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Exhibition at the MFA St. Pete explores the intimate history of self-portraiture


Yasumasa Morimura, An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Collar of Thorns), 2001, dye diffusion thermal transfer print, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection, © Yasumasa Morimura, Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Though the term selfie is now a ubiquitous part of our vernacular, the act of taking a photo of one’s self is not usually viewed as the creative process of an artist. “This is Not a Selfie: Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection,” currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), St. Petersburg, attempts to shift the contemporary narrative on the artistic value of the selfie by highlighting the themes of identity, performance and self-reflection evoked by the medium of self-portraiture.

The exhibition contains 80 photographs, photomontages and mixed media works by more than 60 artists. Some of the artists, like Cindy Sherman, Claude Cahun and Yasumasa Morimura, have made self-portraiture a central theme in their work. Sherman, a female contemporary artist, has used self-portraiture as a means of (sometimes problematically, as with her use of blackface in the 1976 Bus Riders series) exploring gender and identity since the 1970s. Cahun took hundreds of autoportraits with the help of her partner Marcel Moore, many of which focused on the artist’s identity as a gender-fluid, Jewish lesbian. Morimura, a so-called appropriation artist, uses self-portraiture to mimic artists and celebrities from throughout history.

Chino Otsuka, 1976+2005, Kamakura, Japan, 2005, dye coupler print, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection, © Chino Otsuka, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

All of the works on display are part of the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), one of the most significant collections of self-portraiture in the United States. According to Robin O’Dell, the MFA’s Curator of the Photographic Collection, the museum’s Executive Director, Kristen A. Shepherd, had previously worked at LACMA and was struck by the immediacy and impact of the collection and decided she had to bring it to St. Pete. According to O’Dell, “This Is Not A Selfie” was a natural fit for the MFA as photography makes up a crucial part of the museum’s collection: with more than 16,500 photographic works in its permanent holdings, the MFA boasts the largest photography collection in the Southeast.

“We’re thrilled to bring a large portion of this important collection from LACMA to our visitors, exploring the ways these artists have chosen to present themselves,” Shepherd said in a press release. “From straightforward self-portraiture to elaborately staged works, this exhibition provides a unique exploration of photography as an art form.”

Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), Self-Portrait in Indian Costume, c. 1863, albumen silver print, Los Angeles County of Art, The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

In addition to reframing the selfie in terms of historical artistic production, the show also encourages the creation of contemporary self-portraiture through a number of pseudo art installations that allow visitors to mimic the visual effects of some of the photographs on display. In attempting to promote the creation of new self-portraiture, the show provides viewers with a space in which they can consider the artistic (or anthropological) value of their own selfies.

“This is Not a Selfie” will be on display until Sunday, Nov. 25. Prior to coming to the MFA, the exhibition was on display at the San Jose Museum of Art and the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. Tickets to the show are $15 with a student I.D. or $5 after 5 p.m. on Thursdays.

The MFA is located at 255 Beach Drive N.E., St. Petersburg. For more information, call (727) 896-2667 or visit mfastpete.org.


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