Tag Archives: self-portraits

The Value of Feedback from Viewers

Once an exhibition goes up, it can be difficult for artists to get feedback about viewers’ reaction to the work, especially if the venue is not in the place you live. But because “The Thread in the River” is currently being shown at the Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati (until April 2), I have been able to meet with multiple classes of high school and university students who have shared their thoughts about what they see in the work and how they experience it. This has, in turn, led me to think a lot about how I might proceed as I continue to develop this project.

A student asked me why I presented the images that appear in “Twelve Summers” as a video animation, rather than as still images. 

Twelve Summers, 1999 – 2013

My answer was that I had tried out numerous ways of presenting them as still images, both on the wall and in book format. But nothing I tried captured the idea of the sometimes subtle transformation of a child from one age to the next. I was also failing in conveying the idea that our childhood selves are still buried somewhere deep inside us, despite the layers of complexity that we gain as we age into adulthood. Putting these pictures into a video that allowed for layering them with different levels of opacity allowed me to speak to these ideas successfully. This conversation made me ask myself in what other ways I could use video presentations for future work.

Discussing “The Wind Telephone” with students reinforced for me how important it is to not have the work answer too many questions for the viewer, to let the audience ask and answer questions for themselves.

The Wind Telephone

They liked it a lot that this particular body of work didn’t explain the answers that my relatives gave me when responding to the questions I had asked of them. The students said that it made them ask themselves what their own answers would be to these questions, and made them more interested in the work.

One series, titled “The Long Arc”, consists of many self-portraits that I began taking when I got pregnant in 1995 and continue to take up to the present day. I asked the students what they saw as the difference between my self-portraits and “selfies”, as they take them and understand them. One students’ reply has stuck with me (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here): “Selfies are all about covering up who you really are, while your pictures are about revealing who you really are.”

While talking with these students, I felt like I was learning things about my own work that I hadn’t yet seen. Unless I am invited to an exhibition venue to talk about my work, opportunities to talk with viewers in a gallery while a show is up don’t happen a lot. Because this is the first time that this work has been exhibited, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to get this kind of feedback.

Portraits, Self-Portraits, Cindy Sherman & Aging (Part 1)

The New York Times recently  published an article on photographer Cindy Sherman that focused on her most recent work, which is being exhibited for the first time in New York City this month. Throughout her 40-year career, Sherman has made photographs using herself as a model.

At the time that her “Film Stills” series was catapulting her to fame, she stated that these portraits were not “about” her. By this she meant that they did not contain any autobiographical content, and that the viewer should not expect to understand anything about her as a private individual by looking at the pictures. Up to now, she has always maintained that stance about all of her work.

But the New York Times article raised my eyebrows when I read the lines, “…she is now willing to see aspects of herself even in her early photos.”

This shift is significant, and I’m sure will lead to much discussion among critics, art historians, and students of her work. Sherman herself attributes this change in her own assessment of her past work to the fact that she is now older (62, to be specific) and looks back at that work from a different perspective than she had when she was younger.

This makes sense to me. As we age, there is often a natural evolution in how we see ourselves. We look back at our own history and ask ourselves, “How could I have been so naïve/courageous/stupid/bold? Why did I do that? Why didn’t I do that? What was I thinking?!” and myriad other questions.

In the case of art, one of the most valuable actions I have taken in recent years has been to look back through my archives every once in a while and try to understand my older work in a new way. With the passage of time, new life experiences help me to understand my younger creative self better, and in different ways that were invisible to me before. I’m glad that I have kept a lot of my early work so I can study it in this way.

I would encourage any artist to do so. If you don’t have the space to keep a lot of original artwork, then keep what is most important/significant to you and digitize as much of the rest of it as you can. Looking at digital reproductions of your artwork is not even close to being the same as looking at the originals, but it is the next best thing, and certainly better than nothing. In this way, you can haul out as much or as little of your past creative history as you want, whenever you want, and learn from yourself about yourself.

The older you get and the more you have to look back on, the more threads you will find that connect the various bodies of work that you have done and the better you will understand your creative voice as it has evolved.