Expressing Yourself, From Oil Painting to Smartphone

Four You Gallery
January 10, 2021| Diane Young

We all see the world subjectively. We perceive it based on a perfect imbalance between the chemicals in our brains and the memories we live through. We grow up analyzing and understanding our surroundings from a very particular eye. This isn’t different from our perception of ourselves. The people we believe we are, the actions we disclose to the world, and the honesty that we often keep to ourselves all form a complex network of ideas about who we are in our own eye. Artists, interpretive and sensitive as they are, live wanting to uncover the world’s wonders through their art. They try to find their voice, their eye and often make it a point to portray themselves. This, as well, is extremely subjective. In fact, it is this subjectivity that artists seek. They experiment with the idea of the self and recreate themselves on a pen and paper. Before Gemma Holzer, there existed a roster of artists who painted themselves and showed the world how they felt and how they saw themselves. Auto-portraits are prevalent in the history of visual media and have significantly evolved from a sketch, once, to a selfie, every day.

In the west, it was around the 16th century that saw the rise of the self-portrait into a genre of its own. Painters like Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt pioneered the genre using their self-portraits to further themselves as artists who show their depth. Out of the women, Frida Kahlo is one of the most prominent self-portraits contemporaries. Her distinctive features and signature unibrow made of her a commercial icon whose face is recognized by millions. When painting herself, Kahlo would often place herself around a tropical environment, animals and plants. This setting rather sends out a message of pride in her Chicana roots. That isn’t all, Frida often used her self-portraits to show her internal anguish and her chronic pain. The painter lived most of her life in physical pain that was caused by an accident she went through when she was younger. “The Broken Column” is a stunning piece that has Frida personifying her pain. With nails sticking into her skin and a collapsing pillar taking her column’s place, Frida shows the magnitude of her struggle. When the pillar of your body, your backbone, is shattered, you’re in shambles, destroyed.

Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column

When art wasn’t necessarily accessible to women in the 17th century, one woman defied the norm and proved herself a master in the art of Still Life. A genre very popular back then, Clara Peeters was known for her interest in the fashion light hits several objects and surfaces. In one of her paintings, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, Clara reveals herself to the recipient and, instead of signing her piece with her name, she signed it with a self-portrait.

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses Almonds and Pretzels

With time, the art of self-portraits evolved and the classical school started to get challenged by other techniques and genres. Contemporary and modern art saw a list of women aiming at recreating their image in their own unique way. Nicole Eisenmann did not often appear in her paintings. However, her 1995 painting, Swimmers in the Lap Lane, showed her expressing her physicality for the first time. At the bottom right corner of a painting showing a swimming pool scene, Eisenmann features herself in the middle of several other naked swimmers. A sexualized vision of swimming laps, the painting evokes emotions typical to Nicole’s body of work.

Nicole Eisenman, Swimmers in the Lap Lane

Another woman who managed to establish her own mark in the world of self-portraits is photographer Cindy Sherman. With Sherman, things are inverted. Her self-portraits almost never reveal her true self. In fact, she set herself apart by taking series of photographs where she’s in full disguise taking photographs of different characters in different settings. One remarkable body of work remains “Untitled Film Stills” which features a collection of photographs she’s taken of herself portraying a spectrum of feminine personas from Hollywood cinema.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #602

The prevalence of smartphones lead to a modern and digital approach to the art of self-portraits. When you once needed paint and brush, a chisel or a camera to create a self-portrait, tiny cameras embedded into smartphones made taking pictures of one’s own self an easy task. With Android devices taking 93 million selfies per day, the “genre” has been questioned by several artists and public figures. In 2017, Saatchi Gallery launched the first “selfie exhibition” titled “From Selfie to Self Expression.” The exhibition triggered a conversation on the role selfies play in the world of art and presented the smartphone as a medium of production.
The relationship between traditional self-portraits and selfies is so visceral that has often been the theme of several art projects. Exploring the topic, digital artist Dito Von Tease, reimagines iconic oil paintings as selfie photographs. His technique so masterful, it impresses through modifications that feel so seamless to the painting.

Mona Lisa, Dito Von Tease

A form of expression taking both artistic and pop cultures by storm, it accompanied some of today’s hottest icons. Celebrities have resorted to the selfie so often with their social media presence and use it often to communicate with their fans. Some figures have reached a following so substantial that they make statements of their selfies. No stranger to that is businesswoman and public figure Kim Kardashian West. She has become deeply associated with taking different auto-portraits that she launched a full fledged selfie photobook titled: Selfish.

Selfish by Kim Kardashian West, Book Cover

In her Exhibition, Alone Together, featured at Four Your Gallery, Gemma Holzer introduces a new form of the self-portrait. An impressionistic method that reshapes the self as an alien creature. As opposed to all the examples mentioned earlier that reveal the artists’ depth through their bodies, Holzer manifests her depth into an alien body.

No matter the form or the approach, self portraits are always interesting pieces of work because with these do artists show the world their true selves. Self-portraits are almost to the code to every artist, that one puzzle that, if solved, can reveal wonders. It is through art that artists continuously reinvent cultural norms and with self-portraits continuing to grow and evolve, we can’t but remain eager to what discoveries of the self would art trigger.

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