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Student Engagement in About Face: Self-Portraiture in Contemporary Art

Dartmouth’s introductory French II class works in the exhibition About Face

Dartmouth’s introductory French II class works in the exhibition About Face. Photo by Amelia Kahl.

Dartmouth’s Writing 5 class titled “Family Memoir” studies in About Face

Dartmouth’s Writing 5 class titled “Family Memoir” studies in About Face. Photo by Amelia Kahl.

Dartmouth’s Writing 5 class titled “Family Memoir” studies in About Face

Dartmouth’s Writing 5 class titled “Family Memoir” studies in About Face. Photo by Amelia Kahl.

Hood Quarterly, spring 2015

Organized in collaboration with nine Dartmouth students, About Face: Self-Portraiture in Contemporary Art explores the extraordinary range and global diversity of self-portraiture in contemporary art. Building on the success of recent student-driven Hood exhibitions, such as The Expanding Grid and Word and Image, this project offered these undergraduates a unique opportunity to learn more about museums and curatorial practice by participating in the planning and execution of a major exhibition project. They studied original works of art in the museum’s Bernstein Study-Storage Center, honing their close observational skills as they made their selections for the exhibition, which includes paintings, photography, prints, and video by eighteen noted contemporary artists—Chuck Close, Susanna Coffey, Félix de la Concha, Rineke Dijkstra, Marit Følstad, Martín Gutierrez, Nikki S. Lee, Sarah McEneaney, Bruce Nauman, Wendy Red Star, Enrico Riley, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Renée Stout, Christian Thompson, Jeff Wall, Ai Weiwei, and Francesca Woodman—all of whom are known for their probing investigations of the genre.

Once the exhibition checklist was finalized, each student chose an artist’s self-portrait to research and write an object label for. In doing so, they learned more about the myriad ways in which contemporary artists have engaged with self-portraiture, while also bringing their own perspectives as Dartmouth students. This vantage point allowed these students to produce a fresh take upon each artist’s approach to self-representation.

“The label-writing process was a unique experience,” explained Laura Dorn, Class of 2015. “It gave me the opportunity to view pieces in the About Face exhibition in storage and engage with the content, scale, and materiality of the works. In an age where ‘selfies’ are everywhere, it was an illuminating process to respond to the way contemporary artists are approaching themselves as a subject.” The experience of seeing original works of art in the Bernstein Study-Storage Center also made a deep impression on Malika Khurana, Class of 2015, who wrote her label on Kiki Smith’s My Blue Lake: “When you see artwork in person, and it’s there in the storage of the Hood for your eyes only, you can find so much more than you would in a crowded museum. All pretensions are off, and you can connect with the art on such an intimate level, taking the time to imagine the artist’s process and what they were trying to do as they worked on this piece in their studio. It was amazing to me to realize how many fantastic pieces (by artists as well-known as Kiki Smith!) are in the Hood’s collection.”

Alexandra Johnson, Class of 2015, was both “excited and nervous” when she was approached to write a label for the exhibition: “While I have much experience working in museums, my projects have never been in the curatorial department; writing a label for a piece on display was completely new to me. Skimming through the list of portraits to be featured in the exhibition, several piqued my interest, but it was Marit Følstad’s chilling video Pretty Girls Can Kill that intrigued me most. What I love about art is that each piece is an invitation for personal reflection and contemplation: no two people will look at a work in the same way. While I originally envisioned my label for About Face to embody my own specific interpretation of the video, my label actually ended up being more about the process through which I observed the video, struggled to determine a clear meaning, and eventually coming to realize that, at least for me, the greater value lies in the immersive experience of watching the video than with deducing one ‘takeaway’ conclusion. Indeed, it was impossible for me to not lose myself in the arresting gaze of the woman in the video. While my questions only increased with each additional viewing, participating in the all-consuming experience of viewing Pretty Girls Can Kill embodies what is, for me, what museums are all about: losing yourself in works of art.”

“Seeing Susanna Coffey’s Intake (and other work in the About Face exhibition) before writing the label reminded me of the power of the in-person experience with works of art that museums provide,” said Elissa Watters, Class of 2015. “Smaller than I had expected and with a visual play and dynamism less apparent in digital reproduction, Coffey’s painting took on a whole new form in the Bernstein Study-Storage Center and inspired the label I wrote in direct response to the painting’s material reality.”

As these Dartmouth students discovered during their research and writing for the exhibition, many of the eighteen artists whose work is on display in the exhibition focus on the manipulation of identity through disguise and assumed personae, while others use direct observation to capture specific moments in their lives or turn to historical precedents to inform their contemporary practice. Considered collectively, the works of art included in About Face overturn conventional expectations regarding self-portraiture and will allow visitors to the Hood Museum of Art to reflect critically and philosophically on the complex processes of identity construction and the different ways in which the self is valued, fashioned, and presented today.

About Face is on view from January 31 through July 19, 2015. On May 7, three of the artists in the exhibition will come to campus to participate in a panel discussion on the theme of “Self-Portraiture and the Construction of Identity.” Martín Gutierrez, Wendy Red Star, and Renée Stout have all engaged in work that interrogates the construction of contemporary identity and the nature of representation.

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