A few years ago, I was showing work in a lounge downtown, rented out for the purposes of hosting a multimedia art exhibition. My portfolio contained a fair number of photographs I’d shot of myself with various paintings done on my back (I’m hesitant to call them “self portraits.” Explanation to follow). A man stopped to chat and take a look through my work. Upon finding the “back painting” photos, he remarked, “a touch of narcissism, eh?” I was somewhat taken aback. I smiled, laughed a bit and said “I’m my most available model– and free!”
This comment stuck with me for a while though. I had a moment where I questioned if my work is narcissistic. I thought about it, and realized that the man who commented on my work was seeing something different than I was. I believe he interpreted those paintings as ornamentation on my body–that the images were about “my figure” or my physical appearance. And why wouldn’t he? For many, viewing art is purely an aesthetic experience. He was not in my mind when I made these images, he doesn’t know my thoughts or inspirations. So now I’d like to reveal why I am fascinated with painting on my back (and not other people’s backs).
I have a rocky relationship with painting. Some of my favourite memories creating were made while painting, but it is also a source of self-doubt and frustration. I’m fairly skilled in drawing and photography in terms of “getting an image out of my head and onto film/paper.” But there is a block with painting, and I can rarely create what I’ve set out to. I think this has much to do with internalizing the value of representational art over abstracted art. If I couldn’t create beautiful, representational paintings in the style of the classics I admired, I felt as though I had failed as a painter. Despite knowing rationally that highly representational art isn’t more valuable than any other, it’s been difficult to actually unlearn.
In my third year of University I decided to explore this idea through photography. I had a fellow artist paint landscapes on my back. I photographed the results. The next step was for me to try and recreate the landscapes on my own back without looking (aside from the occasional peek to see how things were progressing), knowing fully well that it was an impossible task.
Painting felt fun again. Painting felt exciting. I felt in the moment, instead of worrying about what I would produce. It was light hearted, lacked heaviness. And this was a result of having very little control of the process.
I am adamant that these images aren’t about my body. I want to take that a step further and say that they aren’t even about me (hence my reservations to call them self portraits). “Back painting” is a way to enjoy painting again, and to create images that look and feel child-like in a way that I simply cannot do when I am in control. Stepping back and being realistic though, they are in some respect about me. I cannot escape the fact that I am present in the final result of these photos, and that behind them is a personal story. I could choose to crop the photographs closely, only capturing the painting itself. But I don’t, and as a result do keep “my identity” present, to a degree. Narcissistic, however, they are not.