This is the third writing piece I dedicate to one of six works I showed in my 2015 solo show “Made by Juno” at Gallery Aferro. This is one of my favorites.
“Self-portrait as Björk’s Homogenic” is small painting and probably the least subtle thing I’ve made. The premise behind this one was to think about the way selfie and internet culture encourages us to edit ourselves and to which extents we go to curate our self image. I made this painting in the Fall of 2014 when I was twenty and at the time I thought about which of the women I considered divas I was obsessed with would make a more striking painting if I replaced their faces with mine, Björk or Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa)? In the end Björk won out because I knew from earlier google searches that there was a hi-res poster-ratio image of her “Homogenic” album cover that would better service my rectangular panel.
Once done, the painting was praised mostly on a technical level – some compliments I appreciated were about the way I rendered the texture of the silk garment Björk wore on the cover and for my ability to “go there” with the assignment as it were. My friend Andrew, fondly remembered for his habit of being the first and often only person to criticize during critiques, reminded me I had not resolved the hands very well despite previous pointers given on this very thing in a previous critique. It was not until I was planning the show a year and a half later that I received another pointed critique for this piece. It came from an artist who asked me about the significance of the negative space between the two large hair buns on the figure’s head. He pointed out that the triangular shape made by this negative space could have cultural and religious connotations. He also noted couldn’t simply recreate images I’d seen before without considering the meaning behind the intention.
(This is a good time for a Big Parenthesis, which is I hardly care for meaning. I wasn’t making art to elicit symbolic meaning when I was in art school and I still don’t care to make meaningful, symbolic art today. As a matter of fact I want to make art that addresses whatever the fuck I want to address and whatever fucking meaning a viewer imbues into it from the visual and possible text information provided good for fucking them. Whatever.)
There was no harm in his critiques yet I did not particularly hold onto them. As a matter of fact I did not actively think about this painting for another year and a half until this painting though presented its meaning to me. Two and a half years after painting it I caught myself thinking about it after a random late night involving several strangers and music videos. Alex and I were house-sitting and he had invited some folks over for dinner who ended up staying until very late in the night/early morning. Part of this time was spent sharing some of our favorite music videos.
One of the people who stayed late into the night with Alex and I was Anthony, a strapping gay man with shoulder length bright auburn hair kept in a tidy, small, bun on top of his head. As he relaxed through the night he showed off his tattooed back and peeled back the layers of his ambiguous personality to reveal a much warmer, queerer, enthusiastic interior. After some time music-video-jockeyed for our friends him and I began going down the road of Scandinavian Electro-pop which sealed the deal for me because there’s just something about Scandinavian Electro-pop music aesthetic that welcomes a magic I feel is lacking in American/Western music video aesthetic.
I shared some of my personal greats – titanic divas like Iceland’s own Björk, followed by a slew of incredible Swedes like Fever Ray, iamamiwhoami, Robyn, whose videos were emotional, foreboding, and thriving. Anthony shared a music video by Danish singer Asbjørn. In it two beautiful young men move about in a romantic, post-coital, lazy morning kind of way. A mirror breaks and when one of them accidentally slices his hand on a shard, the other mirrors the motion and slices his own in a kind of silent assurance. The imagery reads beautiful and I think in part simply because the two young men are beautiful. Actually watching the video was punctuated by Anthony sitting beside us talking about how much he loved it, how beautiful he thought it was, how perfect it was. I thought it was alright.
Later on I found myself thinking that if Anthony and I are both gay men, how come in the world of Scandinavian Electro-pop he could relate so much to those slender, gentle, romantic white boys with perfect jaws and navels and I couldn’t? Why is it that I fixated and related so much more to women who used their open surroundings to embody feelings so much bigger than themselves and do so in explosive tone, rather than in gentle crooning? The obvious answer I produced was that Anthony saw himself reflected in the beautiful young men of Asbjørn’s video and I didn’t – I saw myself in the catharsis explored by the intense female artists whose videos I shared.
This realization brought me right back to my painting. The night of our final critique for the finished assignment another student, Megan, had chosen to represent herself as the striker in a soccer team. She explained she’s had extensive knee surgeries throughout her life and that she will never be able to actually play soccer the way she wishes she could. I believe her explanation planted the seed for what I would later realize about my painting and myself after I saw how much Anthony could relate to pretty boys in a music video and I couldn’t. Without making sweeping statements about the relationship between physical attractiveness and self-confidence or self-worth (or “relatability”) my inability to see myself in those young men in the music video is perhaps an example of what are the things outside of the immediate flesh and bone confines that one sees oneself in.
And as far as curating self-image is concerned the choice to opt out of presenting oneself through a filter of conventional beauty or believing oneself to be unable to do so led to my choice to represent myself not by what would make me “look better” but what would make me feel the most like myself – and that was representing myself as my favorite singer, one whose music and presentation has inspired my imagination for the better part of the last decade. It felt much more authentic and me than to represent myself in any other stylized form of perfection for outward visual consumption. ■