Portraiture has always been a two-way street, an even more so in contemporary times, photographic portraiture. Are Sally Mann’s photos of her children more about the kids or more about Sally Mann, for instance. Are Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits about Cindy Sherman or someone else. Just what/who are we looking at?
At FLUXspace, two photographers take on problematic forms of portraiture. Jessica Roberts and Chad Muthard couldn’t be more different in their approaches and their results.
Roberts, a young photographer whose work has been seen around Philadelphia, most notably at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery’s L’Autre exhibit (post here), has the issue of the intrusiveness of the photographer all over her portraits. I look and I think, how has the interaction between Roberts and the subject has led to this particular projection of personhood? I love Roberts’ work. It pushes mores and it projects transgression and discomfort and the subjects’ relationships to their bodies–or maybe these issues are what Roberts projects onto her subjects.
The vulnerability she captures, particularly in her portraits of teenage boys is a little sexual, a little childlike, and a little surprising. Mostly, there’s that presence of a male body, very physical, but not at ease with itself.
The sexuality of her portraits of a couple of young girls and a young boy brings me straight into Sally Mann country–and Elizabeth Peyton. This is a different kettle of fish. The vulnerability and tentativeness in the teenage boy photos is replaced by self-contrainment, and a sexual pose that feels false–a pin-up facade to keep vulnerability at bay, or to please someone’s expectations.
The photographs in all cases are slippery. The reality of what they show is open to question. In the world of contemporary portraiture, that’s surely the case in general. And it’s what makes the work interesting.
Muthard’s photographs are portraits by proxy–landscape-like images of materials that represent the subjects of the portraits. This is not a brand new idea. It was a hot ticket on the Surrealist circuit, for starters, with thing-portraits by Ernst and Magritte.
I found myself unable to reach Muthard’s subjects as human beings or individuals; what I found more navigable was that so many of these were about covering up, with masking one layer of imagery with another. That’s in addition to literally masking the subjects by describing them as some abstracted material.
The most interesting of them, to me, was Olga, although the red sexuality disturbed me, be it blood or a body part or whatever. The what-is-it quality of the image, the texture and shape and layer of soapy water, held my attention.
One of Muthard’s portraits was of Dustin Metz, the very person who let me in to FLUX that day. so I asked Dustin what he thought of his portrait, layers of screening framing nothingness. Talk about an absent subject!! He said he thought it was great and accurate. Plus, his sister immediately knew which of the images was about him! I’m still astounded.