Title: Edited Truths and Confessional Spaces
We live in an age of manufactured truths—false news, alternative facts, and meticulously manipulated online presences that range from photo filters to catfish. Yet certain types of encounters still seem to have the power to pull out truths that we thought hidden (or thought we wanted hidden). Examples of these types of encounters are the courtroom (by circuitous questioning) the interview (by empathetic or aggressive discussion) and the casual conversation—sometimes with a confidante, but also sometimes with a stranger (the very presence of whom, for some reason, permits us to be confessional). I have, through my work as a portrait painter, often been that confidante.
My work has been primarily live portrait painting and the studio has acted, for many of my sitters, as a space to reveal themselves, break away from their manicured public self-image, and to explore, in private, a more unedited version of themselves. My proposed project is the exploration of the open and vulnerable confessional space versus the privately edited truth. I plan to do this through different mediums including painting, photography, performance, and video.
The driving question for this exploration will be looking into the conditions that open us up to truth in an age of invention and image-curation. In my practice of live portrait painting, I simply noted that the sittings seemed to illicit confessional responses in my sitters: I learned about dark pasts, sexual escapades, heart aches, perceived weaknesses and perceived strengths. The portrait themselves, I had hoped, carried the weight of these confessional anecdotes (though I did record sessions through a diary entry for each sitter). Yet the only surviving relic of my sitters' confessional state was the portrait alone. The surviving relic, this finished portrait, was always disarming to the sitter when they finally looked at it. I have often wondered: Had they not realized how vulnerable they looked as they confessed themselves to me over the past four hours? Is this the first time they are seeing their unedited, confessional face?
In 2018, art seems to be more about the performative aspects of making. Additionally, we are living in a digital age. And so I am looking to both marry image-capture (both digitally and through my painting practice) with performance and, in some cases, use only performance to capture moments of unedited truth. In other cases, I am thinking of amalgamating all three aspects: performance, painting, and digital media. Through all of this, I have become interested in the psychology of the confession and think that that is a good starting point in terms of research. One article that I have already scanned claims to discuss the "cognitive, perceptual, and motivational changes" that occur after confession (is this “change” what I am capturing in the portraits? This moment? And is that why the sitter cannot seem to recognize themselves in my work?) There is also fertile ground in the religious aspects of the confession to explore. Lastly, there is the idea of editing or forced editing (if I begin to videotape sittings that carry confessions, how much will my subjects allow me to "show"? What are the limits between an organic confession and a public display of that confession?). Alongside this is the idea of morality; how much will I allow my subjects to dictate and control and edit my art (even though I am making art of their confession)?
Immediately, when I think about the idea of confession, I think about Marina Abramovic whose 2010 performance piece, The Artist is Present, had her sitting in front of over one thousand museum visitors and staring into their eyes. Promotions for this performance show some visitors crying, others smiling; they had clearly gained some sort of silent contact and communication with Abramovic and sometimes, I am contending, that contact/communication was, in an unspoken way, confessional. In that light, I am interested in my own qualities as confessional receiver: do my sitters (participants/visitors) confess so much to me out of sheer boredom? I do not think so. They are, like Abromovic’s visitors, in front of “the artist” and all the characteristics of artists seem to imply to them (sensitivity, bacchanalian sexual abandon, bohemian morality—someone in touch with muses and blessed with gifts). The perception of me is false. But that false perception is what allows or invites the visitors, I think, to open.
Alice Neel, in her painted portraits, did not depict her subjects in any way idyllic: hooked noses become beaks; slightly sagging breasts become satchels of flesh. Neel’s portraits are unedited truths. But did her sittings have the same confessional quality I experienced? It does not appear so. There is no book dedicated to a single sitting written by any of her sitters (that I am aware of) like the ones that exist for Freud and Giacommeti. Still, Neel admits that she not only strove to paint the physical aspects of her sitter but also capture a person’s inner soul. “I become the person for a couple of hours”, Neel reports in an article titled, “Alice Neel and the Human Comedy”. “I don’t belong anywhere”, she continues, “so when they leave I have no self. I don’t know who or what I am”. In pulling at the souls of people, I wonder through Neel’s work, do we, the receivers of information (or silent tears or laughter) give up a piece of ourselves?
As a first project, I would include something already completed in the vein of the exploration of edited truths and the confessional. Three weeks ago, I painted a Transart classmate at her home. I spoke to her about the idea of recording the sessions and she volunteered to be recorded. As usual, the session (only an hour long) prompted her to discuss her love life, her sex life, her insecurities, and her desires. When the session was done and she looked at the finish portrait piece, she thought she looked old. I asked her to send me the video and she did, but was already requesting that certain things she said be edited. I think the video, in itself, is interesting in that it captures the moment(s) of portrait-confession. I think what would also take this further is a video capturing the subject and I editing the footage and debating on the editing. This may delve into the psychological aspects of why we want certain things hidden. Meanwhile, the viewer can only surmise (through the edited version) the content under debate through our videotaped discussion. (This was done in September)
A second project that I am conceptualizing is one that explores self-confession. I would like to turn all of the above observations, feelings, and questions onto myself before exploring them outwards again with others. I am envisioning a canvas, a mirror, and a recording device set up to capture me painting a self-portrait. During the process, I will verbally relate a very candid version of my life (unprepared) from childhood to adulthood (as much as fits into about three to four hours of non-stop painting). Afterwards, I will edit the footage for anything that I would not want a viewer to hear. The finished product should result in a film (and a filmed portrait process) with many small (or large) gaps of unknown length and content. At the end of the session, the final self-portrait will be wiped away leaving only the edited truths captured on video as the existing artwork. (This would be completed in October)
A third project steps away from the canvas and into performance. In Transart, we have a classmate who performs through dance. I am envisioning an un-choreographed performance with this classmate wherein we explore editing each other’s movements around each other. Can we do this with reasoning? Can we verbalize the reasoning? Was shame involved? What—on our bodies—is still private? What, in our interactions, must be edited for the sake of others? How much truth lies behind those edits?