Overview, Images

The Portrait - a curatorial essay

Karl Halliday

From prehistoric cave paintings to the Archibald Prize to the selfie, portraiture endures as perhaps the oldest ongoing form of image-making. The portrait owes much of this success to the persisting assumption that a person’s character can be expressed and judged through appearance alone, as if written on the skin. Upon this basis, the instinctual logic of the portrait laid the groundwork for the image-saturated consumer culture of contemporary capitalism, within which we too are positioned to measure our identities through what we buy, what we wear, what we eat; to define ourselves, as Barbara Kruger so presciently put it, ‘I shop therefore I am’. [1]

Set in her mother’s home, Lucy Foster’s ‘self timer’ sees the artist record herself performing a series of self-portraits wearing her mother’s clothes. In each scene of the video, Foster sets the self-timer function on an analogue film camera, presses the shutter and poses in anticipation of the shot before resetting the camera, documenting step by step the creation of a second set of portraits that we never see. But so too, the images portray not just the artist herself, but another person we also never see, her mother, whom the artist affectionately portrays through their eccentric dress sense, through their belongings, furniture, decorations, through their home, their bedroom, their garden, through lived spaces, through the environment of their life.

Foster writes, ‘The clothes I wear belonged to my late mother Judy. She died a few months before I started making this work. The scenes are captured in her home where she spent the final years, weeks and days in her body. Judy was an avid op-shopper, sewer and assembler of quirky things. She expressed herself through clothes, cooking and decorating the home; there was no particular style, trend or recipe she followed. My understanding of her expression was to be driven by emotion - a spontaneous response to the present moment.

Amidst all the things she left behind, I found a letter she had written to her Mum (my Nonna) not long after she had passed away. It read: ‘Dear Mum, thought about you again today. Hope it's fun being in Heaven. I miss you and just wanted to say that since you have gone I have had terrible trouble trying to find something to wear.’ [2]

In thinking about the ways the environments we occupy shape us. Arini Byng’s ‘Talking to the back of your head’ extends the equation between site and self in a video work that looks at the language of portraiture as performed through the body. Describing the work as a poem, in ‘Talking to the back of your head’, Byng turns away from spoken and written forms of communication in favour of dialogue expressed through the kinetic exchange of physical gestures and movements between performers. Here, the body takes on the haptic qualities of architecture as it intersects and reverberates through space in a sequence of sculptural arrangements and abstract compositions that fluidly collapse object and subject into one.

For many, photography acts as a kind of storage bank for preserving memories, making possible future opportunities to revisit a past rescued from the forever-fleeting current of time. This tension between the movement of our lives and the stillness of the image manifests in the work of Abigail Varney, but not because of any attempt to resist the tides of change through securing the past through documentation. On the contrary, Varney’s portrait of her basketball team before they dissolved and parted ways is rendered all the more meaningful and precious by its very transience. Accompanied by a transcript of the conversation that preceded the team’s final hours together, Varney’s photography resigns from the need for control in a wistful but meditative acceptance of the ephemeral and unfixed passage of our lives.

In ‘Irons in the Fire’, Phebe Schmidt & Danny Cohen combine wit and imagination to cunningly critique the portrait through the lens of its corporate guise: the professional headshot. They write:

‘Branding an individual requires a likable, trustworthy and authentic image especially for a business profile picture. Essentials appear to be smiling with your teeth, choosing dark-coloured suits to suggest dependable formality and presenting a persona that implies there is a connection with each and every viewer / potential punter. Without this attention to detail there is a risk of being overlooked, of impeding or growing your business. ’Irons in the Fire’ explores an alternative ‘reality’ that disingenuously challenges the absurdity of these ‘real’ people creating a different version of making a good impression.’ [3]

[1] Kruger, Barbara, ‘Untitled (I shop therefore I am), 1987, photographic silkscreen on vinyl.
[2] Written correspondence with the artist Lucy Foster, 2022.
[3] Written correspondence with the artists Phebe Schmidt & Danny Cohen, 2022.

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The Nicholas Building

Room 14, Level 7, 37 Swanston Street

Melbourne, Victoria, 3000

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Working on unceded sovereign land of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation, Blindside pays respect to Elders, past, present and emerging.


Working on unceded sovereign land of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation, Blindside pays respect to Elders, past, present and emerging.