Home » Exactly what defines a self-portrait?

Exactly what defines a self-portrait?

Recently, the Queensland University Art Museum awarded the $50,000 National Artists Self-portrait Prize 2011 to Domenico de Clario for a series of six paintings and six viewing chairs. This composite work evokes memories of each of the six decades in the artist’s life.

de Clario, Self-portrait 2047

de Clario, Self-portrait 2047 (the immortal)

Not a mark, nor a stroke on any of the six paintings indicates a body part, a face or figure in part or in whole. Nothing in the work tells us anything about it’s maker. The canvases are abstract works. How then, can they be considered self-portraits?

There is no doubting the content of the work is relevant to self-portraiture. Poignantly so, with de Clario’s work linking ideas of self to memory and it’s construction. His motivation for the work points to a potent childhood memory that was ‘insistent upon recognition’. He describes events in one’s life as giving rise to multiple selves …

‘I wonder how many selves I have facilitated through my six decades and more of life on earth. As I consider the notion of an endless Wheel of Life it occurs to me that the first ‘century of life’, irrespective of the number of years lived by each individual, might contain a certain number of risings and subsidings of manifestations of various individual selves, each of which has been generated through the ‘portal’ of a particular cathartic experience.’

He’s talking about change and transition and transformation. He’s wondering aloud, how can we define ourselves? If we can’t be defined, then how can we depict, or paint ourselves? He’s asking questions about our existence and about our eventual deaths. (De Clario elaborates on this in his supporting statement – well worth reading). Such ‘big’ questions are central to many contemporary artists and have been the bread and butter of philosophers and theologians through millenia and deserve due consideration. Much self-portraiture over time has addressed these same ideas. So, the questions are good, but de Clario’s answers are poor. In trying so hard to get to the crux of the matter de Clario has told us nothing of himself.

While I suspect I would like this work – were to see it in person – with its Rothko-like colour fields and its variety of quaint little chairs, it raises in me a faint irritation; an itch asking to be scratched. Putting aside the content and means of addressing the idea of self which are indeed sophisticated and refined, de Clario’s work begs the question; is this a self-portrait? It contains such hidden and veiled references they can only understood by the artist. Surely some representative mark-making is required so that others can understand his self-depiction. Surely the artist can give us a clue that the work is in fact a self-portrait. If the audience can only access the work through the written statement doesn’t that mean that the artist has failed us?

Many of you are going to say in response, that every work an artist makes is some kind of self-portrait, that the discovery a work of art occurs in many ways and that one doesn’t have to know the artist’s intention to be moved by a work. Granted, that’s all true, but this is a self-portrait prize and I’m after a little more disclosure! Especially given that the main theme of the show was titled Life is risk/Art is risk. But in fact I see this as a very safe choice – for me its an impersonal piece – it fails evoke or tell me anything of its maker despite the work being heavily imbued with intense personal memories.

So, does it really matter? Art is not made solely for audience consumption and de Clario’s reputation in the field of art making and academia both here and internationally is certain testimony to his prowess in the field. But for me it does matter – I crave for a self-portrait which exposes, reveals and evokes powerful ideas through the portrayal of self. And this one leaves me cold.

Details about the National Artists Self-portrait Prize which is on display until February 2012 can be found here.






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