'Just Look at Yourself'

By Rufus Foshee | Sep 06, 2009

Just as with a work of art, on the rare occasions that happens, what goes into the making of any exhibition is a mystery. One difference is certain, with few exceptions works of art are by one hand.

I am not prepared to swear it, but surely no one made more self-portraits than Rembrandt, numbering 90 at least, over the years of the 1620s until his death in 1669. One may get the feeling that Rembrandt suffered a phobia that future generations would forget his face.

Curated by Britta Konau, of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, the current major exhibition there is called "Just Look at Yourself." This might be considered a slap in the face as to what Rembrandt meant by self-portrait. These people have outdone him in some ways. Do any of the images look like the person who made them?

Konau's exhibition does not say "self-portraits," but "Just Look at Yourself," and this is where the game begins.

The best part is in the variations in this exhibition and above all, the humor on display. Nothing illustrates this better than Susan Headley Van Campen, whose head is being held up by someone's hand. Is it hers? Therein lies a mystery.

In another direction, Rush Brown's somber image looks as if he thinks it belongs on Mt. Rushmore.

Overall, there is evidence that surrealism is alive and well — indeed, flourishing. That is not only so with Van Campen but with Dianna J. Rust and others as well.

If I have any insight into these works, it is that they are not so much exterior portraits, but interior ones. But then is that less true with the 90 that Rembrandt did? Is seeing from within, one's self or others, not what portraits are about, if worth looking at all?

As art jumped past the 19th and early 20th century, self-portraits became a rarity except from a few such as Francis Bacon, who was after all a figure painter. Was this because these modernists had reduced egos?

For most artists images disappeared altogether. There was no room for self-images as we had known them. But if one looks at a large Jackson Pollock or a large Clifford Still painting, or a Louise Nevelson construction, can one dismiss the smell of ego?

There are some extreme obsessions with one's self, as with Kathe Kollwitz in the early 20th century, Chuck Close a half century later. Both powerful.

In portraits, as in other works, it is hard to keep a painter from being overly serious. One feels that it might have been best if someone had taken the paint brushes before the artist painted any given image to death.

Not so with "Just Look at Yourself." It might be said that one might take the cameras away, since this exhibition is riven with camera work, as so many contemporary exhibitions seem not to be able to avoid these days.

Is it possible that these artists are delivering a much needed message to their viewing public? Are they saying, "Just Look at Yourself," or "You Should Look at Yourself?" Inherent in any self-portrait, is there not always such an implication? Is there not always as much effort to conceal as to reveal?

When one opens the door to one's bedroom, closet or office space, does one see oneself? It depends on how delusive one may be.

These artists have a broad perspective. Their insights into the interior lives range from the stark truth of Trissy Callan's four self-portraits on four different days early in 2009 to the supreme disorder shown in Claire Rosen's “Classics,” 2009. Or one may choose to turn to the ideal self-perpetration as exhibited by John Whalley in “Self Portrait,” 2006.

As visually compelling as Jonathan Peter Monro's “Of Two Minds,” 2009, may be, such a high minded concept should need no explanatory labels.

In her "Self Portrait Acrylic on 6 Boards," 1970s, Nancy Wissemann-Widrig illustrates that a failed high reach has strength in its failure.

Crystal Cawley’s "Books with Outfits (Autobiography)," 2001-2009, proves that clutter does not have to be messy, but to the contrary, very orderly. Her portrait is the ultimate in nostalgia, packed and ready to travel on.

It seems regrettable that Aaron Stephan’s “Untitled,” one of the largest works and occupying one of the best spaces, is an indication that he has an obsession with Chuck Close.

But I have not answered the question, “Do any of these images look like those who created them?” I have not expected that I might. Since they are interiors, that question will not be answered by this exhibition, I predict. To the contrary the question will just get larger as the viewer examines these works again and again.

Hats off to Britta Konau for this splendid effort that may well prevent any viewer from ever peeping into their private spaces again. On the other hand, many may grab the vacuum cleaner and get to work.

Either way will have achieved a great accomplishment.

Photos by Joan Foshee; courtesy of Center for Maine Contemporary Art.
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