Friday, January 21, 2011

Playing catch up, pt. 1

It's been quite a while since I've put up any new content. First it was the end of the school term, then it was the holidays, and then it was the beginning of the new school term. And somewhere in between it all I had to make a blood sacrifice (not to be confused with blood libel) to the sprawling pagan god soon to be formerly known as the Motor City and buy another car. Anyway, following are a few things from the end of last year that I wanted to take note of before they completely faded from memory.

Still & Present: Andrew Doak & Millee Tibbs
Elaine Jacob Gallery, Wayne State University
29 October - 17 December 2010

Andrew Doak, October Lunch, 2009, archival pigment print. (Courtesy of the artist.)

Millee Tibbs, 3-2-87, 2005, archival digital prints. (Courtesy of the artist.)
The age of social networking and the digital imaging technology that has helped propagate its visual culture has provided ample opportunity for narcissistic self-reflection. Artists, of course, have been doing it for centuries in the form of the self portrait. Postmodern iterations, particularly in photography but in other mediums as well, have explored the constructed nature of the self in the highly mediated world in which we live, most notably in the body of work undertaken since the late 1970s by Cindy Sherman. This exhibition explored the issue of self-representation with more reflexivity (as opposed to pure self-indulgence) than one normally encounters in the average Facebook profile.

A recent Cranbrook grad, Andrew Doak revels in his corporeal self, as well as the sumptuous delights that help to sustain it, as if to exorcise the specter of its transient photographic presence. (All photographs are ghost images in that the ephemeral moments captured on film are records of the already-seen, a past present that no longer exists.) Interspersed between multiply-exposed images of the artist engaging in various eating rituals were a number of large-scale photographic tableaux inspired by the vanitas genre. Capturing every morsel of unfinished food and garnish in exacting detail, Doak's renditions upend the moralistic tone of traditional Protestant examples, instead projecting an unrepentant hedonism that at times borders on the obscene. (Which isn't to say that's bad.)

In another series Doak put himself in the place of the artist's model, reenacting academic set pieces of forest nymphs, odalisques, and the like. Doak's more corpulent physique, perfectly normal in the aesthetic historiography that these pictures play on, contrasts with newer conceptions of especially female body image as well as performing a kind of gender transgression. My favorite of this group, in part because I'm a big fan Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is Doak's self portrait as Noble Savage, which has him reposing shirtless on a blanket in a snow-covered field among copse of bare trees, contemplating a half-eaten pomegranate with other food scraps scattered around him. Indeed, Rousseau's Confessions is over the top, not unlike Doak's basic sensibility, and it was Rousseau's unleashing of expressive individualism in the 18th century that touched off the Romantic movement in Europe and whose reverberations have permeated self-reflective art ever since. It's the sometimes more grotesque exemplars of the tradition (Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst, anyone?) that Doak seems to be deconstructing.

Millee Tibbs, who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design where she got her MFA, investigates space and time as they pertain to the experience of the self. The Jacobs Gallery installation consisted of three separate series, each of which in its own way questioned the traditional trope of the self portrait as an entry into an artist's "authentic" persona.

The series "Self-Portraits" from mid decade are landscapes in which the artist's physical self is not visible. Having titles like "Self Portrait Behind a Rock" and "Self Portrait in the Fog," these black-and-white images toy with Hans Hoffman's famous dictum "I bring the landscape home in me" and also Jackson Pollock's more boastful claim "I am nature," that posit artistic expression and the object that embodies it as a manifest form of natural genius. A more recent series, "Do You Look Like Me," juxtaposes passport-size photos of acquaintances alongside the artist mimicking the poses, hairstyles (and in the case of male subjects facial hair), and dress.

Most intriguing was a series of digitally manipulated images, "This is a Picture of Me," that pair old family snapshots of the artist as a child with contemporary recreations. In each, Tibbs fashions her adult body into the awkward poses of her youthful self, setting it in the identical background and clad in replica attire, including a couple of birthday suits. The verisimilitude is enhanced with PhotoShopped red-eye, bad lighting, faded chroma, and other editing tricks. There are anomalies here and there -- the inexact match of patch pockets on a pair of jeans, the missing pattern and wrong color on a woolen skirt, but for the most part the effect is persuasive enough.

Taken together, the work of Doak and Tibbs exposes the myth of "genuine" authenticity that late-modern commodity culture applies to the individual through the new technologies such as social networking. But at the same time they point to a new authenticity (or might we call it "authenticity-ness"), one that accepts the social construction of self and embraces its symptoms. In these days of life lived on the screen, the fake, it seems, is real.

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