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“Selfie” Explores A New Take On an Old Genre

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Mario Petrirena, me, myself, & I (detail); installation, variable dimensions.
Mario Petrirena, me, myself, & I (detail); installation, variable dimensions.

Inspired by the selfie phenomenon, Chastain Arts Center Gallery has organized “Selfie,” a group exhibition featuring— take a guess—self-portraits. The show combines a variety of mediums to provide a snapshot of contemporary self-portraiture. Throughout art history, creating a self-portrait was a complicated and timely process, mainly seen in photography and painting. But the smartphone made it easier for the shooter to become subject, and the ability to make a selfie public within seconds has dramatically changed the genre.

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We live in a culture of constant documentation, and as digital devices become more advanced and available, the selfie has become a way of marking one’s territory on the Internet. From Instagram to Facebook, the selfie has become ubiquitous in social media. It validates our importance within our social circles but also becomes part of the mass of identities that renders us all anonymous. More than a text, the selfie provides a visual glimpse into the poster’s life. It’s a way to visually communicate a clear message or reaction. The selfie is an extension of oneself, a form of exhibitionism, and a type of visual diary.

Cecilia Kane, How Am I Feeling Today, 2012-2014; 18 quilted & embroidered vintage handkerchiefs.
Cecilia Kane, How Am I Feeling Today, 2012-2014; 18 quilted and embroidered vintage handkerchiefs.

The works in this show open a dialogue about the importance of self-portraiture as a means for us to mark our existence; they push beyond the typical digital documentation of a smartphone. Ranging from oil and watercolor paintings to mixed-media works incorporating photography, collage, and embroidery, many examples are representational while a few embody an ambiguous reflection of the artists themselves.

Suellen Parker, Me as Kate Bush, 2014; archival inkjet print with wax, 11 by 14 inches. Suellen Parker, Me as Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame, 2014; archival inkjet print with wax, 11 by 14 inches. Suellen Parker, Me as Nancy Mckeon as Jo with Blair’s Hair from Facts of Life, 2014; archival inkjet print with wax, 11 by 14 inches. Courtesy of White Space Gallery.
Suellen Parker, (l to r) Me as Kate Bush, Me as Rosalind Russell as Auntie Mame, Me as Nancy McKeon as Jo with Blair’s Hair from Facts of Life, 2014; all archival inkjet prints with wax, 11 by 14 inches.

Some works seem to pay homage to social media, like Mario Petrirena’s floor installation of photographic collages encircled by rusted iron rings suggestive of Google Plus’s circles. Cecelia Kane’s installation, titled How Am I Feeling Today, consists of 18 vintage doilies, each bearing a self-portrait and embroidered messages like those you’d find on Pinterest or Instagram. Matt Haffner’s installation features a video projection of Atlanta streets with a standing photo of the artist installed in front of the wall. Devin Hamilton’s mixed-media panels of his “profile” from different angles could be made into a YouTube animation. Suellen Parker’s three “self-portraits” are actually photos of sculptures she makes that combine features from such figures as Kate Bush, Nancy McKeon, and Auntie Mame, but with her own eyes and teeth.

This group exhibition confirms that selfies are doing more than changing our digital space. They’ve changed the way self-portraits are made and consumed.

Selfie” is on view at Chastain Art Gallery through August 2. There will be an artists talk on July 12 at 11am.

Deidra Tyree Smith is an artist, writer, and cinematographer based in Atlanta. She also teaches at SCAD Atlanta.