Last night I watched the artist Grayson Perry’s new series ‘Who are you?’ documenting his creative process as he makes portraits. I use the word ‘makes’ instead of the more familiar ‘paints’ as although he starts by sketching the individual first, only one of the finished artworks was a traditional painting. Together with a painted miniature he produced portraits that were a Benin style bronze, a pot and a silk scarf (a hijab). ‘Who are you’ as the title suggests is a series about identity. That is identity as perceived in our 21st-century lives and mediated through visual culture.
It was a fascinating programme as he chatted to and quizzed each sitter in an attempt to understand the multiple layers that they melded together in forming their identity. Grayson commented that when an artist works on a portrait he is part detective and part psychologist in his quest to capture the sitter in a single image. He opines that if successful a portrait “tells you something a 1000 selfies never could”. Now, we have a problem here with the format. I hugely admire Grayson Perry, I think he is a gifted visual interpreter and an extremely intelligent and astute individual, but the moment he as the artist starts to work with a camera crew on his shoulder his subjects begin to morph into a hybrid TV version of themselves. I know we are getting into a philosophical area, but if we are considering the nature of identity then surely we have to acknowledge the effect of being observed. Isn’t one of the points of a selfie that it is a version of you by you at a given moment and not you knowingly mediated by Grayson Perry, by a cameraman, by the TV production company and Channel 4?
Interestingly, the one sitter that was most resistant to revealing any other aspect of himself other than his public image was the disgraced politician, Chris Huhne. I thought that his obviously posed and considered domestic styling contrasted so sentimentally with the roadside cafe shots after his release from prison that it had me reaching for the sick bucket. In his response to Huhne’s incredible self regard, Grayson constructs him as a beautiful, slickly glazed pot. Then in a grand, dramatic televisual moment he purposefully smashes the pot into pieces. The finished portrait is actually the reconstructed pot restored in the Kintsugi tradition where restoration is overtly visible displaying the gold repair/fracture lines. Flawed – need we say more!
Of course, a portrait is acknowledged as a construction of the artist usually in collaboration with the sitter. A multiplicity of choices concerning materials, format, lighting, clothing, setting, pose, full-length etc are considered before the first brush stroke marks the canvas. Additionally, there is the interpretation of self by the sitter whether they are aware or unaware of what they are projecting and then how this is recorded by the artist. Will it be a ‘warts and all’ representation? Any cursory glance at the output of a class of art students all producing a portrait of the same sitter will see as many different versions as there are artists in the class.
We have Grayson’s portraits of his subjects and you can go and see them at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The works will now have a life of their own detached from the television and now installed into a prestigious gallery setting. Identity and portraiture has a long history since the Roman emperors had their ‘heads’ stamped on coins. Our portrait formally rendered as an image of us may capture more than a selfie, but our identity is fluid and even the best portrait does not tell the whole story of our identity.