Sunday, July 01, 2012
I unpacked a portrait of myself today. It's a painting by an American artist named Phoinix. He created the work for the Dreaming Hazel Dooney group exhibition in Victoria, last year. I've hung it on the wall of my office.I don't know Phoinix well. We've never met, never spoke spoken in person. We've only connected online, and even then, not often or in great depth. And yet, in this portrait, he has unquestionably located a hidden me, and re-interpreted it within the context of a simple tattoo of I have on the inside of my left arm. It's a text, written in Latin: the translation reads, In front is a precipice, behind are wolves. She flies on her own wings.Looking at Phoinix's portrait makes my skin itch. It's like catching a glimpse of my reflection unexpectedly. It reveals more about who I am than I'm comfortable with. As Phoinix sees it, I've painted myself into existence. It's a bold thing to assert about someone you don't know well – that they've completely invented themselves. The pack of wolves of my imagination have become, in his, a lone wolf with my face, a metaphor for an outsider. In the central figure, the eye colours are exact. So are their shapes, right down to one being slightly more open than the other. The bones of my face are accurate in ways that I at once like and dislike. The halo recalls those used in old religious icons and my own early paintings. Phoinix titled the work, Icon. Having painted me as someone – something – brashly self-created, he suggests that all icons are self-made (even if part of the deal is to behave as though it's a recognition bestowed by others). I relish the immodesty of hanging this painting in my office. I stare at it often, curiously studying how a stranger sees me. Inevitably, the parts that make me want to look away are the same that make me want to look again and again. They are the parts that reveal something about me despite myself. Joan Didion once wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live". Our stories are fabrications about ourselves, based on who we want to be, rather than who we are. Phoinix's portrait is an antidote to these. Created without any direct contact with me, no sitting, no conversation, it is an external view, uninflected by the stories I tell myself and others. It is a picture of the self that I haven't been able to dress up or conceal. I realise, all of a sudden, that a portrait is an opportunity to be confronted by the reality of oneself. In viewing it, the reality can be studied and over time, accepted. Which is to say, some truth can enter the fiction we tell of ourselves.