“Staging the self” is an annoying phrase, and an unfortunate title for an otherwise excellent exhibition devoted to Latino self-representation at the National Portrait Gallery. It makes the thing this exhibition explores — how artists present a sense of themselves to the world — seem more complicated and intellectually sexier than it really is.
Once upon a time, perhaps, we thought of the self as a coherent thing, a consistent identity that existed in the world like a discrete object. Today, we are much more likely to think of our self as the vague, sum product of shifting multiple identities — defined by our membership in a family, a community, and racial, ethnic, religious and sexual subgroups. We are, it seems, more a cast of characters than a single, stable, clearly defined “I.”
Old-fashioned portraiture, especially painted images of dead presidents, doesn’t seem to capture this fractured, disintegrated sense of identity; and worse, through markers of dress and expression, and the mere fact of being placed in the National Portrait Gallery, they connect political power to a fantasy of the self as a single, consistent, meaningful entity. The idea of “staging the self” suggests an alternative, a more dynamic, contemporary form of portraiture, but it’s not clear it gets us much further in our quest to know ourselves in any deep or meaningful way. It does, however, sound sophisticated in an academic, post-modern sort of way.
In only a couple of instances does theatricality seem the most salient thing about the six artists included in this small but focused exhibition. Rather, most of the artists — like most people on the planet — seem preoccupied with memory, and the way family members and the community at large influenced them. Maria Martínez-Cañas, whose family came from Cuba, uses superimposed images of her face and her father’s face to create a spectrum of composite portraits that are more and less androgynous. Michael Vasquez, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., paints vivid and riveting images of the gang members with whom he was friends as a youth. David Antonio Cruz, son of Puerto Rican parents, uses paint, fabric, ceramics and other found objects to assemble vivid composite images that feel a bit like someone has taken eggbeaters to one of Wayne Thiebaud’s cake shops and then tried to mop up the mess.
Two artists — Rachelle Mozman and Karen Miranda Rivadeneira — do create images that might be considered “stagey,” but again, memory and reconstruction of lost personal history seem more relevant. Mozman photographs women in scenes that illustrate aspects of her family’s past and the complex relationship between servants and their employers, while Rivadeneira reenacts powerful personal memories, using family members (especially her mother) to recapture dreamlike images of primal childhood events. In both cases there is an element of theatricality, yet the figures in these photographs emerge as intentionally inert and disengaged. Much of their power comes from the alienated quality of the individual interactions — or lack of any interaction at all. They feel silent, static and phantasmagorical. If this is theater, it is some weird mash-up of Bertolt Brecht and the old-fashioned tableau vivant.
Of all the artists, Vasquez has created the most memorable, complex and admirable works. Vasquez uses photographs of the men he grew up with to produce larger-than-life images that are exceptionally well painted, powerfully confrontational and resonant with historical baggage. The most striking is “Totem,” an 8-by-6-foot image depicting several men against a dark background with their arms and fingers intertwined. Their hands combine to make gang symbols, a five-pointed star, a crown, linked b’s, that identify their affiliation. The strong verticality of the image — the men are so tightly pressed into the dark space that their arms seem to form a single column — is strangely and inexplicably reminiscent of classic Renaissance images, of the Deposition of Christ, or the groupings of Mary and other mourners around the foot of the Cross. None of this is forced or explicit, but somehow, by instinct or canny mobilization of classic precedents, Vasquez has managed to produced strikingly contemporary paintings with a powerful sense of history.
More intimate, and in some ways more moving, is his 2007 canvas “The Neighborhood Tour.” The painting shows a boy riding on the front of a bicycle, his arms draped over the handlebars, while a man with his face obscured holds him loosely but securely from behind. Vasquez has said that his work grows directly out of his upbringing, as the only child of a single mother. He says he lacked a powerful father figure to teach him about masculinity, so he learned lessons about masculine things — “pride, toughness and aggressiveness” — through the young men he admired in his neighborhood. “You are the company you keep,” he says.
So “The Neighborhood Tour” shows an initiation, a boy embraced by an older male figure who may become one of his role models. But there is more going on. Vasquez remains ambivalent about the gang members he encountered as a boy. In a conversation before the exhibition opened, he explained that the number five also recalls fundamental gang ideals, or principles, such as love, peace, truth, freedom and justice. And so while the very word “gang” conjures fear in one context, in another it merely represents an improvised civil society organization.
“I’ve left that world behind,” he says, and while he wants his paintings to force a confrontation with it, he doesn’t see them as either glamorizing or condemning it. There is, perhaps, a hint of that same ambivalence in the contrast of the two figures in the image, a boy whose face is seen as if in the strong, golden light of early morning or late afternoon, and the man who squires him, whose face is turned away from the viewer. Youth and maturity, lightness and dark, open-faced innocence and a face hidden from scrutiny, the ambiguity of the light — the sun rising or setting — is expertly condensed into a seemingly simple portrait of two male figures. A strong triangular shape contains them, again against a dark background.
A lot more than memory has been packed into this painting, which is one of the many things that make it stronger than most of the photographs in the exhibition. Vasquez has vaulted from questions of his own past to a seriously ambitious effort to make art on a heroic scale. It would be a treat to see one of these works permanently installed next to one of the clubby old Masons who number so large among our founding fathers.
Vasquez’s work makes the strongest impression, but Rivadeneira’s photographs of reconstructed memories are also impressive. The titles of the images include the date that has been restaged, creating a slight but interesting confusion with the date that the image was made. “Mom always keeping me near, since 1983” shows the artist snuggling with her mother, in 2011. Her mother’s breast is bare and that, plus the “1983” in the title, tells us that this is a memory of being nursed as a baby. But the artist is unlikely to remember that, given how young she was at the time.
So the slight dissonance between the date of the reenactment and the date of the thing “remembered” also forces us to remember how many of or our memories are in fact not actively remembered at all. Rather, we imagine our past through family stories, through the lore of siblings, parents and other relatives, and, of course, through photographs. Much of the power of Rivadeneira’s work has a dreamy aspect of wish fulfillment: She has gone where we all wish to go, back into the past, into a moments of tenderness, repose and perfect security.
Does that tell us anything about her? Does that tell her anything about herself? James Agee, in his prose-poem “Knoxville Summer of 1915,” takes the reader to a very similar place, but ends on a note of disquiet: “those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”
So good luck to all these artists. Staging the self will not get us any closer to what matters than the old-fashioned portraits of men in wigs, fine collars and fancy coats. It isn’t identity that matters; it’s the pathos of seeking one.
Portraiture Now: Staging the Self is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through April 12. For more information, visit npg.si.edu.