Art – Portraying the ruined self

2012-04-28 08:43

The Greek pantheon of mythical figures includes an exceptionally proud young man who disdained those who loved him.

Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, saw this and attracted the proud youth to a pool where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it.

Unable to leave the beauty of his own reflection, he died.

We know him as Narcissus.

Hence the word narcissism is invoked in consideration of such self-involvement and acts of vanity. Like the idea of a skilled image maker seated at an easel and peering at his own image in the mirror for days on end.

The practice or art of self-portraiture has also been approached with disdain by many art lovers.

They read in it the echo of Narcissus’ tale, the mythological figure punished for succumbing to hubris or arrogance before the gods.

The exhibition by Scottish painter Stephen Conroy, now on at the Everard Read gallery in Joburg, is unavoidably permeated by these themes.

Unassumingly titled Recent Works, the show includes a series of self-portraits that range from head studies in which Conroy portrays himself from different perspectives, including frontal, profile and three-quarter length views with his arms displaying various gestures.

Then there are portraits of others in oil-painted head studies.

But much more moving in the show is the fascination with self-representation, the idea of the artist as his own masterpiece. This is made all the more interesting by the way Conroy imbues his figures with an imposing and silent presence.

As it’s put in the curatorial notes, “a unique faculty of introspective mood that the artist imparts to his painting”.

Conroy employs a framing device of bold geometric patterns to accentuate his painted figures. It’s a black or orange vertical band at the left- and right-hand sides of the picture plane that serves as a compositional apparatus. He then strips away the details to focus the action of the figures, reducing everything to a concentrated minimal effect.

In Figure Study I 2011, Conroy confronts the viewer with a pensive returned gaze. The tension that ensues inaugurates a dialogue between the depicted subject and the audience. Here is the work of art refusing to be passively consumed.

The energy of this work is contrasted by On the Phone II 2011.

Here the artist is less confrontational. He holds a cellphone and feels much more genial. It also suggests the possibility of another person being on the other end of the phone.

It’s a coup for a medium locked into myths of solitary absorption.

These sorts of works have been appreciated in critical circles to offer insight into the mind of the artist. British art critic Laura Cumming reads out of self-portraiture a quality that holds more truth than other art forms.

She calls it the “indivisible trinity”. It’s a union of the physical work of art itself, the contained image of the painter and the more abstract element that involves the truth of how the artist wishes to be seen.

As we know the artist through his work, art philosopher Kevin Malcolm Richard argues in his book Derrida Reframed that the work stakes a claim for its painter’s existence because it stands in for the artist. The self-portrait is a stake marking the artist’s passing in time.

The self-portrait also seems to displace the identity of the artist through a self that the viewers construct when reading the painted image. But these readings, as Jacques Derrida, the French thinker, would have it, are simply transformations. This is because the self is not timeless.

So the self-portrait as it’s encountered in the gallery as a genre that purportedly reveals the artist’s true self reveals only a self that no longer is. Derrida terms this a form of ruin. So what we see in Conroy’s body of work are mere ruins.

Hence, following from Derrida’s motifs of wreckage, one can’t help but remember self-portraiture’s Ozymandian complex.

As observed by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his classic poem Ozymandias: “Half sunk, a shattered visage lies . . . / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.”

» Recent Works runs until May 12 at the Everard Read gallery in Rosebank, Joburg 

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