Elephant: Out of Focus: What’s Left When You Subtract the Self From the Selfie?

Masks, make-up and mirrors help a cryptic photography show to snap the chains of the self-portrait

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” So intoned the Wicked Queen. “Thou, O Queen,” the magic mirror usually replied, music to the queen’s ears. But what the mirror giveth, it also taketh away. Imagine the Queen’s rage when one day the impertinent looking glass snapped back: “Snow White, of course!”

 

Susan Sontag likened cameras to guns. Today’s shiny, palm-fitting ones are more like mirrors, reflecting the subject onto validating social platforms.

 

The four self-portraitists exhibiting at Mirror, Mirror at Nathalie Karg Gallery, New York, utilise masks, makeup and mirrors as a means of subverting the selfie’s narcissistic gaze. Exposing the moment of the shutter-snap as simultaneous entrance and escape, they set out to deepen an increasingly head-scratching conundrum: where is the self in the self-portrait?

It is a quandary at its most confounding in Tommy Kha’s tragicomic series I’m Only Here to Leave. Drawing on the paradoxes of his queer, diasporic identity, the Asian-American artist deploys photo-prosthetics in tableaux to evoke the awkward artifice of assimilation while navigating his own crippling camera-shyness.

Headtown V pictures Kha’s mother sat on a sofa, behind which the artist’s 3D face-mask timidly peeks from. This framed work overlays a larger image that is pasted onto the wall, depicting the artist, in the form of a cardboard cut-out, reclining from behind. He clutches his mask while peering towards the window. Kha says his work is all about the hyphen in “self-portrait”

Where Kha’s transformations into artworks are riddled in inhibition, Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s embrace serendipity. Bodies, fabrics, furniture and cameras coalesce in smudged and dusty mirrors in which Sepuya photographs himself. They offer a metaphor for the constructed nature of the studio portrait.

Sepuya’s Figure (0X5A0918) shows two bodies pressed chest-to-chest. Sepuya, partially-eclipsed, points his camera towards the observer while the other participant views their entanglement via an iPhone screen in selfie mode, a photo within a photo that confirms the mechanics of the shot.

Ilona Szwarc transports us to a ritzy Regency-style manor, in which the artist’s surrogate lookalike is undergoing a mighty makeover. Tinseltown may be the land of superlative cosmetic trickery, but Szwarc’s narrative series Unsex me here (deriving its name from Lady Macbeth’s plea to be shed of her soft-hearted, female sensitivity in order to channel “direst cruelty”) puts its rough edges front of frame.

 

Step-by-step across a triptych, Szwarc’s doppelgänger glues clumps of fur onto her cheeks, kickstarting her conversion into a beast. The reverse evolution turns the vocabulary of make-up tutorial videos against itself, emancipating the hirsute subject from the treachery of such models.

Whitney Hubbs employs more economical tools to escape the trappings of sexualised female archetypes. The two photographs exhibited here eschew the erotica of some of her earlier work, unveiling Hubbs’ nervier side. In one, she succumbs to panic and pulls her jaw apart, while the other sees the artist spookily cloak herself in an oversized bedsheet. Her quest to vanish is at odds with the various eyes which surround her: wide-open, spying through slits and tattooed on her wrist, respectively.

Contra to the Wicked Queen, so hell-bent on being the “fairest in the land” that she drank a presumably-reversible ageing potion to enact her plot to murder her younger rival, Hubbs does not seek validation from a mirror, but reclaims being abject on her own terms. With a new book of alone-in-the-studio-time shots on the horizon, Hubbs is one to watch.

And as for her fellow enigmas at Mirror, Mirror, there’s no doubt you’ll be seeing more of them too, just as they’ll be seeing more of themselves. Or at least as far as truly seeing oneself remains within the realm of the possible, that is…

Alex Merola is assistant editor at 1000 Words

August 13, 2021