Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


Excavating the Self

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

There are some things we "cannot touch because they are too near," as poet E.E. Cummings writes. One of them is the self.

What is the self? It may sound like such an absurd question because we live with ourselves every day. It stands to reason we should know everything about it. In reality, we don't.

There are things we hide even from ourselves. It's an argument "The Hidden Brain" author Shankar Vendantam expounds on in his book. I believe it plays out every day of our lives.

In her latest project, "The Century of the Self," text-based artist Alexandra Grant investigates how the "I" is formed by what we read in books, what things we watch and how social science explains it all. I got a chance to view a portion of it while visiting USC's Fisher Museum last week.

Like any investigation of the self, Grant's large-scale works are chaotic--almost psychedelic--bearing so many mantras on the page. In short, it is our thought patterns revealed in crazy beautiful detail.

One of the first that caught my eye was her 72-inch canvas painting, "Self (I was born to love not to hate)." Painted on two panels, one a reflection of the other, Grant piled on the acrylic paint producing an alluring textural piece with the words "I was born to love not to hate." The words itself sounded like it might have come from an Oprah show or self-help book or an anger management session. Then again, it's also a timely reminder for us to be kinder to ourselves. I so wanted to reach out and feel the grooves of each line, but I knew that probably wouldn't be possible.

Self (I was born to love not to hate), 2012, oil on linen, two panels, each 72″ x 48″.  Photo by Brian Forrest.
The duplicity of I's. Self (I was born to love not to hate), 2012, detail. Photo by: Carren Jao
A landscape of self. Self (I was born to love not to hate), 2012, detail. Photo by: Carren Jao
Grant uses the reflective aesthetic again and again. As a way to mimic the circumstances we usually intone those self-help mantras perhaps. How many rah-rah messages have you delivered to your reflection? Or perhaps, by handmaking each reflected message, Grant makes the case that not every side is reflected to perfection. What we see in the mirror can be something else in reality.

In "Self & Other," Grant once again used reflection, but in another way. Rather than making near-perfect replicas, she faced two different drawings together as a way to illustrate relationship.

Self and Other (1&2). Photo by Carren Jao.
In this piece, I saw a husband and wife; two sisters growing up together; a casual conversation with a new acquaintance. A little lesion could be seen running through the middle of the piece, a tiny reminder of the omnipresent distance there is in even the closest relationships.

Self and Other (1&2) detail. Photo by Carren Jao.
Grant's exhibition is a beautiful rendition of the nature of self. It is a slippery thing that cannot be grasped. We can write all autobiographies, gather all the data, but we are more than the sum of our parts. Nevertheless, our lack of knowledge doesn't hinder us from reaching out to others to embark on a similarly futile expedition to figure someone else out.

Century of the self 1 to 3, 2013, mixed media on paper and fabric, 136″ x 72″. Photo by: Carren Jao
Century of the self (1), 2013, mixed media on paper and fabric, 136″ x 72″. Photo by Brian Forrest.
Seeing Grant's work, I was reminded of just why I love the work I do. Every interview is an opportunity to know a part of someone's self. It is a momentary way into another person's existence. After writing every article, I am conflicted. On one hand, I was able to capture something that might survive decades after I have passed. On the other hand, I know there will always be something more to say.


Get updates via RSS