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Auckland Art Gallery Prepares For Face To Face

Face to Face - Self portraits by New Zealand artists
Auckland Art Gallery - 1 October 1999 to 16 January 2000

A self portrait may be as straightforward as a documentation of one’s physical appearance or as complex as a search for self identity using one’s own image. The self portraits by New Zealand artists in the exhibition Face to Face reflect the diversity of approach to the genre, suturing the viewer into the intriguing and often complicated realm of self-representation. Images by artists as distinct as Frances Hodgkins, Colin McCahon, Lois White, Tony Fomison and Peter Peryer are featured and contrasted, each of them relaying a unique personal narrative.

The images in Face to Face contradict the common viewer expectation that self portraits should present at the very least, a visual likeness of the artist. Works such as Frances Hodgkins’ Self Portrait Still Life c.1935 demonstrate that a self portrait may in fact bear no resemblance to its maker whatsoever, yet may still reveal much about the artist’s identity and psychological make-up. Hodgkins’ painting exemplifies a non-figurative approach to self-representation, operating as an inventive fusion of the genres of portraiture and still life. The artist depicts an assemblage of personal belongings in place of her physical presence, suggesting in her choice of objects - from a dainty pink shoe to some decorative scarves - a feminine and perhaps even narcissistic aspect of her nature.

A completely different conception of self is portrayed by painter Tony Fomison in his Self portrait 1977, which presents the artist as a peeping Tom, peering darkly at the viewer through the real glass of a real window frame from a Ponsonby villa. Although at first glance a menacing image, careful observation brings other associations to the work, such as the idea that the artist perceives himself as an outsider, marginalised on the periphery of mainstream society. There is also the rather unsettling revelation that perhaps we, the audience, are in fact the ones on the outside looking in, with Fomison the target of our curious gaze.

Taking an alternative approach yet again is the artist Colin McCahon, who integrates his own image into a scene derived from a Biblical episode featuring the apostle Paul. The painting, I Paul to You at Ngatimote was executed in 1946, when McCahon began to depict religious events in the New Zealand landscape in order to render their moral messages more accessible the local audience. McCahon felt a humanitarian concern for New Zealanders in the aftermath of World War II and in this painting his self portrait appears behind the figure of Paul, who presents a message on a scroll to the people of Ngatimoti, Nelson, against a warzone backdrop of barbed wire and an overhead aeroplane.

Face to Face brings together an array of fascinating works which visualise the artist-self across the spectrum of representational codes, from the transcriber of nature to the master of masquerade, from the prophetic visionary to the vulnerable victim.

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