Re-Writing Identity: A Review of Joanne Heppert’s Senior Individualized Project Exhibition

by Angela Frakes

 “Identity is not a question of Who, but How.” –Chuck Close [1]

Portraiture is a complicated genre in any medium, presenting several contradictory elements: the preservation and ephemerality of the subject’s character and physical presence; the projection of artist’s vision upon subject’s identity; the representation of subject and artist, together but separate. But as well-known contemporary portraitist Chuck Close states, the identity – or identities, rather – in question within portraiture, both subject and artist, do not depend upon the persons involved but upon the way they assert themselves in the piece.

In Joanne Heppert’s solo show in the Light Fine Arts Gallery during the week of May 6, there were several elements at work that explored the different forms of paradox that portraiture presents: malleable drawing tools, use of text, repetition, and a play with the power of the artist. [2] Heppert presents us with ten drawings on paper that exemplify the complexity of the subject-artist relationship as well as the legibility of subjects through the pairing of image and text. In the end, however, it becomes less about the subjects depicted and more about the way that Heppert has rendered them. Heppert plays with ideas posed by post-modernist artists at the end of the twentieth century and subverts several facets of their portraiture styles by very forcefully making her presence known through her mark and her use of text.

Joanne Heppert, Untitled (Britta), 2012, charcoal on paper

Heppert’s use of charcoal, graphite, and erasure as her primary mechanisms of mark-making exposes the impossibility of a concrete or permanent image of a person. She emphasizes the delicacy and temporality of the images by leaving eraser debris on the paper, and repeating images of the same person, which magnifies subtle differences between each version. As one of the mediums that shows the artist’s mark the most prominently, charcoal is a very interesting and seemingly deliberate choice for Heppert. By using such a malleable drawing tool, there is very little room to avoid leaving some kind of evidence of the artist’s hand. This documentation of Heppert’s presence through the marks on the paper emphasizes the fact that it is a portrait – a representation of someone, but not that someone him- or herself. Additionally, it represents the fleeting and temporary quality of the images and identities, which are constantly subject to change.

Heppert asked each subject to stand for a reference photo and tell her two words: a characteristic they believe they possess, and another that they do not. She inserts the words onto each portrait in various ways: on top of the figure or into the contours of the subject’s features. This questions the role of the artist in relation to the sitter. She can be seen as either a facilitator or a manipulator. She gives the subjects say in how they are depicted, but then plasters the text right over their faces, restricting the view of their physical features.

The works are not paired with labels or titles, allowing the text within the drawings to be the only written language speaking for the portraits. We can think of this choice to not include labels as a decision to leave the subjects unnamed and unidentified, so that the relationship between artist and subject is only contained in the conversations within each portrait’s frame.

Joanne Heppert, Untitled (Jake), 2012, graphite on paper

In an article entitled “Postmodernist Portraits,” Wendy Steiner explores the role of portraits in modern and contemporary art, and the different ways that artists have used and explored it as a genre in the twentieth century. [3] She addresses the several versions of paradox that characterize portraiture, including the portrait as indexical versus iconic, as well as the dichotomy between subject and artist, stating: “A fusion of icon, index, and symbol, of centripetal and centrifugal reference, the portrait is an extremely complex semiotic structure.” [4] Semiotics involves the study of the use signs and symbols, and their function in an image or text. At its root, semiotics is about language, and the most structured form of language is text. Heppert signifies the physical presence of the sitter with her visible markings, and allows the subject to signify her own identity through her choice of descriptive words.

Portraiture is not a very widely explored genre in contemporary art, outside of photography. In a similar way to photography, Heppert is able to capture the transient quality of a person’s being; not just through the temporary nature of a photograph, but also through her deliberate assertion of her own presence through her visible marks. At a time where artists are creating portraits that consist of a metal rod the same length as the subject’s height [5], or the remnants of a gunshot on a drawing pad [6], Heppert’s work seems to be a return to a more traditional way of rendering a portrait. However, in the context of this contemporary moment where fewer artists are using traditional techniques for portraiture, Heppert is able to more forcefully assert her role as the artist and as the person in charge of displaying the subject’s identity since she uses drawing, a more historical way of representing a subject.

Joanne Heppert, Untitled (Ariel), 2012, graphite on paper

Despite the visual focus on the subjects’ faces and chosen characteristics displayed through assertive text, Heppert’s hand is still the most prominent mechanism working in these portraits. The nine unnamed subjects are a tool that Heppert can use to comment on the ephemerality of a person’s being; its ability to be erased, drawn over, and covered in several layers of paradoxical interpretations—embodying the definition of and contradictions within portraiture.

Notes:

[1] Kim Levin, “Chuck Close: Decoding the Image,” in Chuck Close: Recent Work (New York: Pace Publications, 1979), np.

[2] This show was completed as the majority of Heppert’s Senior Individualized Project in Studio Art at Kalamazoo College, in partial fulfillment of a Bachelor’s in Arts. She will graduate this June.

[3] Wendy Steiner, “Postmodernist Portraits,” Art Journal 46, no. 3 (Autumn 1987): 173-177. http://0-www.jstor.org.ariadne.kzoo.edu/stable/777029.

[4] Ibid., 173.

[5] See for example: Stanley Brouwn, Portrait, 2005. Aluminum strip length of subject, wood, paint. 31”x79”x10.25”

[6] See for example: Robert Beck, Untitled (Daily over/under @ close range w/ .12), 2000. Gunpowder on paper, 36”x48”

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