A Contemporary Photography Gallery, Houston, TX

Jane Szabo’s series, “Sense of Self”, is a universal visual statement addressing the mental and physical struggles many of us feel. Szabo wrote: “It was time to expose my “Self” and reveal my own vulnerability. Sense of Self is a performance-based series of conceptual self portraits that use blur, movement and light to add a psychological element to the work. These images explore my struggle to maintain a rigid sense of order within my self and my environment (a process that is failing). This attempt and failure to contain chaos parallels my personal struggles and sense of identity. Unfortunately, this self-imposed rigid sense of order, a self that wants to grid, to sort, to map, to control, conflicts with my need to escape into freedom.” 1

Sense of Self Series - "Gridding the Space" by Jane Szabo
Sense of Self Series – “Gridding the Space” by Jane Szabo

Szabo’s examination of self is not limited to this one series of photos. There are three different image groupings. One of coping with the environment. A room. Another coping with her own body. Another performing a struggle of self symbolically shown through clothing. All three series seem to illustrate a familiar struggle based on our own expectations, the expectations put on us by others, and the view others have of us.

A visit to her website and project statement has another related portfolio: “Reconstructing Self”; another very different visual examination of self. An excerpt from her Portfolio Statement for Reconstructing Self describes the piece as: “examining issues of identity in an ambitious juxtaposition of fashion, sculpture, installation and photography. Photographs of dresses made from familiar objects such as coffee filters and road maps, suggest a persona, and become a stand in for my self. The personas represented in these forms illustrate who I am, who I am not, and who I wish to be. Drawing from my own background, I create still lifes, pairing objects with the dresses, building a story, and inviting the viewer to contemplate the connections, and develop their own mythology. The balance between the self and the world outside can be a precarious one. We struggle to find a way to individualize ourselves, yet often merely blend in among the masses.”

Jane Szabo’s photography demonstrates that artists with non-photographic backgrounds can create very successful photographic images. She explains on her website 2 : “My current body of work merges fabrications with conceptual photography in a series of self-portraits, playfully exploring issues of identity in an ambitious juxtaposition of fashion, sculpture, installation and photography. Though creating photographic works, my background as a painter and installation artist, as well as a career that included creating custom props and scenery, strongly influence my artistic creations.”

Sense of Self Series - "Gridding the Self" by Jane Szabo
Sense of Self Series – “Gridding the Self” by Jane Szabo

An important exhibit on performance art was undertaken in 2011 at The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) by Roxana Marcoci, Curator of Photography and Eva Respini, Associate Curator in MOMA’s Department of Photography. 3 In writing about the exhibit, “Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960”, they stated: “Staging action attests to the complex ways in which photography, with its ability to both freeze and extend a moment in time, pushes against the grain of mere documentation to constitute performance as a conceptual exercise that can be appreciated in the absence of a performing body”. 4

While both of Szabo’s series are unique examinations of who we are and what we internally deal with, the performance aspect of Sense of Self is quite intriguing. Szabo uses photography as a tool, along with her other skills and training, to create images that tell a story. There is no audience other than the viewer of the image. Its performance witnessed, in Szabo’s work, by no one, until she puts her images before an unknown audience, the viewer of these images. But it is still a performance. And, its unimportant at what moment in time the performance occurred. The performance is recorded on film as an eternal moment to be referenced. It can represent a past, current or future tension in dealing with self and/or environment.

Szabo’s work seems to have roots in art movements coming out of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Work done by such early artists as Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman and Hannah Wilke set a precedent for what Szabo has done. “Performance since the 1960s became associated with the word documentation, as though the photograph was simply a record of an act, an afterthought, to capture an ephemeral event. But as we know from images of works by Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, or Chris Burden, and so many artists of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, photographs of performances were often consciously staged for the camera, allowing them to become iconic and powerful images that would live on into the future.” 5 Performance of work in front of the camera was also well rooted in much earlier periods of photography. Eva Respini wrote in her essay on Cindy Sherman: “A year after photography’s invention, Hippolyte Bayard’s Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man (1840) was an open acknowledgement of photography’s capacity to create fictions. Twenty years later, the Countess de Castiglione, an extravagant French socialite, collaborated with court photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson to direct, stage, and photograph herself in costume presenting a range of characters that reflected her fantasies.” 6

In the context of art movements, if Szabo’s photography is described as both conceptual and performance, then it may be rooted in what art historians refer to as “Postmodernism”. “The term “postmodernist art” refers to a wide category of contemporary art created from about 1970 onwards. The hallmark of “postmodernist art” is its rejection of the aesthetics upon which its predecessor – “modern art” (1870-1970) – was based. One of these rejected values is the idea that “art” is something “special” which should be “elevated from” popular taste. Coinciding with a raft of new technological developments, postmodernism has led to almost five decades of artistic experimentation with new media and new art forms, including “Conceptual art”, various types of “Performance art” and “Installation art”, as well as computer-aided movements like Deconstructivism and Projection art. Using these new forms, postmodernist artists have stretched the definition of art to the point where almost “anything goes”.” 7

