Evolution of self reflected in ‘Portraits’

IIllustration by Frank Neufeld

That cropped, off-centre, filtered selfie you posted on Instagram yesterday is just one symptom of a resurrected, contemporary interest in portraiture. It’s also one of the inspirations for Portraits, Self and Others (It’s Complicated) – an exhibition currently on display at Western’s McIntosh Gallery.

“Everyone is posting images of themselves. There is this broad, popular interest in portraiture of various sorts, and I thought, well, what can we do that will look at what artists are doing with portraiture now, and what they have been doing since about 1970,” said James Patten, McIntosh Director and Chief Curator.

Tony Scherman, Joseph Rotman, Chancellor of Western University (2012-2015), 2015.

Tony Scherman, Joseph Rotman, Chancellor of Western University (2012-2015), 2015.

“We wanted to expand the notion of portraiture and show what identity is. What is the self? With so many images and so much information today, our sense of identity isn’t this fixed outlined portrait, it’s coming out from all different sources, and changing all the time.”

Portraits showcases conventional and not-so-conventional images of the self and other, and features works from more than 20 contemporary artists, spanning four decades of work. The exhibition runs through Oct. 29.

The show is about much more than what style, medium or approach constitutes a portrait, Patten explained. The works on display raise questions of identity, how we define and how we visually represent the self. While some installations, such as photographs and paintings, show a more traditional approach to the portrait, others hone in on one particular aspect of the individual being portrayed – something the artist saw as a defining feature of the subject at hand.

For instance, Canadian artist Joyce Wieland’s portrait is a series of red lipstick imprints, each impression representing a syllable from ‘O Canada.’ Working while riding a wave of nationalism that emerged following Canada’s centennial year, Wieland and her ‘portrait’ might stretch our understanding of portraiture, Patten said. But she is clearly talking about herself, and her sense of nationalism and pride, using her own body to create it, he added.

Barbara Astman, Untitled (from the Red series), 1980.

Barbara Astman, Untitled (from the Red series), 1980.

Artist Kirtley Jarvis said the following of her portrait, a piece of embroidered linen on which she stitched a list of medications:

“Like most of my textile work, this portrait is based on a found note, in this case, one blowing around a parking lot. All handwriting reveals identity as clearly as a signature, even if it’s only employed to compile a list or to record a set of mundane instructions. My research confirmed the obvious, that this person was not well. It is a timetable for taking round-the-clock medication written by a male suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, as well as mood disorders including depression and anxiety; prostate and urination problems; narcolepsy and an inability to fall asleep.”

The piece is coupled with audio of a physician reading the list of medications. It is a powerful, anonymous portrait, showing a defining part of an individual’s day-to-day life, Patten said.

Among the portraits on display is that of former Western Chancellor Joseph Rotman – commissioned as his portrait of record from Toronto artist Tony Scherman, Patten added.

“Mrs. Sandra Rotman has been very involved in the art world – she’s on the board of the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) and has many years’ involvement with it. She wanted to pick an artist who would do a profound and meaningful portrait, and she chose Tony Scherman. He is known internationally for two things – he uses encaustic, which is wax, which is really hard to work in. He’s also known for the psychological depth of his portraiture,” he explained.

Jason McLean, Move it or Lose it, 2012.

Jason McLean, Move it or Lose it, 2012.

“And this (portrait) falls into the traditional understanding of portraiture – to reveal the person’s character and their personality without movement, just with their eyes, shape of the face. (Mr. Rotman) seems like a really nice guy here, thoughtful, intelligent and that’s really hard to create with these broad brush strokes.”

This is the first public display of the Rotman portrait, he added, noting it will be on display at The Great Hall once the exhibition closes.

“Sadly, he died while he was in office as Chancellor – so I think the portrait has added meaning. It came alive during opening night, with lighting on it. Because it is wax, it is translucent and all this life comes out of it,” Patten said.