Autobiography in Art (Owen Brown)

Autobiography in Art (Owen Brown)

Autobiography in Art, Part II of Owen Brown’s Guest Blog. (Part One)

Albrecht Dürer’s Self Portrait

Not the obvious, then. That is, Velasquez peeking coyly from Las Meninas, or Rembrandt’s absolutely gorgeous self-portraits, from youth through age. Or even Picasso. Or Van Gogh. Frida Kahlo. Durer, Auerbach, Freud, Hockney. It is easy enough to put pencil and chalk to paper, or brush to canvas (even when it is not). Less easy, though, to see through the image, to the truth.

What I am trying to say is that the painted surface is a mirror, and one that reflects back on the observer, distorts, and is distorted. Vision is a subjective mechanism; we select and discard, and what we see varies by mood and moment. How we think, who we are with, what we had for lunch … there’s little certainty that we will see “what there is.” To which, although one can be certain that things “are,” each of us has our “areness,” which is hard to share.

Frank Auerbach’s Self Portrait

Hence self-portraiture – a struggle to breech this gap. Artists are trying to do many things, always, some of which remain obscure. To please? To provoke? To make a point? To exchange the work for food, status, money, sex? And who knows, days or years on, what this was? Beyond the artist’s original spark, the point is that we just don’t see, but we are conditioned as to what we see. We don’t look at natural phenomena – water, wind, the rainbow – with the same interest behind or, processes that we employ to look at manmade things, and different cognitive procedures take over when we are looking at a face – painted or photoed, than when we are looking at a field of corn, even if it is a field by Van Gogh.

Still we look. We look because of our essential aloneness. And because we are creatures of need, our looks are questions, desirous of answer, except we don’t know the question. Only that we need to connect with another.

Frida Kahlo

In practical matters, we are always looking for body parts: eye, hand, breast, ear, if on a level that is often removed from consciousness. We search for them not just in paintings, or advertisement, but in the sky’s clouds. An arrangement of twigs. Two black dots and a semicircle, on a lemon yellow background. We need others, and we need them human, else why the popularity of the aibo robot (aibo, 相棒, Japanese for pal…) copies of which may still be comforting thousands of Alzheimer sufferers in Japan. Not just us – Harlow’s experiments with rhesus monkeys in the 1950’s showed that other species, as well, feel the need for affection, companionship, connection. We anchor to a place. We anchor to each other.

And to make the place our own, we fill it with imagination, and with imagery. Regardless the ephemerality, of image, of production (you don’t work on the same painting forever), of thought (you don’t think the same thought for very long) we invest what we do with the lie and comfort of permanence and memory.

Doing this, there’s no more important, nor risky venture, than to make that image, the self. Even if the viewer does not recognize this, every painter present for her painting is painting herself.

Would this mean style? Or more grandly, world view? You might say so. More importantly, as John Elkins has written, each honest object “…has a certain force, a certain way of resisting or accepting [a] look and returning that look to [the viewer].” There is an intimacy of seeing which causes us to pose, stop and wonder, to know that another was here, did this, and here, still, something remains.

Still, seeing “owns what it sees.” Reducing any form of production to commentary runs the danger of denying distinction, destroying needful boundaries, and dissolving individuality into a melting universe of humankind. So that one could claim that a manhole cover is an extension of personality. Or a toilet is a portrait. As did Duchamp. The urge to give up one’s own personhood may be both why painters paint, and, because it is impossible except and unless one is completely psychotic to think that there is no difference between you and me, why there is room for auto-biography, or at the very least, ownership.

David Hockney’s Self Portrait

Beyond metaphysics, a painter can say “I painted that. With my own hands.” And a painter can also say that it’s a picture of San Michel, or of a dog, or a nude, or nothing at all. But at the very least it is an artifact that required the painter to make choices, and through selection, individuate. An object that interrogates systems of belief wanders in the direction of wonder. This is a voyage that, if successful, provides for the need for encounter, and the search for wonder.

If this is not a self-portrait, it is still a truth about the artist who was. As a series is the artist caracoling through one turn at a time, over a life. And we, as spectators, see these objects differently at different times, as we see each other differently. Perhaps what we can best receive from them is an understanding of the uncertain boundary between the inanimate item and the other, of the force of every day symbol, and of the investment of meaning. This is true authenticity, it is something that can not be separated from humanness, or from its certain truth. And it is why painters paint.

– Owen Brown

You can listen to Brown’s interview with Art Force from last year here!