Serving Everything But Face
by Jane Ursula Harris
The primacy of self-presentation as self-creation has become a hallmark of our social media age where selfies reign supreme. To be seen, literally and figuratively (“I see you”), is not only confirmation of one’s existence and value, but a necessary performance of self that must be staged again and again. Smartphone technology amplifies this endless loop of narcissism, cultivating an objectified, idealized, branded self that is now de rigueur. From pop stars to the pope, no one escapes the look-at-me pull of the selfie as they mug and preen behind the length of an arm for fans and followers.
Designed for public circulation rather than private consumption, the selfie can be distinguished from the art historical tradition of self-portraiture where searching the depths of one’s reflection was a reckoning above all with time and character. Yet its impact on contemporary photographers can be felt in the work of Whitney Hubbs, Tommy Kha, Ilona Szwarc, and Paul Sepuya, who negate, expose, and subvert its narcissistic gaze. Invoking the Greek superstition that it was unlucky or even fatal to see one’s own reflection, from which the myth of Narcissus arose, these artists above all employ evasion, surrogacy, and confusion to serve anything but face. Instead, identity is conjured as a slippery, troubling, mnemonic experience as unreliable as the photographic medium that would try and fasten it. Its flimsy construction is revealed for the viewer through mirrors, flash-wash, cut-outs, studio props, and interlocutors who question the very idea of a self-portrait.
Courting a lo-fi analog aesthetic, Whitney Hubbs’ recent self-portraits are awash in a bright frontal lighting that recalls bad flash photography by way of The Blair Witch Project. The stark, campy lighting helps the artist perform a kind of vanishing act, aiding in the illusion like a magician’s assistant. Hubbs seeks respite from the treachery of living in an aging female body where the specter of one’s waning fuckability looms large. It’s that peculiar nexus of ageism and sexism that no one wants to talk about. As with previous work, the artist explores this existential feminist plight with self-deprecating and flat- footed humor: “It’s okay to explore your sexuality in humorous, sort of weird and abject ways,” she explains in a 2020 BOB interview. Even the ad hoc poses she strikes evoke a willful effacement. In Untitled (Ghost), 2021, for example, she cloaks herself in that crude cliche of a Halloween costume — an over-sized white bed sheet. Arms outspread in classic scary fashion, the only part of her visible is an eye that stares at us from a cut-out slit. Stay away, it seems to say, but beware all the same.
Ilona Szwarc escapes the treachery of female embodiment by more surrealist means, employing surrogate look-a-likes who she transforms into beast-like characters and refracts through shape-shifting mirrors that morph their appearance. Staged and posed amidst the emerald green and powder pink splendor of a Regency-style manor, these dark fairytale avatars are nonetheless all too human. Their subversion of Hollywood glamour and domestic bliss underscore the artifice of feminine archetypes through a mash-up of references, from YouTube make-up tutorials to Angela Carter’s visionary fable, The Werewolf. She was unsexed as a doll, 2019, features a hirsute woman sitting on a gold vanity stool in her nylons and sports bra. Clumps of hair cover her hands, and litter the plush carpet around her feet where a white silicone mask of her face replete with ferocious long white teeth mirrors the tilt of her head. Like a 21st century Red Riding Hood who becomes the werewolf rather than succumb to it, she seems to be in a state of reverse transformation, showing us a self that exists between the realm of human and beast, civility and abandon.
Through tableaux that merge self-portraiture and still life, Tommy Kha maps the paradoxical nature of diasporic identity, creating intimate images that evoke the artifice of assimilation. Inserting cardboard cut-outs and printed masks of himself into the landscapes and domiciles of his past and present, he yokes together belonging and alienation with an awkward grace. Mirror, Mirror includes photographs, such as Headtown (V), Whitehaven Memphis, 2017, that feature members of Kha’s family in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Headtown (V), portrays Kha’s mother, who immigrated from Vietnam in 1984, resting against a beige couch a wood-paneled room, seated next to a peering, spectral manifestation of the artist. The third element here is the geographical site of Memphis, which becomes the conduit for exploring and questioning the unseen, cellular links between generations of the Asian diaspora, calling into question what it means to belong to a specific place or group. “I'm trying to create dialect from the intersections of immigrant and child of immigrants, Asian and American, queer and straight photographies, North and South”, says Kha.
The presence of cameras, mirrors, cell phones, and even the darkroom itself - think drop cloths, light poles, tripods, cables - has been a prominent feature in Paul Sepuya’s erotic portraits of friends. In many, his own body is literally entangled with that of his subject in a conflation of self with other in scenes that are at once ad hoc and conspiratorial. The abstraction and fragmentation of Sepuya's staging is further enhanced by the manipulation of his prints into cubist-styled formats that collapse 2-D and 3-D space. This assembling and dissembling of queer male embodiment slows down our consumption of such sensuous, tender encounters, and undermines that decisive moment so essential to a “perfect” photo. This is particularly evident in Figure (0X5A0918), 2019, where the artist and another dark-skinned male embrace one another on a pine wood bench, limbs akimbo. They are in the artist’s studio where the only other prop is a crate set below them on which a navy button-down shirt and a ball cap have been discarded. Set at a slight angle, the two men are virtually indistinguishable outside the tattoo on the back of one that looks like a coat-of-arms with a Zulu shield. Even the figure who faces us is occluded by the analog camera he holds up to take the picture, and the iPhone that his partner has positioned above it. Within the reflection of that tiny screen no doubt lies clues as to their identity, but this photo within a photo is more a tease than a tell. There are no thirst traps here, just bodies — vulnerable, real, beautiful and flawed - in whose anonymity lies true agency.