Through the Looking Glass: Women and Self-Representation in Contemporary Art

“Venus trying to make nice to hear her own voice speak and know the sound of it.” 1

Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass: Women and Self-Representation in Contemporary Art 
from the exhibition by the same name held at Palmer Museum of Art, October 21, 2003-January 25, 2004

Dunce count: 15

“Loan exhibition of contemporary painting, sculpture, and video grew out of Penn State’s Women’s Self-Representation the Visual Arts and Writing Project, an interdisciplinary research forum on the subject of gender and historical constructions of selfhood that was initiated in 2001. Through the Looking Glass focuses on the particular opportunities and challenges faced by women artists when they produce self-portraits. Self-portraiture has long been a staple element in the construction of an artist’s identity, for the genre has historically helped to define the artist as artist (or at least painter or sculptor). The tautology offered by self-portraiture-that the artist is an artist because s/he is making the picture, even as the picture documents the person as an artist after the fact- has allowed for a rich exploration of selfhood by many artists. Consequently, over the past few decades, as more women have the opportunity to become and to succeed as artists, they have used self-portraiture as a means of thinking through their identity as women and as artists. But they have also taken this opportunity to examine the ways in which the conventions of self-portraiture and representation in general are challenged by the very presence of women in the double position of subject/object of the self portrait.”


“Heffernan seeks to disempower the hegemonic male gaze offering up her multifaceted contingent self as the object of her own intense scrutiny. Directly on the surface of the canvas Heffernan has inscribed bits of text documenting the fragmented complexities of the life of “Venus” (the male object of aesthetic contemplation par excellance): “Venus sitting in a dog chair. Venus cracking peanuts with her teeth…Venus making bad jokes…Venus trying to make nice to hear her own voice speak and know the sound of it…” Like Heffernan’s dethroned, yet enlightened goddess, the women in this exhibition seek to know their own voice and recognize their own body through the refracted agency of the looking glass.”2

“‘women’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories which themselves change; ‘women’ is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned so that the apparent continuity of the subject of ‘women’ isn’t to be relied on…”3

“It’s not difficult to look about and see other women who embody their genders differently… Many of us approach our respective genders with the benefit of different personal experiences – ethnic, economic, linguistic, sexual – that inflect our definitions of ourselves.”

“…earlier phases of feminism often did the important work of arguing for the inclusion of women and traditionally feminine attributes in canons of cultural history, while they also questioned the very means by which previous canons and historical narratives were formed to the exclusion or denigration of women. Nevertheless, in the last two decades many feminists (many of them art historians) have been more devoted to destabilizing the categories of gender that allowed such discrimination against women in the first place.”

“All the artists in this exhibition explore the consequences of the instability of the category of “women.” When they make their own gender a focus of their work, at least within their own self-representation, they tend to question, rather than affirm, the status of that gender.”

“…the contingency of womanliness is not entirely new to the domain of women’s self-portraiture. Early on women artists perceived the disruptive effect that their gender posed when introduced into conventions of self-representation”


“In the mid 1960s, Martha Rosler used such collages as a means of disrupting ideologies at work in popular imagery such as advertising and war photography, and she occasionally used techniques of self-portraiture to question relationships between women’s bodies and consumer culture.”

“maximum amount of decor is visible, is easily recognizable as the kind of illustration that usually accompanies an interior decoration magazine – a kind of spread that is meant to tantalize the reader and offer up an example of domestic chic that most people will never be able to achieve.”

“The placement of the portrait at the focal point of the image allows the image to function as a typical “the lady of the house portrait”, such as one might find in an upscale home, and Rosler’s sunglasses seem appropriate for someone who enjoys such a life of luxury. Still Rosler doesn’t quite pass in this environment. She’s not quite coiffed enough to own or be associated with this sort of house. Her car is too plain, her clothes not sufficiently expensive.”

“In the mid-fifties, popular magazines, such as Life and Time, as well as art magazines such as ARTnews, had begun to include interior shots of art collections as they were displayed in domestic spaces.”

“She takes control of the entire scenario. She crafts the domestic space proper through her collage. Her body, rather than just a painting she has made, also physically appears at the center of the work. In masquerading (unconvincingly) as patron as well as artist, she confuses the power relationship between the buyer and the bought. and in the process, she questions the ways in which artists may, or may not, comment on their own potential complicity in producing visual signs of wealth.”