The trend of artists during those years was an “anti-aesthetic”, 8 contributing to the expression that “anything goes”. The website for Visual Arts – Cork states: “aesthetics” … refers to those principles governing the nature and appreciation of beauty, especially in visual art.” It seems the anti-aesthetic was less a concern for the artist with technical perfection in the photographic images, but its ability to capture an image, in this case a conceptual performance. Conceptual performance was another often used term that needed definition. Again, the same source states: “Conceptual Art is all about “ideas and meanings” rather than “works of art” (paintings, sculptures, other precious objects). It is characterized by its use of text, as well as imagery, along with a variety of ephemeral, typically everyday materials and “found objects”. It also typically incorporates photography …”. 9

Sense of Self Series - "Grid Dress" by Jane Szabo
Sense of Self Series – “Grid Dress” by Jane Szabo

Regardless of what art movement or genre of photography into which Szabo’s art might fit, it is a dialogue with a viewer that is different from many other single or groupings of images. As Marcoci and Goldberg note in Aperture Magazine “A photojournalist or photographer might make the image far too literal; it would have none of its poetry. … The more we study the photographs of a performance from the past, the more details are revealed. Photographs give us back our experience of life.” 10 Its a great statement of the visual impact for this type of work versus other forms.

For me, questions are raised by all three series of images.
In the structured environment, what are the factors that cause the destruction of that environment? What is it that is so destabilizing?
Is the image a timeless reference, speaking to an event in the past, the present or of looking into the future? Is it creating a “frame of mind” that happened, happens or will be happening??
There are no specific answers to these questions. But that’s why these images are important. We are asking ourselves these questions, whether we want to or not. As viewers, we are forced to enter into the image. Since the only experiences we know are our own, we relate, consciously or not, to that personal experience to answer, for ourselves, why we think that person in the image has a struggle or disengagement from their environment or self.

The fuzzy movement and action takes the viewer’s attention off who is in the image and onto a scene of struggle by a generic “person” with the environment, themselves or clothes that define an outward appearance and projection to others. Keri Bas, an artist and writer, on seeing the image, “Gridding the Space”, for the first time, saw in the initial frame conformity to a set of rules with the construction of the grid matching the diamond shapes on the wall. In the next frame, an act of rebellion within “the system”, but complicating the design of the defined system of rules in which that person was living. Then, in the following three frames, overt acts of rebellion, revolt and challenge to a structured set of rules by the symbolic destruction of the cage within that space.

Shana Nys Dambrot, Art Critic, Curator and Essayist wrote about Szabo’s “Sense of Self” on July 7, 2014 in the Huffington Post: “Though reminiscent of artists like JoAnn Callis (with less sexuality and more clothing) and Cindy Sherman (with less makeup and much less mess) — whose staged self-portraiture overtly takes on the power dynamic — for Szabo, Sense of Self is about her individual “struggle to maintain a sense of order in myself and my environment (a process that is failing).” It’s an “attempt to contain chaos” that reflects her “urge to grid and sort” as a mechanism of control — a trait that inevitably comes into conflict with what she calls her “desire to be free.” In service of this idea, the evocative blurriness of the figures and the surreal, stylized yet minimal atmospheric architectural settings — and the heavily symbolic interaction between the figures and elements of this environment — suggest both regimentation and expressivity. Her use of serial imagery, what the artist calls “documenting a process” is part Eadweard Muybridge and part Virginia Woolf.” 11 Its interesting that various viewers, coming from very different places had such similar reactions to this set of images.

What I like about Jane Szabo’s work is that it creates a strong initial visceral reaction, that is compositionally interesting and, by my measure, intellectually challenging. “Sense of Self” will remind me that no matter how secure we may feel, that sense of security and certainty may be temporary and fragile, at best.

Notes:

  1. http://www.janeszabophotography.com/project-statements
  2. http://www.janeszabophotography.com/about.html
  3. A list of the artists that exhibited is in an article by Loring Knoblauch, March 15, 2011, “Collectors Daily”.https://collectordaily.com/staging-action-performance-in-photography-since-1960-moma/ . Marcoci and Respini were assisted also by Lucy Gallun, Assistant Curator, MOMA Department of Photography. See http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2011/02/17/on-the-staging-of-staging-action
  4. http://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1087?locale=en
  5. Aperture Magazine, Winter 2015 issue. “On Record: RoseLee Goldberg and Roxana Marcoci in Conversation” http://aperture.org/blog/record/
  6. Cindy Sherman, by Eva Respini, on the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 2012. “Will the Real Cindy Sherman Please Stand Up?” by Eva Respini.
  7. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/postmodernism.htm#postmodernistart
  8. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-art for a discussion of the history of this movement
  9. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com an online encyclopedia of art.
  10. http://aperture.org/blog/record/
  11. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shana-nys-dambrot/jane-szabo-sense-of-self_b_5562385.html
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