Eye on the Scene
Alison Oakesâ’ self-portraits reveal a sense of intimacy
by Matthew Blanshei
When asked what he thought about the selection of a 12-year-old to front Australiaâ’s â“Gold Coast Fashion Week,â” Prime Minister John Howard did not hesitate to voice his indignation: â“Catapulting girls as young as 12 into something like that is outrageousâThere should be age limits; I mean there has to be.â” It is not too surprising that Howard seemed to have some difficulty explaining just what it was he found to be so outrageous about this particular affair. After all, the 12-year-old (Maddison Gabriel) who told reporters that â“modeling is the only thingâ” she â“wanted to do since age 6â” hardly expressed a strange, illicit desire. Perhaps all she can then stand accused of is pursuing Madison Avenueâ’s ideal of feminine beauty a bit too earnestly.
Of course, the process of socialization which â“teachesâ” women how to turn themselves into objects that are to be looked at, possessed, and judged has been singled out for attack by feminist critics and activists since the early 1970s. But â“itâ’s one thing to know that your self-image is influenced by these cultural stereotypes,â” says Alison Oakes, whose most recent series of self-portraits has been on display this month at an exhibit held at the Fluorescent Gallery on North Central Street. â“And itâ’s another thing to claim you are in no way affected by them.â”
Among the many different types of visual and performance art which have been used to draw attention to cultural attitudes toward women, the self-portrait seems to stand out as an especially effective way to create new forms of self-expression. And they can directly confront a Western Art tradition that established the feminine standard of beauty the advertising age inherited. This explains in part why Oakes chose to work within a genre whose rich history provided her with several â“modelsâ” (including Manet, Vuillard, and Alice Neelâ’s later works) which she appeared to synthesize into a series of nude self-portraits.
In these works, Oakes seems to exploit the theatrical element of the self-portrait by emphasizing the artificiality of both the subjectâ’s pose and the surrounding setting. So rather than viewing these self-portraits as revelations of an inner experience, it seems we are meant to regard them as performance pieces which document how Oakes attempts to separate her sense of personal identity from the act of watching herself being watched by the voyeuristic viewer. What that self-image is remains elusive, and the same could be said in a more striking way about her recent self-portraits. On first viewing, they seem to abandon figurative representation along with any readily identifiable connection to the history of the genre.
Before she began to work on these oil paintings, Oakes said she had in fact reached the point where neither the traditional self-portrait nor the performance art pieces that â“defacedâ” and â“disfiguredâ” the standard ideal of beauty afforded her an adequate means of representation. But while lacking the alleged shock value generated by the photographs Hannah Wilke took of herself with molded pieces of chewed gum covering her naked body, or by the videotaped footage of â“Saint Orlanâ” undergoing elective plastic surgery, Oakesâ’ latest self-portraits appear to offer a less blatant and yet more disconcerting (and therefore perhaps more lasting) form of â“realism.â”
At first sight, each of these paintings resembles a broken fragment bearing the faded, amorphous remnants of some sort of geological formation. But the longer we linger over the muted color patterns imprinted on the exposed, smooth surface of this underlying layer, the more we begin to sense that we are viewing extreme close-ups of cropped X-ray images that are somehow able to give human flesh and internal organs a skeletal and richly textured appearance.
To bring about such an unexpected and unfamiliar sense of intimacy, Oakes composed the paintings by working from blurred photographs taken of various parts of her body; each portrait then presents a record or afterimage of how she appeared to herself during a protracted moment that did not culminate in a definitive self-perception. But it also sets a kind of trap for the would-be voyeur.
That is, instead of staging a scene in which she pretends not to know that she is being watched, Oakesâ’ self-portraits seem to impose a sense of farsightedness on viewers that thwarts their desire to visually grasp the tactile, at times tentatively recognizable forms (e.g., mouth, knuckle, lips, teeth) which appear to stain the canvas. This may give us the feeling that we have been offered an intimation of an inner experience that neither the viewer nor the subject of the self-portrait can possess or fully apprehend.
And a painterâ’s ability to convey how the recognition of such a limitation can be converted into a source of creation rather than a state of privation gives expression to a new kind of beauty.
Who: Alison Oakes
When: Thru Friday, Sept. 28
Where: Fluorescent Gallery, 627 N. Central Ave.
How Much: Free
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