PAFA presents "Narcissus in the Studio."

Self-portraiture in an age of social navel-gazing

art_narcissus111010_400
Artist Mia Rosenthal with son Kirby at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, next to her "Postpartum Portrait," an inventory of her closet. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

When artist Mia Rosenthal was asked to do a self-portrait, her son Kirby was 5 months old, and a look in her closet revealed pretty much everything about her life at that moment.

Given the demands on her time, Rosenthal might have been forgiven for simply throwing a status update on Facebook about it - something along the lines of "I cannot believe my closet is filled with big ugly bras and baggy sweatpants" - and leaving it at that.

After all, that's what the rest of the world does, and is doing, at nearly every moment of the day.

Instead, being an artist more inclined toward a lasting and material statement, she turned it into Postpartum Portrait, an ink-and-graphite-on-paper catalog of the contents of her post-pregnancy closet, one of more than 100 works in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' intriguing new exhibit "Narcissus in the Studio: Artist Portraits and Self-Portraits."

"It doesn't have a figure in it, but I still consider it a portrait," Rosenthal, 32, said. "Looking at my closet was such a troubling thing - because your identity is really tied in to your clothes, how you present yourself to the world. All you have are T-shirts and sweatpants and big, plain underwear - maybe you don't feel so fantastic about yourself.

"In my life, I wouldn't ever say to someone, 'Oh my God, this underwear.' "

But in a culture where so many would ("U know it is time to have ur baby when u cannot fit into ur maternity clothes. #iamready," read one recent tweet), can a museum exhibition of self-portraiture reveal something more profound about self-expression and identity, against the din of the more pedestrian narcissistic culture created by modern technology?

"You want to come up with this avatar that represents you," said Philadelphia artist Rob Matthews, whose The Assumption at Ridglea combines Christian symbolism (mousetrap) and form (the polyptych) with drawings of himself, his wife, and a suburban tract neighborhood (above which a tiny shrouded figure is rising to heaven).

"Whether they're artists or not, people tend to get conceptual with their profile pictures," he said. "It's pretty established, the idea of an icon representing a person. It's this current generation's way of thinking about it. I don't think people ever get tired of looking at the way other people interpret themselves."

Anyone who has spent any time on Facebook could place some of the works in the show in familiar categories: the Oversharers (Brett Favre, meet the circle of Thomas Eakins, c. 1883); the self-deprecatingly honest (Susan Macdowell Eakins' touching self-portrait, done in her 60s, does not smooth over a wrinkle, and Sarah McEneaney's "Recent History" shows her after breast-cancer surgery); the How Our Family Spent Our Day (Florine Stettheimer, Picnic at Bedford Hills, 1918); the Look at My Kids (The Artist and His Family, James Peale, 1795).

Then there are the self-consciously odd, like Hans Weingaertner, who in 1932 painted himself looking down at a mirror on the floor; the We Leave Nothing Out (Bertha Leonard's portrait of herself in a cluttered kitchen, in Polishing the Menorah, 1996); the Witty Loner (Jane Lund's oddly cheerful Party for Myself, 1973); the Over-Exuberant (Big Birthday Gladys by Gladys Nilsson, 2010, in which figures carrying dynamitelike candles crawl all over the octopus-ish subject); and that Facebook perennial, the non-sequitur minutiae that might be obscurely symbolic (Joan Brown's 1970 Portrait With Fish and Cat).

Curator Robert Cozzolino said that as the exhibition took shape from an initial idea several years ago, Facebook's ubiquity added fresh relevance to a show he first feared might be anachronistic.

"We've gotten used to this idea that we play around with who we are and how we represent each other, and it's very commonplace," he said. "It became much more relevant."

With a sweep that stretches from dark-hued 18th- and 19th-century formal self-portraits to, say, the etching of Philadelphia artist Daniel Heyman, possibly naked and definitely asleep in a hammock in Cape Cod, "Narcissus in the Studio" both challenges and is challenged by this mass self-centeredness.

Can the straight-ahead gaze captured by a 19th-century painter be captivating in a time when the most common gaze of a self-portrait is the slightly distorted perspective that comes from snapping your own picture with an outstretched arm and phone, or the repeated takes of a head-tilted teen staring into a laptop webcam?

Can a wall of faces mounted "salon style" make a more profound statement about diversity of self-expression than that bastion of collective self-absorption, the column of profile pictures of your 600-odd Facebook friends?

"All of those self-portraits, they're all evidence of the editing process," Cozzolino said. "In some conscious way, people are portraying themselves to others. What we're doing on Facebook is not all that different from what people have been doing for years."

Cozzolino said he received "a ridiculous amount" of submissions when the academy dedicated a corner of the exhibition space to a mirrored studio with a rotating schedule of students working on self-portraiture between 1 and 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. "Within 24 hours all the spaces were filled," he said. "There must be an affinity to this theme."

Last week, first-year student Danielle Payne sat editing a video loop of herself naked (filmed earlier) as people stuck their heads in.

"I'm on this side," she said, "sharing this intimate side that I'm not entirely comfortable with. On the other side, people are overexposed but they like it. I'm emotionally coping with it. Personally, I'm a little bit afraid of the overexposure of people's lives through technology. But that's the world I live in."

Heyman, creator of the hammock portrait, is now working on a portrait of himself in a Vietnamese noodle shop on Washington Avenue, striving for the lasting image of a moment in time, a more deliberately complex revelation of self. In other words, art.

For him, the echoes of the Facebook/Foursquare culture of letting everyone know where you are ("Philly has great Pho!") are fading. "It's not even something you can throw out," he said of the fleetingly digital revelations. "It's immaterial. Literally. I don't think that's its equal."

His image of himself sleeping in a hammock, while whimsical - an artist creating an image of not creating, and obviously not done by looking in a mirror - was meant in part as a commentary on artists shirking obligations. The etching took months to make.

"I did not make an image that firmed me up as an observer, awake," he said. "Artists have an obligation to observe, which is not a very relaxing thing to do. To portray myself as an artist asleep is self-critical."

And who could argue with sleep's being as revelatory a portrait as any? "We do spend a lot of time sleeping," he said. "There are not many self-portraits of people sleeping. People are so involved in looking in the mirror, which I didn't want to do."

Philadelphia artist Emily Brown's self-portrait is a shadow cast across the Schuylkill - an identity that takes shape only in the context of the natural world.

Unlike the original Narcissus, smitten with his reflection in the water, Brown more modestly chose to obscure her physical likeness in shadow, to show herself only in the context of larger forces. It is an extension of self. The light and color of the piece are in the water, not the reflection.

"I'm really responding to what's around me all the time," she said. "That's how I think about who I am. The shadow cast on the water was about as close as I could come to conveying this visually. Showing your body and face is only one way of revealing yourself."

"I think a lot of people right now are trying to say, 'Here I am, here I am, here I am,' " she said. "They have to reidentify that in the context of their surroundings."

 


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.

"Narcissus in the Studio" is at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' Hamilton Building, 128 N. Broad St., through Jan. 2.