Enigmatic Portraits

[Fall 2004]

by Jacques Doyon

This issue contains examples of current portrait practices that can be associated with various sub-categories of the genre: group of young people posing in the studio, series of self-portraits inspired by a play on the mask, the figure of the artist in the presence of his working materials.

As different as they are, these works all challenge the notions of interiority and presence traditionally linked with the portrait. Despite the relatively simple and immediate content of their images, these series have an enigmatic nature, as they present a certain ambiguity with regard to their exact content and their interpretation. They let us glimpse a fault, a breach in the representation, perceptible in the stiffness and repetition of poses (Grandmaison), a dull violence that contrasts with the banality of the materials (Benohoud), the too-familiar nature of staged situations (Scherübel). These elements place the subject at a distance and radically recontextualize the portrayal by pointing toward worlds of reference in which a large part of the significance of these images is played out.

In 1998, Pascal Grandmaison’s Près des parcs already presented a series of figures unrelated to their environment in similar frozen poses. It was this work on the pose and the context that he returned to and developed in his subsequent series of photographs and videos. In these, we find the same fixity and repetition of poses, enhaloed with a sense of absence and suspension of time. And the studio becomes the invariable context for the photographing. The neutrality of sites and impassiveness of poses defuse the full and significant presence. They reveal the formatting of representation practised by image creators associated with the consumer world (fashion, videos, advertising). The result is in fact a portrait, but it is a portrait of a generation that finds itself up against and in complicity with the omnipresence and overdetermination of the image characteristic of today’s culture.

For his residence in Brussels, Hicham Benohoud initially intended to explore, in collaboration with other photographers, the limits on portrayal of the body imposed by the tradition of Islam. The apprehensions were such that he finally made this series of self-portraits in which simple work with a mask is enough to figure his resistance to the constraints and pressures of his culture. We find the same making do with cheap materials and work on identity that he used with his students in his previous series: thousands of identity photographs, with eyes crossed out, or impromptu figuration, against a background of improvised installations and sculptures, while the other students continue to work (La salle de classe). With Version soft, Benohoud puts himself in play. He stares at us, impassive, resistant to all that obstructs his view, all that envelops, grasps, contaminates or metamorphoses him. Here again, the portrait is allegorical: it speaks for Moroccan youth as a whole.

L’artiste au travail, by Klaus Scherübel, shows the artist in different common cultural consumption activities, which he designates as a component of his work. This series thus renews the common “artist in his studio” representation by sketching the figure of an artist now wrestling with all of contemporary culture. We also find other indications of this broadening of the field of artistic practice in the captions. Designated as an integral part of the work, they list the conditions for production and presentation of the work (collaborations, supports, formats) as a function of each of its manifestations. Similarly, the group of chairs placed before one of his photographs in the installation at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver adds an extra degree to this viewing of the artist’s specific view of art and culture. Far from self-portrait, this series thus questions the status of the artist in an era when art is being integrated into culture and the consumer industry.