How are artists are represented in and through their work, do we make assumptions about makers? Robert Holden explored this concept at his book launch last year for “May Gibbs: More than a Fairytale”. The talk focused on May Gibbs’ journey to art plus new information about her illustrations for feminist journals (which relied on her keen understanding of contemporary issues). As a child I wondered if May Gibbs was a gumnut baby as she had such an insight into their world, and even now when I have a “Gibbs lens” when I see the beautiful colours of the Australian bush, and still feel a little distrustful of Banksias. Beyond this I’m not sure about my assumptions, but it’s a bit like trying to remember how you saw a Rorschach inkblot before you knew its label.
A particularly interesting quote (disparaged by Holden as it did not acknowledge Gibbs’ worldliness) likened Gibbs’ sensibility and physicality to that of her gumnut babies and other spritely folk. While a lot of art relies on or involves self-portraiture – from the necessity of model costs or an artist’s unconscious lifelong self-observation – it also means that any work is in danger of an extraneous self-portrait interpretation. I am in two minds about whether every work is a self-portrait, as artists and makers create items from their viewpoint/lens as a visual research project arising from consideration (almost meditation) on their chosen subject.
You can find out more about May Gibbs in the biography by Holden and Brummitt, May Gibbs: more than a fairytale: an artistic life (Trove entry). It’s still on my “to read” list, but based on the talk, I think it would present a more well-rounded view of May Gibbs, beyond the fantastical elven creator which we conjure (and assume) through her engaging works.
Mike Parr, the other end of the visual spectrum (and pop culture)
Artist Mike Parr’s diverse practice has often been labelled as self-portraiture – although he has commented that traditional self-portraiture has become “just a territory or a carapace or a convention, which is worthless in my view.” (Parr to Fortescue in Clemens, 2006, p. 50).
While Parr’s work has explored wide-ranging political issues and sparked debate, it has more often than not, been through the vehicle of a contemplation of his own physicality. The effort involved in looking at his work and its aesthetic density (Maria Zagala quoted in Clemens, 2006, p. 52) visually and psychologically disrupts the viewer. The depicted disturbance and the fearful possibility of that monstrousness emerging from us all almost makes this a collective self-portrait, and also reflects Parr’s consumption and contemplation of psychoanalytical texts. Thomas (2009 , p. 68) explains this phenomenon as:
“[Parr’s] …work is less self-centred than it seems. It represents nothing; instead, it presents a reality which, offered to others, might tell them something about themselves. Let’s call it reality art.”
The question of authenticity and substance in a work – does it accurately reflect the maker? – elicits widespread concern about “truth”, perhaps this is a contributing factor for confessional art and reality television. Some might even be dismayed to find that May Gibbs had a much more balanced “real life” rather than our lazy imaginings of a fae existence. More widescale controversies regarding self-representation have included James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” autobiography which focused more on the emotional truth and cathartic experience of memory, rather than the exact events (for background see Frey’s summary) or the more recent rumblings regarding Miranda Kerr as a brand and business persona (Gorman’s article on TheVine). Maybe all “self-portraits” or reflective work just need an “everyman” disclaimer.
Clemens, Justin. I advance masked: Volte Face: Mike Parr Prints and Pre-Prints 1970-2005 (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2 March – 21 May). [online]. Monthly (Melbourne, Vic.), Apr 2006: (48)-53. From Informit. The Monthly site also has the full-text article (but this doesn’t include 4 pages of artwork).
Holden, Robert. (2011) “May Gibbs: More than a Fairytale”. Talk at National Library of Australia, Canberra.
Thomas, Daniel. Mind / body [Mike Parr’s Cartesian Corpse.] [online]. Monthly (Melbourne, Vic.), Feb 2009: 66-68. From Informit. The Monthly site also has the full-text article (but this doesn’t include a full-page performance image).