It's All About Me

When artists portray themselves, strange things can happen

Artists look inward in a show called "Me, Myself & I," now on display at University Galleries, located on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. At the behest of New York curators Renee Riccardo and Paul Laster, 31 contemporary artists were invited to submit self-portraits, to share with spectators the souvenirs of their internal voyages, warts and all. That the self can be slippery, abject, and otherwise flawed has always been fodder for great literature. When artists gaze in the mirror, they invite us to follow and vicariously wallow in our own inner cores.

Should we lack the fortitude, at least we can derive pleasure from observing the habits and characteristics of artists. It is this titillation, this desire to consume the celebrity of the artist in our culture, that at times steals the show in "Me, Myself & I." It's Psychology Today or People magazine in the doctor's office.

One self-portraiture strategy involves the careful assembly of a personage, the outer layers arranged and illuminated to flatter and dignify the station of the subject. Many artists prefer a riskier approach, and willingly squirm under the glare of their own self-scrutiny. "Me, Myself & I" rambles gamely over the sprawling terrain of contemporary art production, and initially it can appear to be a bit random. Many modes and media are represented.

In this era of gratuitous cosmetic surgery, the mutability of the visible self has become prosaic, and more than a few artists substitute superficial profiling for portraiture of great depth. Tomoko Sawada, the "girl of a thousand faces," transforms her hairstyles, makeup, and facial expressions with great dexterity and then lines up the mug shots in ID400 #201-300, a hundred photo-booth-size gelatin silver prints. Nikki S. Lee dissolves the trappings of her own persona entirely and dons the disguises of others. In The Seniors Project (12), a large Fujiflex print, she assumes the outward identity of an elderly person on the street.

Detached investigations of the physique are performed by some artists in the manner of scientists conducting experiments in a laboratory. For example, Richard Dupont's Self Appointed is a life-size figure made of epoxy, polyurethane, and handmade clothing, a three-dimensional optical illusion presenting an ultra-thin man from the front and rear views who appears full-bodied from the sides -- equal parts science fair and wax museum. Miami artist Mette Tommerup's O (Gray), a metallic lambda print mounted on a Plexiglas disc, appears to dissolve the fleshy material of the physical self in a digital soup.

Scale models and mannequins abound, and these provide a showcase for the obsessive-compulsive craftsmanship of some artists. Meg Cranston's Magical Death (Piñata with every color paper) is a hooded, life-size effigy dangling from the ceiling. Dave McKenzie, in While Supplies Last, presents himself as a bobble-headed figurine -- ready to be plucked from the toy-store shelf.

Other self-portraits flit restlessly away from their supposed subject and instead refer to archetypes. In Last Supper, a C-print mounted on Plexiglas, Anthony Goicolea digitally replicates himself into the compositional arrangement of Leonardo's Last Supper, but in his version he gobbles loaves of white bread on a rock. Mickalene Thomas's Negress #2, an easel-size C-print, assumes the sexually confident stance of hip-hop/R&B stars, while subtler cues in her formally inventive photo refer to vanguard Modernism's obsession with African-inspired forms, from the geometric-patterned hoochie suit she wears to the contrasting versions of lips appearing in the photo.

The works I found most successful were those that examined the self adapting to social structures and situations. Video seemed to be the medium best suited to this purpose. Sofia Hultén's Grey Areawas pure genius. Silent vignettes of the artist physically hiding herself in an office -- behind a plant, under the rug, in a pile of crumpled paper -- were inspired deadpan. Stripped of irrelevant musings and excessive navel-gazing, Hultén offers plain, practical advice on how to complete the process of obliterating your identity, instigated by the tedium of an institutional or corporate setting.

Diana Shpungin and Nicole Engelmann's video installation, Session, is another understated work that effectively uses the medium of time (something many video artists forget to do). The two artists, bored chicks in tight sweaters, stare blankly at the viewer from the therapist's couch. The psychotherapist's feet are visible in their position stage right of the two patients, but her therapy-speak monologue, querulous and droning, rambles interminably. The two artists fidget, squirm, shift positions, and their movements are speeded up, repeated, reversed, and looped to exaggerate their sensation -- and ours -- of being trapped. Their sullen postures express the difficulty of achieving true knowledge of the self and indicate the walls we throw up when attempting to relate to one another.

Carol Irving's Bearing Truth is a nimble bit of multimedia work, a flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall, surrounded by lie detector "drawings." Irving calmly suffers interrogations on the order of "Do you believe in magic in a young girl's heart?" and she strips bare, one layer at a time, as the supposed "truth" is revealed. In comparison, Miamian Natalia Benedetti's video, Let's Go Get Lost, is merely atmospheric.

Many of the artists in "Me, Myself & I" intentionally affect postures of discomfort, ennui, embarrassment, inscrutability, victimization, and mild neuroses. These afflictions are sometimes narcissistic ploys by artists to call attention to their uniqueness when the work fails to persuade on its aesthetic merits. The work in this show is so varied it's difficult, and not really necessary, to arrive at a consensus among these artists. However, one overall conclusion to be gleaned from these works is the ultimate instability of identity.

For those of you not allowed to leave Miami-Dade County, the folks at FAU will haul "Me, Myself & I: Video Remix" down here to the Living Room in the Design District, where excerpts from video works in the show and additional works by participating artists will be on view beginning Art Basel weekend. The artists in "Me, Myself & I: Video Remix" are Derrick Adams, Natalia Benedetti, Slater Bradley, Megan Cump, Anthony Goicolea, Sofia Hultén, Carol Irving, Shin-il Kim, Dave McKenzie, Aida Ruilova, Diana Shpungin, Nicole Engelmann, and Guy Richards Smit.

“Me, Myself & I” Works of self-portraiture by 31 artists. Through January 29, 2005. University Galleries, Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, Florida Atlantic University, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton; 561-297-2966 or www.fau.edu/galleries.

“Me, Myself & I: Video Remix” December 2 through January 8. The Living Room, 4000 N. Miami Ave., Miami. Thursday through Saturday, noon to 5:00 p.m.

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