At school, the idea of portraiture was a common test of aptitude and technical accomplishment. The ability to render through observation a ‘surface’ likeness was seen as the highest accolade in artistic talent and one guaranteed to achieve high marks in what was then the O-level and A-level examinations. However, even at that stage in my education it made me somewhat uneasy, as I could not see how such an approach necessarily revealed any deep understanding of either the person sitting inertly in the schoolroom or how it could be a vehicle for my own expression. This feeling continued when as an undergraduate at the Slade School of Art, I observed fellow students in the life rooms studiously working to capture a likeness of the model. I felt that there must be another way to proceed and one that engaged more sensuously with the material of paint itself. I looked for inspiration to works that fractured the self, such as Patrick Heron’s, Self Portrait (1951) or Sonia Delaunay’s, Self portrait (1916). The latter was used as the cover design for the catalogue for her exhibition at the Modern Art Museum, Stockholm, and was simply made up of concentric coloured circles.
As a young art graduate I was often asked whether my work was in essence a self-portrait and at the time I did not know the answer. I have been reflecting on this ever since and feel that perhaps I am more comfortable with my work being a reflection of the ‘self’ rather than as ‘portrait’. In contrast to the focus on external appearance, as with the observed portrait, I see my work as emanating from a sense of the internal, or my ‘female self’, from the inside out. This embraces the idea of the body as a membrane through which experiences pass and as such I would claim they should be seen as self-portraits.
In Joanna Hogg’s film Exhibition (2014) the character of D played by Viv Albertine has a deeply physical and tactile relationship to the environment of her modernist house, in which she lives along with her fellow artist and partner, H played by the artist Liam Gillick. In contrast to Gillick’s character who is focused on external forces, D seeks to become as one with her environment, wrapping herself around and under furniture and on window ledges, becoming part of the furniture. I wondered whether these powerful images of D captured in the film were not portraits rendered, through the senses of the body’s relation to the objects, with which it comes into contact.
The significance of About Face is that it is has developed through conversations and dialogue. This reflects the creative approach of the project’s initiator, Eileen Hogan, with her collegiate sense and openness to share. The project is on going and will be shaped by the varied practitioners, researchers and curators that already form the core group. I hope that it will also encourage our current students to reconsider the rich and diverse field of portraiture.