Yayoi Kusama

“The self representation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama from the mid-sixties is slightly more self-revelatory, though it too depends on social and artistic conventions for its effect. In this self-portrait montage, Kusama reclines on one of her “aggregation couches” – furniture to which she appended a proliferationof soft phallic forms. behind her is one of her “infinity net” paintings, and in the lower register of the image, Kusama has pasted a close up photograph of wagon wheel macaroni.”

“Hospitalized for mental illness since 1975, Kusama has suffered from hallucinations and obsessive compulsive disorder for most of her life, and her furniture and repetitious paintings of dots have been attributed to her psychological state.”

“Kusama thus expresses a disintegration of the self through the infinity net paintings and aggregation furniture, with the application of dots to her body, Kusama yields herself up to this dispersion. Her body, her ego, disintegrates into the environment and she loses the sense of individual selfhood that is the cornerstone of western subjectivity and “sanity”.”

“Beyond the psychological trauma that Kusama’s art might reveal, her work, and in particular her self portrait, is also a clever reworking of Pop art – one of the dominant modes of art making during the period in which the portrait was made.”

The soft phalluses of Kusama’s work are often compared to the flaccid forms of Claes Oldenberg‘s sculpture, but there are many other Pop qualities to her self-portrait. Kusama’s polka dots, for example, function as did the benday dots of Roy Lichenstein’s paintings.”

Lichenstein’s Drowning Girl of 1963 satirizes the melodrama of soap operas and serial comics, turning the drama of the title figure’s potential suicide into a high camp performance. The silk screened benday dots of the image reference the low-budget techniques used in comic book reproductions, collapsing the difference between high art and more popular media.”

“By virtue of her well-known psychological distress, the contemporary viewer of the image could see Kusama’s self-disintegration through dots as similar to that of Lichtenstein’s heroine.”

“Kusama’s dots accent her young, otherwise blemish free skin, and pitch her body to the viewer. In the process Kusama ironizes Lichenstein’s irony and transforms his benday dots – which in his work signify a reproducible self – into a playful sign of her own personal battle with identity.”

“Cindy Sherman has perhaps become the most notorious artist for exercising such techniques of self-dissimulation in her work. Her Untitled photograph, 2000, is typical of the sort of work she has produced since the late seventies, in that it is a self-portrait in which Sherman masquerades as someone else.”

Cindy Sherman

“Sherman’s photographs demand that the viewer question the visual codes according to which class and gender are defined.”

“While Sherman masquerades as indefinable others, Alba D’Urbano prefers to let others masquerade as her. In her 1995 work Hautnah (meaning ” close to the skin” in German) D’Urbano first digitized images of her own body. Sewing pattern – Alba suit – silence of the lambs – must puncture the images of D’Urbano’s skinn with a needle by running it under the the ruthless jaws of a sewing machine.”

“Alice does not find herself, – only challanges (like the forest) to her sense of reality and her own identity. The mirror is a conduit to a world in which selfhood is a riddle. In some respects, most of the artists in this exhibition see self-representation as a similar dilemma… for most of these artists self-representation reflects and even begins a process of unraveling the presumptions of selfhood.”

“In the process these artists keep the question of identity open long enough so that we might also think about the ways in which we habitually answer that question about other people. And if looked at carefully, these artists may inspire within any viewer a similar curiosity, and bravery, so that we might ask that question about ourselves.”4

“The “volatility” of gender”

“self-representation as a means to another end – as for example, a commentary on the larger social structures through which “selves” are created.”


1. text taken from Self-Portrait as Woman Recovering from Effects of Male Gaze (What’s Underneath), 1992, by Julie Hefferman
2. Foreward by Joyce Henri Robinson, Through the Looking Glass: Women and Self-Representation in Contemporary Art, Palmer Museum of Art, 2004
3. Denise Riley, Am I that name?: Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988)
4. Dr.Sarah K. Rich ,Through the Looking Glass: Women and Self-Representation in Contemporary Art, Palmer Museum of Art, 2004

This Exhibition grew out of: Women’s Self-Representation in Visual Arts and Writing, organized by Micaela Amato (Visual Arts/Women’s Studies) and Christine Clark-Evans (French/Women’s Studies/African and African American Studies) ~ “From Feminine Exemplar to Contextualized Identities: Women’s Representation of Self in Visual Arts and Letters (1405-Present)”

Further Reading


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