Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 17, 2022
Left Side Right Side
Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, June 25, 2021–March 6, 2022
Left Side Right Side, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, June 25, 2021–March 6, 2022

In the fractured social landscape of the United States, as we move into 2022, questions of identity haunt us. Identity politics, individual choice, the boundaries of the body and the state are all contested and unstable. This terrain of instability, which can feel like a collapse of the aesthetic projects of both modernism and postmodernism, is an opportune moment for investigating the continued significance of portraiture. Left Side Right Side, at Jacksonville’s Museum of Contemporary Art, adroitly gathered works in a variety of media that address and contest the meaning and use of the portrait in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Susan Tallman recently argued that the portrait is never about revealing psychic depths captured by that elusive term self, but instead about the politics of self-presentation (“The Uses of Portraiture,” New York Review of Books, October 7, 2021). Yet, Left Side Right Side conveys how profoundly portraiture is haunted by a deeper turn of identity: the inescapable needs and vulnerabilities of embodied existence.

Doug Eng’s Replicated Self (2016) and David Hilliard’s Boys Tethered (2008) contend with these complicated issues confronting contemporary portrait artists. For Eng’s work, corrugated cardboard was shaped to the contours of the artist’s face and then cut into angular fragments as a kind of shattered mask that is mounted in front of a photographic self-portrait. Through the gaps of the mask, we glimpse the artist’s right eye, bits of forehead and nose. The artist’s mild expression contrasts with the sense of explosive force emanating from the arranged mask. This, along with the title’s gesture to Ridley Scott’s “replicants,” from his 1982 film Blade Runner, evokes the uneasy, poignant persistence of embodied identity in the context of digitized social fields. Boys Tethered evocatively contrasts with Eng’s self-meditation. In Hilliard’s chromogenic print, adolescent males inhabit a boundary zone, between water and land, childhood and adulthood. One boy begins to row into the lake, while the boy in the foreground leans his face down and holds onto a rope that tethers the boat. A sense of indecision attends him, the bond of the rope at once loose and taut, the misty water blurred, as if the decision to row into the lake were one of absolute immersion. The photograph limns the impending crisis of youth in the early twenty-first century, capturing the anxiety of climate change, economic decline, and uncertainty over the nature of self and identity that are fomenting a mental health crisis in young millennials and Gen Z. The two boys, balanced and imbalanced in the image—one whose face and body we see closely, the other rowing away—suggest a split or doubled self.

These permutations of divided self are predicted in Joan Jonas’s prescient 1972 video installation Left Side Right Side, after which the exhibit was titled and around which its theme was organized. Jonas created an eerie self-portrait in which she is divided by a split frame. The mirroring that results from her verbal mapping of her face, as Jonas directs, “This is my, my right side,” and so forth, unsettles the positionality of the self-portrait subject in its relation to the viewer. The misdirection further obscures and renders strange the act of looking at the video, highlighting the illusory structure of representational (as opposed to conceptual) portraiture. Jonas’s video, in which filmic images are deployed like sculptural elements, commanded a portion of the wall where it was set so that spatially it seemed to gather the room. At once clinical and ghostly, Jonas’s fifty-year-old self-portrait led a vanguard of feminist self-representation. Controlling the terms of her faciality, Jonas deconstructed and subverted the overwhelmingly prevalent cultural belief—then and still now—that images of women’s bodies and faces are endlessly available to masculinist mechanisms of desire and domination. In destabilizing our prurience, the video demonstrates image to be a process rather than an emblem, as Jonas’s fragmented presentation of self spookily re-conjoins in the spatial and temporal structure of video.  She haunts the room in which the video is placed, haunts the very idea of portraiture, demonstrating the power of the human face to intimate an interior psychic realm that is, as Emily Dickinson writes, “wider than the sky.” In this haunting, Jonas, and the portraitists who follow her, prove the continued power of the portrait today.

