When California artist Nina Katchadourian found herself awake in the middle of the night on a long flight to New Zealand, she crept through the rows of sleeping passengers to the airplane lavatory, where she spontaneously put a toilet seat cover on her head and snapped a cell phone self-portrait of her looking like a modern day Van Eyk character. She returned, later, with more accessories — a styrofoam cup, a sleep mask — and did it again. The series “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style” was born, and shortly thereafter, went viral on blogs such as Laughing Squid and Boing Boing.
Katchadourian isn’t the only one whose past-meets-present impulse to emulate Northern European masters, via found objects and photography, has found her work going viral. Suzanne Jongmans, a Dutch photographer, was featured on many of the same blogs for her Flemish-inspired portraits of subjects wearing costumes made out of sheets of plastic foam packaging material. Hendrik Kerstens, another Dutch photographer, dresses his subjects in artfully-arranged napkins and plastic bags to evoke 17th century Dutch art.
“It's curious to me, too, that there's more than a few artists who get into the visual experience of the paintings of this time,” said Katchadourian. “What my project has in common (with theirs) is that they're being made in the here and now, and using substances of our material world.”
Jongmans says the projects are coincidental — she has been making her photos since 2007, and had not heard of Katchadourian’s photos until last month. She was drawn to create costumes that look like 16th and 17th century attire after noticing the way light passed through the foam packaging she wrapped her work in — it looked like lace from paintings of the Dutch Golden Age.
“By using this material I make a reference to consumerism and the rapid circulation of materials, which contrasts to the craftsmanship of these earlier times,” wrote Jongmans in an e-mail. “Referring to both vulnerability and transience, I am investigating the texture and feel of both the present and the past.”
Unlike Jongmans, Katchadourian has no connection to the region or its works, so she calls the self-portrait series “almost ethnic cross-dressing.” For her, as a conceptual artist who has never made a painting, Katchadourian wanted to examine what made the portraits look like paintings, and what made them look Flemish or Dutch.
“It taps the image bank in my head ... it's like a quick connection back to a moment in a museum,” she said. “Some of my pictures don't follow the format very closely at all. I'm wearing the pillowcase cover on my head, I'm turning and looking over my shoulder — a position you would never see. Somehow what it adds up to makes people think of paintings of the period.”
Katchadourian’s work is part of a longer series called “Seat Assignment,” which addresses travel and scarcity, but none of the other images have gone as viral as the lavatory portraits. She’s received paintings of her portraits from fans, and one third grade art teacher even had students recreate the project. “I'm still trying to understand why these pictures have had this funny burst of life on the web,” said Katchadourian.
Jongmans thinks she knows what draws people to these present-day glimpses of the past: “The serenity which radiates from these works is a real inspiration to me,” she said. “Especially in these times we live in, in which many impressions can overwhelm us.