Redefining Portraiture at the Mcintosh Gallery


At the McIntosh art gallery at Western Ontario, I had the pleasure of viewing some remarkable interpretations of portraiture and self-portraiture. One especially interesting trend I noticed there was that many of the featured artists diverged from the classical self-portrait—a relatively realistic painting or photograph of a subject at a certain moment in time—choosing instead to use alternative means of representing the self that either captured multiple physical images of the subject, or non-physical elements entirely. The former recurring theme—that of assembling a portrait from multiple images and samples of the subject taken over time—coupled with other artistic works that depicted the changeability and degeneration of man’s physical form—seemed to suggest that because subjects’ physical states are not static, static portraits of subjects’ physical likenesses at one moment in time is a distorted—and thus less accurate—representation of the subject than ones that sample the subject over a period of time and movement and ones that do not attempt to capture a physical likeness.

Some of the featured artists depict static visual art as a less than accurate medium of representing a subject, connoting it as a distortion of the subject. Artist Gerald Trottier’s self portrait, for example, is a stretched and distorted static image of his face and upper body, which supports the trend regarding the inaccuracy of static art in truly representing a subject. Colin Muir Dorward’s works “Grievance Calculator” and “Fitting in” also demonstrate the inaccuracy and distortions that result from attempting to portray the self with static visual art with his absurd and disproportionate representations of the human body.



Many of the other artists’ works thus contain a temporal element to their art, and either suggest the passage of time with multiple “frame”-like images, or fabricate a work that joins multiple samples of the subject taken over time. Joyce Wieland’s lipstick prints, for example, which “record” her singing the entire National Anthem by “sampling” her lip movements, craft a “portrait” of her by compressing multiple samples of the subject taken over a definite period of time into one to display the entire minute-long song at a glance.


Joseph Hubbard’s display titled “Portrait of Susan Skaith (90 Days)” also attempts the apparently trending artistic technique of representing a subject with samples taken over a period of time: Susan’s medication over the course of 90 days. “Portrait of Bill Thompson” by Gillian Saward also takes multiple seconds’ worth of samples of the subject and displays them at a glance by overlaying multiple positions of Bill’s face to suggest a head-turning movement while compressing the time it takes for him to turn his head into one portrait.




“Chords” by Michael Snow also attempts to portray movement and changes in position over time in one portrait, since instead of showing merely one piano chord position in one moment, Michael shows three different phases of chord positions—and even suggests a sound viewers should imagine—which already pushes the boundaries of visual art.






Jamie Q’s “Jeans (Light)”, which showcases a stitched assemblage of her own well-worn pairs of pants, also uses multiple samples of a subject in one portrayal of herself: in stitching together her own pairs of jeans worn over the course of years, Jamie Q also combines multiple samples of the subject taken at various phases of their life to assemble an accurate “portrait”.



“Reading Position for a 2nd Degree Burn” by Dennis Oppenheim also captures the passage of time in his photographic representation of himself, since his two pictures, taken “before” and “after” his sunburn, draw attention to the unseen changing variable: the passage of time during which he was exposed to the sun. Thus, in this work, Dennis attempts to do the impossible and illustrate a non-visual thing—the passage of time—visually with static images. Moreover, Dennis’ work also suggests the inaccuracy of static visual representations of the physical self since the fact that the subject underwent a process of physical change during the time alluded to in his photographs turns Dennis’ second photograph into visual proof that the physical form changes over time and thus any static “portrait” can at any moment become an outdated and thus inaccurate visual representation of the subject.

Indeed, it seems that many of these artists share Dennis’ take on the insufficiency of static, visual representations of the self, due to the changeability of the physical appearance—and take this distortion one step further, using their own portrait art to convey that static visual representations of physical subjects distort the subjects because they fail to convey the deterioration and transience of subjects’ physical bodies.   Artist Gerard Pas depicts the deterioration of the physical form with his piece that shows the subject losing his physical ability to stand in a film-like sequence of “frames”. Gerard Pas further exemplifies the changing and deterioration of the human body over time with his piece by titling it, “Nature is Man – Man is Style – Style is Abstract – Abstract is Atrophy Revisited”, thus linking atrophy, the process of cellular degeneration, to the human body.


Artist Richard Hamilton also stresses the transience of physical beings with his piece “My Marilyn” in which he shows multiple photographs of Marilyn Monroe with X’s drawn over her body to highlight her death and current physical absence, perhaps the greatest physical change of all. One might even argue that Joseph Hubbard’s display of Susan Skaith’s medication and Kirtley Jarvis’ work “A Spoonful of Sugar” also illustrate the frailty of the human body since both focus on the medicines and drugs depended upon by frail human bodies to stay alive and healthy.

Thus many artists featured in this gallery seem to agree that the transience, frailty, changeability and deterioration of the human body render static portraits of subjects’ physical states imperfect artistic representations. It is likely for this reason many of the artists sought to represent their subjects without capturing physical likeness at all, such as Joseph Hubbard’s “Portrait of Susan Skaith” which is merely a box of drugs, Kirtley Jarvis’ portrait of an unknown patient which comprises merely a stitched tapestry and voice-recording, Joyce Wieland’s lipstick prints, and many other examples in this exhibit.


Those who did, however, attempt to repair the inadequacies of static art to represent subjects’ changing and degenerating physical selves—by presenting multiple samples or frames of images that capture and compress a period of time into a single visual representation—seemed almost to stretch the medium of visual art to be more like film.

Ironically, in the room only next door, other artists did create “video self-portraits”, taking full advantage of this medium to represent themselves with multiple visual and audio samples, unbridled by the constraints of static visual art and photography; thus, I could not help but wonder why the former visual artists would prefer attempting to turn visual art into film over using actual film to represent their subjects. I concluded, after some reflection, that it is inventiveness rather than stubbornness on the part of these visual artists that tempts them to see how far they can push the boundaries of the definition not only of the “self” and “self representation”, but also of static visual art.



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