In the context set by Jonas’s conceptually and physically expansive work, Steve Jones’s oil painting Fifties Café, 1988 extends the subjunctive tense of the self. Here, stripped down to cut-off jeans and a tank top, a young man smokes with a look of desperation. The painting borrows from photorealism, blending backdrop images of Marilyn Monroe and the Marlboro Man with the portrait’s focal figure, who like Monroe is a bleached blonde and like the Marlboro Man stages hypermasculinity. The image realm of Fifties Café, 1988 carries the unfinished work of mourning during the AIDS pandemic. The garish emblems of the painting increase its palpable sense of grief, as the young man—a drifter, perhaps a hustler—smokes next to a nuclear shelter sign. In Chuck Close’s massive Lyle (1999), the face of artist Lyle Ashton Harris is broken into a grid, as if Close were swallowing, with paint, the technology of pixelated digital photography that was at the time new. Harris’s own work, with its emphasis on queer identity and interrogation of American notions of race, acts as an allusive template for Close’s portrait with its dual abstract/figurative pull that beckons us to question the identity of the subject.

A sense of the self as vulnerable to corrosive, unsettled time unified the works in the exhibit, so that the force of the whole was to suggest revisions of the genre of portraiture, estranging it from concepts of intactness and completion. Along these lines, Angela Strassheim’s 2005 photograph Untitled (Lucian and Katherine), in which a mother and young son stand together as he touches her pregnant belly, explores this impossibility of finish, recalling Alberto Giacometti’s claim that “the terrible thing” about portraiture is that “the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish” (James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, Museum of Modern Art, 1965, 11). In Strassheim’s work, the mother and child stand in the recessed interior of an unfinished bay window, the walls stripped away to show pink insulation. Plastic covers the windows and unfinished walls. Mother and son are wearing only undergarments, their bodies neither dressed nor undressed—in this sense, unfinished. The image’s evocation of the Virgin Mary and Christ is destabilized by the mother’s pregnancy, which works against traditional iconography of the Virgin, who is never shown pregnant with her next child. The portrait shows how the idea of self is destabilized by the experience of maternity—the mother’s body still accessible to the young boy, as evinced by his reaching his hand beneath her shirt, and also available to the fetus she carries. The unfinished state of the portrait, articulated in the unfinished house, places the image’s time in the subjunctive: a possible and always uncertain future that eats away at any sense of self we might try to fix an image.

In this mode, Eric Fischl’s 1989 painting Untitled (Dog) eerily creates a parallel between the forms of a woman and a dog, suggesting both kinship and erasure of individual identity, inasmuch as the faces of the subjects are obscured. Hiram Williams’s Head Before Red Ground (1971) more emphatically articulates a slippage of self, a piece elegiacally matched by the artist’s Man’s Head (1977), with a man’s face evanescing in his own portrait as the paint blurs the visage into abstraction. By balancing the early and mid-twentieth century portraits of artists like Thomas Pollock Anshutz, Stanton MacDonald-Wright, and Wolf Kahn against the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century works discussed above, the exhibit suggested a problematic of dissolution of self and identity as we move into the present.

And yet, despite the exhibit’s emphasis on the contemporary mode of the fragmentary, dissolutive, and transient self of new portraiture, Marsha Hatcher’s “Da Artist” Self Portrait (2020) reinstates a vivid claim to a unified self. Evoking the public space of the mural, Hatcher presents herself as an artist, the one who sees. Hatcher’s reinstatement of a vital, stable self offers a lucid immersion in a human face: that of a woman from South Georgia who now lives and works in Jacksonville. Mural portraits in public spaces in the twenty-first century often function as statements of activism, inserting into public discourse those whose identity has been threatened with erasure. After the deaths of Freddie Gray and George Floyd, public mural memorials arose. By allusively evoking mural art, Hatcher instates her identity as an African American female artist. “Da Artist” Self Portrait signifies, as did Jonas with Left Side Right Side, that in seeing herself as the one-who-sees, a woman artist wields formal power. As artist/philosopher Adrian Piper has pointed out, the idea of self-dissolution as a philosophical position emerges from privileged, entitled populations. For those of us who have already been pressured to be silent and disappear, and in this group I include not only women of color but also women as such, the self-portrait remains a vital form of activist art.

Claire Raymond
Visiting Assistant Professor, Bates College