"Who are You?" Bellevue Art Museum, Bellevue, WA


by: Eric Fredericksen , The PLI, Seattle, Washington

The venerable genre of self-portraiture, mainstay of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, has undergone a great change in recent years. Formerly an instrument of intense self-scrutiny, bouncing between the poles of narcissism and self-hatred, the genre has been turned on its head, and now spends most of its time documenting its own impossibility. The work on view in The Self, Absorbed constantly distances you from its subjects, even as it attempts, in some cases, to present exact inventories of them. The whole idea of an individual distance starts to look suspect. The most exact self-representation here comes in a recent series of holographic self-portraits by Chuck Close. Close poses himself in four basic positions: full front, profile, and two three quarters profiles, left and right. As you move from one piece to the next, Close's head turns toward the next pose; hen you get to the end you've seen it from every angle except the rear. The depiction is of course, very exact and the pose utterly neutral, even uncommunicative. You'd know everything and nothing about this person.
Other artists here aim straight for types, looking possibly to draw the individual out of the generic. Do-Ho Suh's Who Am We? is wallpaper made from thousands of tiny Korean yearbook photos: Each specific face could be Suh and in fact one of them is but seen from any distance beyond a couple of inches from the wall, they blur into an all-over salt-and-pepper gray. The individual disappears in the vast population surrounding him.

Screen shot of interactive work: "Who are You?" Click on the image to go to the project

Inventories are common themes. Bruce Cannon's piece Ten Things I Can Count On reduces life beneath even statistics, to numbers that move either up or down, and thus can be counted as a child would count. Titles of some of the ten counting machines include Breaths I Have Left, and Breaths I Have Taken. In a complex machine nearby, Cannon presents the evidence that he is living: A red light flashes on and off, approximating Cannon's heartbeat, and a tilting scale slowly counts off the years of his life, one degree per year. Cannon is required to call the piece via modem once a month to keep the light flashing; otherwise, it shuts off forever.
A piece hidden away in the back corner is a self-portrait in reverse. A video installation by Mexico City artist Minerva Cuevas, Drunker shows an attractive, well-dressed, and coifed person politely obliterating herself with tequila. (Maybe she was driven to drink by the pressure underlying the tortured self-depictions surrounding her.) As she drinks, she writes down, in Spanish, the reasons why she's drinking, each item followed, each item followed by the simple lie "No estoy borracho [I'm not Drunk]." The sheets of paper she wrote on hang in the gallery, allowing us to learn that she drinks para pensar, para cantar, para no mentir, para hablar con dios, para amar. By the end of the hour long video, she's drunk herself unconscious. Her act of confession leaves her depleted, absorbed, no more.