PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAITS IN FOCUS
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – An exhibition of contemporary photographic portraits opens the fall exhibition season at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery on September 11, 2017. WHO ARE WE? IDENTITY AND THE CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAIT examines how, in our image-saturated world, photographs have increasingly played a primary role in shaping identity. An opening reception will be held on Friday, September 15 from 5 to 7 pm in conjunction with Vanderbilt Parents’ and Family Weekend and Fall for the Arts. The exhibition will be on view through December 7, 2017, with closures for Fall Break (October 12–15) and Thanksgiving Break (November 18–26). The Fine Arts Gallery is located in Cohen Memorial Hall at 1220 21st Avenue South, on the western edge of the Peabody College campus. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday 11 am–4 pm, Weekends 1–5 pm. Admission and all events are free and open to the public.
The photographic portrait, with its roots in early nineteenth-century France, has continually challenged how we view ourselves. Such works have become increasingly fluid over time and almost as difficult to grasp as the nature of identity itself. These portraits, in their early form, insisted on their realism, a mirror within the context of traditional painting. As Susan Sontag observed in her seminal collection of essays on photography, “photographs furnish evidence.”
The contemporary photographic portrait, as explored in this exhibition, is diverse, yet tends to incorporate a common thread: the desire to say something about us as people. Some artists approach the medium as a means to tell a larger story, as seen in two portraits by Shirin Neshat, made in response to the Arab Spring and, specifically, to the harsh reality of displacement. Andres Serrano uses the photographic portrait to explore American identity. Still others, such as the photojournalist Donna Ferrato, employ photography as an agent for social change, in this instance, her crusade against domestic violence.
Several artists featured in the exhibition approach the tradition of the photographic portrait conceptually, in that the actual work of art is less about a specific person and more about the ideas the artist is trying to convey. Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson often use this strategy to confront issues surrounding race and the marginality of the black figure in art and culture. Kelli Connell, exploring the fluidity of gender roles and sexuality, employs forms of digital manipulation to give the appearance that what we see is an intimate moment between two people who almost seem to be mirror images of each other (in fact, they are the same person).
A number of artists are drawn to capturing the inner lives of their sitters or, in some cases, themselves. Kiki Smith, in Las Animas, depicts multiple representations of her body that can be characterized as a form of cathartic introspection. Four portraits from a larger body of work by Joyce Tenneson depict women in what she termed the “third phase of their lives.” Tenneson’s women face us with a fearless attitude, perhaps brought forward with age and the passage of time. Their histories are written in their faces, in their eyes, and across their bodies. Nan Goldin’s landmark Clemens Cruising in the Glass, Tour d’Eiffel, Paris, is part of the artist’s ongoing project to document the intimate lives of her circle of friends, often those on the periphery of mainstream society, taking private moments into the public sphere.
What does it mean when the creation of identity takes place in societal isolation, a space void of all external associations and influences? The Dutch artist Roy Villevoye has confronted these ideas for more than two decades with a subtle, non-invasive approach to his subject, the Asmat in Papua New Guinea. We can imagine that the construction of these images must be strange for the sitters, as many Asmat living in these isolated communities have never even seen their own reflections in a mirror, much less captured in a photograph. For us, these photographs point to how little we know of those beyond our sphere and how illequipped we are to understand who they are as people. Yet, the very fact that we are able to see them in an art gallery or museum points to an end-game position, where even the most remote peoples on our earth are, in some respects, not far from us at all.
As noted by Joseph Mella, director and curator, “Portraits, in all their diversity, serve not only the needs of the sitter and artist, but also those of the viewer. Portraits give us clues to who we are as humans and the possibilities of what we could become.” Instagram and other forms of social media dominate the cultural landscape while the reliance on photography in our own lives increasingly presents questions about representation and identity that artists continue to navigate in surprising ways. Who are we, indeed, and what do we wish to become, and just how easy can it be to craft our own identities?
The exhibition includes:
- Thirty-three works of art by American and international artists: Lucien Clergue, Chuck Close, Kelli Connell, Donna Ferrato, Ralph Gibson, Nan Goldin, Atta Kim, Yasumasa Morimura, Shirin Neshat, Nicholas Nixon, Thomas Roma, David Salle, Jenny Saville and Glen Lutchford, Andres Serrano, Lorna Simpson, Kiki Smith, Alec Soth, Joyce Tenneson, Roy Villevoye, Carrie Mae Weems, William Wylie
- Twelve works added to the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery’s collection in the past two years
- Photographs loaned from three private collections
- Photographs loaned from two artist’s collections
The first in a three-part series on portraiture, WHO ARE WE? IDENTITY AND THE CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAIT is organized by the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery and curated by Joseph S. Mella, director, with support provided by The Ingram Commons and Leslie Cecil and Creighton Michael, MA’76.
For more information on visiting the gallery, see Vanderbilt.edu/gallery. Visitors to special events may park, free of charge, anywhere in Lot 95, accessible from 21st avenue south.