Unconventional Selves

Kelley Calder Foley
Oct 4, 2014 6:02PM

“Unconventional Selves” addresses the ways in which various artists perform and present themselves (or others, with the artist as an actor) in their works. Each of the selected works could fit comfortably under the umbrella of “self as subject,” but upon closer analysis of each work’s creation, it becomes clear that defining these works as “self as subject” can be quite challenging, as the following demonstrates.


The selected works of Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura align more closely with the description “self as subject,” although it is important to remember that they are not self-portraits; rather, the artists use their own bodies to act as others. In 1985’s Untitled #153, Cindy Sherman portrays what I prefer to call “self as other” – it is indeed an image of herself, but she is playing the role of an older, perhaps dead, woman, lying on the ground and covered in dirt. Yasumasa Morimura takes this trope one step further in his 1988 photograph Doublonnage (Marcel) by creating a depiction of “self as other as other” – he depicts himself as the subject of Man Ray’s iconic 1923 photograph [Rrose Sélavy (Marcel Duchamp)], in which Marcel Duchamp dresses and acts as his chosen pseudonym, Rrose Sélavy.


In Self-Portrait [for the New Yorker profile], created in 1964, Robert Rauschenberg strays away from his usually dizzying abstractions and assemblages, leaving viewers instead with a single fingerprint that is signed, in typewritten font, “RR.” Here, Rauschenberg uses just a small part of himself to represent who he is as a whole (or, as I refer to it, “self as part of yourself”).  


Partners Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst seem to follow the “self as subject” theme in their Relationship series, in which they depict their relationship through photographs. Matters are complicated, however, when viewers consider that each half of the couple is transgender and is in the process of transitioning from one gender expression to another. Thus, these two present “selves as selves are changing” rather than simply “self as subject.”


For Philip Akkerman, self-portraits do not have to contain just the artist in question – they sometimes allow for the viewer to play a role. In his 2011 work Self-portrait, Akkerman’s image is painted on a mirror which is so tiny that it begs viewers to come closer in order to get a better look. This act of drawing-in viewers then creates a self-portrait in which the viewer is present (as a reflection in the mirror), thus creating “self as an inclusion of others,” suggesting that viewers are a necessary part of Akkerman’s identity as an artist.


Mequitta Ahuja’s large-scale work Parade (diptych), made in 2007, comes from an oeuvre that unites themes of ancestry, photography, performance, and drawing in order to create depictions of “self as both subject and creator.” It is important to remember that Ahuja’s works go beyond self-portraiture; they are designed to depict who she is and what she does.

Kelley Calder Foley
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019