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 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 (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?

What If Net Companies Said What They Were Really Thinking?

June 29, 2010 · Print This Article

Countless people, tons of money, hours of training and years of therapy go into keeping organizations from being perceived of doing the very things they are, in fact, doing. Things everyone knows they are doing but as most people learned as kids there is a big difference between knowing something to be true and proving something to be true.

What if though, companies owned up to what they were doing and PR wasn’t pushed to spin? What if Letterman said he doesn’t care what you think of his sex life, either tune in and laugh or go to the other chin. If Facebook & Google reminded everyone that they are a company that makes it’s only source of revenue off of pimping your private information, its free remember? If Steve Jobs just finished the sentence he has been trying to say to consumers for years which is “I make the products I want and you will either like the simple walled garden I cultivate or go screw off, I owe you nothing. If I listened to you Apple would be smaller then Palm”.

Alas those days will never come since there are countless skilled and paid professionals who work very hard at refracting the actions of their organization in such a way that it is almost impossible for the average person to feel confident that anything specific is, in fact, happening. It’s a necessary evil that has a role until there are people that realize they shouldn’t just say whatever they might think in front of a Rolling Stone reporter, or that people really do start quiting jobs to spend more time with their family.

Till that day comes though, enjoy these films lol.

Scott Projects First International Show, Opens Saturday

August 6, 2009 · Print This Article

“Thumbing granite rocks into the womb of a marshmallow mermaid, sopping granite compound orgiastic waterfalls on the cotton fields of heaven.”

That is how the press release opens. Woah. This Saturday, August 8th, Scott Projects is welcoming London based artists Sopping Granite (Ben Vickers and Sarah Hartnett) for the show The First Letter of Every Word is You. Apparently, they exchange ideas via telepathy. Definitely check out their website, which seems to serve as part portfolio, part research notebook, and part collage.

Here is the link to the Facebook event page. Hope to see you there!

Free Jerry!

July 8, 2009 · Print This Article

For crying out loud, can everyone just give poor Jerry Saltz a break and leave the guy alone? How exactly did he become the Christ figure of the art press, the one we look to to Save Us, the guy that’s gonna solve everyone’s problems, including those of the venerable Museum of Modern Art? From Saltz’s perspective, I’d imagine it’s all want, want, want, whine, whine, whine, all the time. “Why doesn’t Jerry have a blog?” “Why isn’t Jerry preaching to the wretched masses outside of his own Church of Facebook? “Why isn’t Jerry friending me faster?” (for that one, see comments beneath the post).

Jesus Christ (no pun intended), what if instead of ragging on Jerry, everyone focused on growing the communities they’ve got on their own blogs, Facebook pages, Twitters etc., and proceed with their own agendas from there?

In other words: ask not what Jerry can do for the art world – ask what *you* can do for *your* art world.

FREE ME!   (photo by Tyler Coburn)

FREE ME! (photo by Tyler Coburn)

Cruising for Chicks at the Modern Wing

June 8, 2009 · Print This Article

6039_762426How much does gender equality matter when it comes to museum permanent collections? How much is ‘good enough’?

I’ve been mulling these and other questions over the past week while following the discussion that’s been taking place on Jerry Saltz’s Facebook page and on a few art blogs that posted in response.

On Facebook, Saltz charged The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with practicing a form of “gender-based apartheid,” based on the paucity of work by women artists hanging on the walls of the 4th and 5th floors of the Museum (the pre-1970 galleries). Here’s what he wrote:

Of the 383 works currently installed on the 4th and 5th floors of the permanent collection, only 19 are by women; that’s 4%. There are 135 different artists installed on these floors; only nine of them are women; that’s 6%. MoMA is telling a story of modernism that only it believes. MoMA has declared itself a hostile witness. Why?

The subsequent discussions that take place in the comments are really interesting and if you aren’t already aware of this whole brouhaha and want to be, I recommend you skim through it all and join in.

I have to admit I have mixed responses to the issue, as a post-post feminist or whatever the hell it is that I am. I think what I am, actually, is the lazy type of feminist who never thinks to count how many works by women artists are hanging on the walls of the museum shows I attend, including during my first visit to the Art Institute’s Modern Wing. So last week I went back again to take another look, and to get better sense of how the Modern Wing stacks up when it comes to issues of gender representation. (Note that due to lack of time I didn’t take account of the work in the Architecture and Design galleries).

On the third floor containing the European and Modern Art galleries, I counted just four works by the following female artists: Maria Elena Vieira da Silva, Suzanne Duchamp, Nathalija Gontcharova and Leonora Carrington. On the 2nd floor gallery featuring Contemporary Art from 1945-1960 there was Joan Mitchell‘s gorgeous City Landscape from 1955.

(So-called Modern works by women in the Modern Wing are kind of tricky to account for, because the period is divided multiple ways, between works exhibited in the Modern Wing and those installed in the American galleries in the main building, where, for example, a number of works by Georgia O’Keeffe are installed).

Unless I missed it, no female artist has been given monographic (i.e. dedicated gallery or grouping) treatment in the Modern Wing in the way that Robert Ryman, Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, Kerry James Marshall, Mel Bochner, Constantin Brancusi and several others have. The closest was Eva Hesse sharing a gallery with Richard Serra in the Contemporary galleries (There are two sculptures and a drawing by Hesse here).

Women fare better on the post-1960, Contemporary side of things, as would be expected. Works by Mary Heilman, Ellen Gallagher, Sherrie Levine, Marlene Dumas, Cindy Sherman, Sue Williams, Cady Noland and Barbara Kruger hang in proximity to one another. In a gallery of contemporary paintings, there’s one work each by Margherita Manzelli and Lisa Yuskavage. Elsewhere in the Contemporary galleries, there’s a Vija Celmins near Sylvia Plimack Mangold‘s In Memory of My Father, an Agnes Martin and a Hanne Darboven (I actually missed the Darboven myself, but Lisa Dorrin mentioned it in the podcast and its listed as being on view on the AIC’s collections page).

The first floor photography gallery has another largish cluster of female artists, including works by Jeanne Dunning, Barbara Kruger, Liz Deschenes (2 works, including one that’s part of Gaylen Gerber’s piece), Rineke Dijkstra, Zoe Leonard, Diane Arbus, and Patty Carroll (also part of Gerber’s piece).

That’s my tally of female artists currently on view the Modern Wing. (Though I tried to be meticulous, I might have missed one or two works–please let me know if I did). So, you know, overall not great, but not completely dismal either. Their representation of women artists in the pre-1960 Modern & European gallery needs beefing up, but the great thing about permanent collection hangings is that they can always be altered and revised, along with the stories they tell.

But the question that’s really on my mind is this one: how much is “good enough?” Do male/female ratios always need to be close to 50/50 to get it right, or can the impact of female artists be measured in other ways, for example in the space and overall presence a female artist’s work is given in a gallery installation (a la the juxtaposition of Hesse and Serra)?

I’m curious about what readers here think about “the female issue” when it comes to permanent collections, in Chicago particularly. I’m especially interested in what female art students (if there are any reading this) may have to say – are you thinking about male/female ratios when you cruise the Modern Wing? Does it bother you that so few women appear in the pre-1960s galleries, or do you derive satisfaction from their collection in other ways?

Feel free to discuss your experiences at the MCA as well.

**Above image credit: Suzanne Duchamp, Broken and Restored Multiplication, 1918-19. Art Institute of Chicago.