“Selfless” at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art in San Francisco, features a thought-provoking range of photographic and video-based portraiture by artists Daniel Arnold, Elizabeth Huey, Senalka McDonald, Davida Nemeroff, and Laura Swanson. SFAQ contributor Kelly Inouye recently spoke with curator, Alexis Mackenzie, about the show. “Selfless” is on view through June 28th.
Kelly Inouye: “Selfless” features what one might call constructed portraiture along with works that are captured covertly or were unplanned. Can you talk about the significance of what you see being revealed by these artists?
Alexis Mackenzie: The works in this exhibition all have very different ways of providing a perspective on a person or persons, highlighting or concealing aspects of the subject: be it a particular behavior within a personal space, the harmony of a community, whether they feel guarded or open to the outside world, and how they fit into it. Elizabeth Huey’s work, for example, is particularly masterful at telling a story about a person or community, captured within a single frame in a single moment. When I look at her work, I feel a continuation between the moment of the photo and timelines branching in both directions from it – imagining what the subject(s) were doing up until that moment, what brought them there, and how they will continue along from it. Davida Nemeroff’s work, as well, is unique in the way she treats the subject – rather than simply allowing the woman being interviewed to simply be herself and relax while being questioned, she has people in the background snapping her photo repeatedly, with the objective of heightening her sense of being watched and recorded while answering personal questions. So there is a dichotomy in what is happening within the portrait; the surface portrait of the recording of the interview itself, and the subtext of how the woman is being treated and how she is responding to the situation. It’s all very different from more traditional forms of portraiture, wherein the subject is posed with personally meaningful objects which in themselves are meant to tell the story – the subject in these kinds of portraits being more like one of the objects rather than an active participant in the making of the portrait.
All of the works in this show are grounded in traditional portraiture but also take the genre in interesting new directions. For example, in Elizabeth Huey’s work that direction is related to narrative and journalism. In Davida Nemeroff’s work, her subject is a foil that highlights issues of individual identity, celebrity obsession, and the genre of portraiture itself. What ties the show together for you?
I’d say it is the disparity of approaches in itself that ties it together for me. All of these artists are looking at themselves or others through the lens of portraiture but doing so in a unique way. It’s about looking at how what we call portraiture can encompass a wide range of approaches and techniques for revealing a story about the subject.
One of the artists in the show, Daniel Arnold, is known for taking covert photos of people on the New York subway or in other public places. He captures uncanny, poetic moments with his cell phone and posts them on Instagram. It’s interesting to see his work in a gallery instead of online. Can you share some thoughts about the relationship between print photography and online work?
I think the difference has to do with how much attention one feels inclined to bestow on a photo one sees via social media as opposed to one in print. On Instagram, a person scans through innumerable photos in the space of a minute, so there needs to be an immediacy to an image for it to catch your attention. Arnold’s photographs have this immediacy, but they also reveal depths when one spends more than that initial passing moment with them. They’re very compelling both upon first glance and further perusal, which I think is why his photographs work so well in both formats. An app like Instagram is in many ways the perfect context for his work to be presented within, since most of them are shot with an iPhone; there are very few stages between the thing seen and the thing presented. In that sense, the immediacy of the image is related to how they are captured, but he has an eye for people in moments that deserve longer frames of consideration than is generally available in passing on the street. And this aspect of them is why they are also perfect for print.
Laura Swanson’s portraiture is particularly striking and poignant. What prompted you to select these specific works of hers?
They are from a series she made from 2005-2008 called “Anti-Self-Portraits”, which naturally caught my attention. I was looking for works which approached portraiture in new ways, and Swanson’s works have something which is rare in portraiture; their purpose is to conceal the subject. She explains that these photos are based upon her personal feelings of wanting to hide and not be seen, casting the viewer in the uncomfortable role of one who is invading her privacy simply by looking at her. She also highlights the aspect that she is “drawing attention to the fact that I am denying something from the viewer”. This is particularly interesting to me because by doing this, she is actually sharing what most people hide: their innermost feelings and insecurities, and doing so in a performative way which is intended to be seen, thus counteracting her primary instinct to hide. It is simultaneously more and less revealing than most portraiture in what it tells us about her internal fears and fantasies, while never allowing us to fully see her. As a result, we connect with her in a very personal way without even knowing who she is.
Thanks so much for talking with me.
This exhibition is up until Friday, June 28th. Find time to see this exhibition while its still on view. For more information visit here.
-Interviewed by Kelly Inouye