Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have reprogrammed human existence into an endless newsfeed of status updates and photos. However eponymous they may be, these social media sites weren't the first of their kind. Long before the dawn of social media, "selfies" were already being shot by some of history's most famous artists. Hence, "Self, Model, and Self as Other," an exhibit of 50 self-shot shots from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's photography collection.
Yes, Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh and Andy Warhol -- all of whom make cameo appearances in the collection -- provided society's first self-shots. These portraits are more than a grab for attention, however. There is no Photoshop retouching, no Instagram filter, only subtle manipulations of perspective and clever backlighting that reveal each artist's portrait to be a facet of the psychological structure that Sigmund Freud defined as id, ego and superego.
"Self as Other" correlates with the superego's job of restraining the untamed desires of the id. As said before, these photographs don't have the luxury of digital retouching. There is, however, the use of addition or subtraction: hiding behind things so as to shield some part of themselves; or dressing in flamboyant attire, such as in the case of Kimiko Yoshida's "The Divine Bride Praying," a piece from her 2003 Intangible Brides series.
With "Model," the unrestrained id takes over. Ryan Weideman's "Self Portrait with Transvestite," photographed in 1997, shows the artist in what appears to be a taxi. He is in the front seat; the transvestite peeks through a hole in the back. Juxtaposing himself -- a man dressed in a conventionally masculine suit -- with the transvestite -- a man in full makeup, a conventionally feminine accent -- affords the viewer two different meanings of what it means to be male. On the other hand, being that Weideman places himself in the forefront, while the transvestite is confined to a hole in the background, may give a negative connotation of the man's choice to feminize his maleness.
Balancing the extremes of the superego and the id, the ego is the basis for the pieces that pertain to "Self." Through "Self," the photographers reveal themselves, as Oliver Cromwell said, "warts and all." This is represented in Robert Mapplethorpe's "Self Portrait," in which the artist sits in the background, while, in the foreground, his hand clutches a skull cane. Mapplethorpe, clad in all black to the point where he blends with the background, places himself further away from the camera, drawing attention to the cane. Although the skull cane sits up front, Mapplethorpe's hand grips it tightly, Does his strong grasp of the skull say something sinister about his spirit?
Cindy Sherman's "Untitled" photo also plays with the foreground/background dichotomy, though in reverse: Sherman's face sits up close; behind her a city's benches. No props, no accoutrements. Maybe she is about to go for a walk.
Jen Davis' cleverly shows her "Self" by not showing herself -- at least, not all of her. Instead of her face, we get her feet, standing on a bathroom scale. The title of her photograph: "Judgment."
"Self, Model, and Self as Other" will be on view until September 29. Visit mfah.org for more information.
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