · Print This Article

This is a genuine question I have for y’all, since I’ve only lived in Chicago for a couple of years. I know Mayor Richard Daley and the Daley way of doing things was behind this, and I sure as heck didn’t like it. But I’m not an arts administrator with a long history in this city, so I’m really curious about what people in the visual arts think this mayor’s legacy in areas other than theater will be. My questions come in response to last Tuesday’s Tribune article praising Daley’s unflagging support of theater arts in Chicago, written by Trib theater critic Chris Jones (whose intelligent and sensitive writing I really admire, even though I’m not a theater person myself). I couldn’t help but notice, however, that the article used “the arts” as an umbrella term, yet didn’t include any mention of Daley’s legacy with respect to visual arts (and here I’m thinking specifically about museum institutions and the civic cultural life they sponsor), nor did it include any quotes or other assessment of Daley’s job performance by top cultural professionals at places like the Art Institute or the MCA.

An excerpt from the article:

Just as the September playbills paying full-color tribute to Mayor Richard M. and Maggie Daley hit Chicago’s theater aisles and other major arts venues, the city’s cultural leaders reacted with surprise and horror at the impending loss of a rare political leader who dares to speak frequently and passionately about the crucial importance of the arts to the soul of a city.

They are losing their most powerful advocate. And they know it.

“I’m stunned by this news,” said Steppenwolf Theatre Company artistic director Martha Lavey, struggling to keep hold of her emotions Tuesday afternoon.

“I’ve lived in Chicago all my life,” said Goodman Theatre executive director Roche Schulfer, waxing lyrical on Daley’s support for the arts. “I remember how things used to be.”

Daley’s cultural pronouncements are rarely adorned with Shakespearean eloquence. But it’s hard to think of another American government official who has stepped out so far, and so often, in support of the arts as the lynchpin of a vibrant, modern city. “Daley has made Chicago one of the best-known cities for culture in the country,” said Robert Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation.

This is what I said about Jones’ piece on Tumblr this morning:

“NO interviews with museum directors in this piece, please note. Granted, Chris Jones is the Trib’s theater critic, but still. If you’re going to talk about “the arts” in Chicago, please talk about all of them. This article defines “the arts” here almost exclusively in terms of theater (and sure, Chicago is known as a world-class city in that regard). And secondly, as a place friendly to Hollywood film crews (which pays off economically, duh—not sure exactly how this makes Daly such a great advocate for “the arts”). But was Daly good on visual art? Having only lived here for a couple of years, I can’t answer that – but I suspect he scores way lower when judged according to different standards. So, why not approach heads of institutions like The Art Institute or the MCA, etc. to get their take on Daly’s arts legacy? I’m curious, do people think that Daly was as good for visual arts as he was for other areas?”

(Apologies for the grossness of quoting myself here).  I’d really like to hear what readers think Daley’s legacy will be when it comes to the non-theater visual arts in this city. Someone else on Tumblr already emphasized to me that Daley truly has been great for theater in Chicago, and I certainly don’t dispute that fact. But how does he score in other areas of “the arts?” If you have an opinion and want to share it, click on over to my Tumblr post and comment – I’m interested in what other people have to say about Daley’s legacy when it comes to “the other visual arts” in Chicago.

Indianapolis Museum of Art to Present Allora and Calzadilla in U.S. Pavillion at Venice

September 8, 2010 · Print This Article

The Indianapolis Museum of Art announced today that it will represent the United States at next summer’s Venice Biennale, June 4 through November 27, 2011. They will present the work of Puerto Rico-based artist collaborative Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. According to the New York Times, this is “the first time a collaborative, rather than a single artist, will represent the United States and the first time that a combination of performance and installation will occupy the pavilion.”

Allora and Calzadilla, you’ll remember, had a solo exhibition in 2007 at The Renaissance Society (you can view a video of the artist talk they gave at The Ren here, and Hamza Walker’s essay on the duo here). They’re also featured in art:21’s documentary Paradox, available for viewing here, and Eyeteeth blogger Paul Schmelzer conducted a great interview with these artists during their residency at The Walker Art Center).

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, from Landmark (footprints) (2001).

(Via Eyeteeth).