Thoughts on Beauty, Gender, etc… an Analysis of “Self-portrait Wearing Flower Robe”

For as interesting and bold as I thought this painting was at the time I made it, today it is officially titled “Self-portrait Wearing Flower Robe,” and although it is straight to the point it does not play up any of the mystique I as a subject matter may be trying to convey in the work. Onto the good stuff though.

This painting was made in 2014 around a time I watched a lot of Rupaul’s Drag Race and was more introspectively trying to consider nuances of questioning gender identity and what it meant to present male or female. On a personal level I discovered that the efforts it took to “feminize” my appearance and outfits were too great just to say I was being subversive to some idea of outward gender performance or expression. The bottom line was I was not remotely interested in pursuing drag make-up as a hobby, much less a serious way to question my own outward appearance as a cisgendered man. It remained, however, a compelling subject to explore in art – and this painting was born out of a commitment to a first drag look so to say.

This is only one side of the coin however; the concept behind the work only tells half the story. As much as this self-portrait is about my early and still-developing thoughts about gender and its outward performance/expression it is first and foremost an object, a painting to be more precise. Before this painting came to be the artist (me), had his best friend take a photo of him in his college dorm bathroom, with a full face of (busted) drag make-up while wearing said friend’s Forever 21 flower robe. This scene really played out in real life: three friends lent me their everyday make-up to play with and slather on my face and thankfully – though much to their entertainment – I received some of their help along the way (though let it be known I did an amazing job with the eyeliner all by myself; I was feeling my Amy Winehouse eyeliner fantasy).

An observation I’d like to make right about now is that while attempting to look beautiful applying a full-face of make-up for the first time, I was trying my best to obtain serious results. I’m not smiling in my final reference shot – I’m actively trying to shy away from any obtuse or overtly-masculine gestures that might take away from whatever softness I wanted to convey – this was an attempt at being the most beautiful I could be. Years later I question whether the look itself is successful but what remains important for me isn’t whether or not I succeeded at appearing beautiful – but simply that I committed to trying. I was not concerned about the finesse and perfection of the make-up job, I just wanted it on me. And all of this to say that the photo that served as reference had to somehow embody not a perfect idea of beauty, but an idea that as a man I could be beautiful with make-up on my face and a delicate flower print adorning my shoulder.

About a year after I made the piece I showed it alongside five more in my first solo show at Gallery Aferro titled “Made by Juno.” The six artworks chosen to be a part of this show dealt primarily with my thoughts and feelings about gender and sexuality at the time, with two works more or less about religion thrown in there for good measure. I think each of the six pieces I displayed that day were very obvious or simple compositional solutions to address some kind of feeling.

But ultimately the goal of this painting at the time I made it was to explore outward gender expression without making a joke about men in women’s clothing. Though I’m not sure that at any other time in my life other than a painting class I would have the urge to dress up and make myself up into a beautiful image just to have a more diverse painting subject. The urge likely came about because of the eventual disinterest in the idea that drag could be a great tool to actively subvert and influence my own gender performance and expression. These days nail polish and flow-ey skirts do the trick and are not a bit invasive or difficult to pull off. As for the practice of painting itself, I would eventually let go of many of the technical hang-ups I had while I was in the process of making this and the other work featured in the “Made by Juno” show with the exception of two (I think). Perhaps it bears value to write more in depth about each of these six artworks in upcoming blog posts. ■

Juno Zago

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