The Naked Face II

NGV - Naked Face - Installation ViewSaturday, 15 January 2011

The Naked Face: Exhibition of Self-Portraits at the NGV [Part II]

[… continued from Part I …]


Sadly, what looks good on the pages of a book, does not necessarily translate well into the exhibition design. Grouping and positioning of the works on the gallery’s walls frequently appears to be incongruous and haphazard. For example, there is a seemingly coherent section devoted to self-portraits of artists representing themselves within a studio environment, and yet one finds another body of works on exactly the same subject placed inexplicably elsewhere in the exhibition space.

NGV - Naked Face - Installation View


While  self-portrait etchings by Rembrandt and Mike Parr look marvellous side by side on the pages of the catalogue, the same placement does not work within the exhibition space, where Parr’s bold large-scale works overpower Rembrandt’s delicate etchings, which would have been more advantageously displayed next two those of Van Dyck and artists of his era. How much more powerful Chuck Close’s self-portrait would have looked placed beside an equally hyper-realistic, over-life-size self-portrait by Vernon Ah Kee! Other examples can be also cited.

NGV - Naked Face - Installation ViewThe possibilities of representation and self-representation have undergone considerable changes over the course of the 20th and 21st Century, challenging mimetic limitations of the genre. This aspect of (self-)portraiture is explored well within the catalogue with a focus on works by such artists as John Nixon, Mathew Jones, Antony Gormley, Destiny Deacon, Katherine Hattam, Huang Yan, Gareth Sansom, David McDiarmid, and others. However, once again, works by these artists are scattered all over the exhibition space. The impact of this radical shift against purely mimetic representation is diluted and lost.

NGV - Naked Face - Installation View -Joseph Wright of DerbyThe inclusion of dresses by Coco Chanel and Zandra Rhodes as “self-portraits” is questionable. It is once again a very interesting supposition that stands up academically within the pages of the book, but looks isolated and out of place within the context of this exhibition. On what authority does the curator decide that these two dresses represent their respective designers better than any other thousands of garments they produced? If we accept these dresses as self-portraits, what was the reason for the exclusion of garments by other designers? Last but not least, their placement against a sickly pink background with works by Warhol and McDiarmid creates such a stereotypically “gay” corner, as to be almost insulting.

NGV - Cindy ShermanSome of the works in the exhibition are not self-portraits at all. The interpretation of works by Claude Mellan, Claude Lorraine, Francisco de Goya, Balthus, Vivienne Shark Le Witt, and Andrew Pyett as self-portraits is tenuous in the extreme, and would have been best relegated to the pages of the catalogue as purely illustrative material. Explaining the notion of “narcissism” in a gallery space lined with mirrors; hanging Julie Rrap’s work “Flying” high up near the ceiling; and creating a “gay” corner smacks of “dumbing down” of the exhibition display.

NGV - Naked Face - Installation View - Fred McCubbinAny survey of self-portraiture, be it a book or an exhibition, is set by default to be dominated by portraits of white middle-aged men. Gaston attempted to re-address this gendered imbalance by including perhaps every self-portrait by a female artist to be found in the gallery’s collection, including those by Patricia Piccinini, Kate Benyon, Sue Ford, Bea Maddocks, Katherine Hattam, Sybil Craig, Nancy Borlaise, Julie Rrap, Destiny Deacon, Cindy Sherman and others. However, without editing down the inevitable bulk of male portraits, the exhibition space is still overwhelmed by pasty-skinned middle-aged men staring down at the viewer.

NGV - Naked Face - Installation ViewIn conclusion, I would like to reiterate that the premise of The Naked Face exhibition as an academic and educational exercise that focuses on different aspects and nuances of self-portraiture is intelligent, erudite, and inspired. The accompanying exhibition catalogue is a statement to the curator’s passion and knowledge on the subject. However, given the challenge of drawing the exhibition entirely from the National Gallery of Victoria, which is not a specialist self-portrait collection, perhaps required a differentiation of approach between the book and the exhibition display. It is my opinion that, given the limitations of the collection’s holdings, the display would have benefited from a chronological hang where the Old Masters would have represented an infinitely stronger body of work, and where the impact of the radical shift against the purely mimetic representation in the 20th and 21st century would have looked more dramatic by comparison. A tighter editing of the works on view would have likewise addressed the inevitable gendered imbalance of a self-portrait show.

NGV - Naked Face - Installation View - Mike Parr

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgement.]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2011


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