This is me. This is also me: The Artist’s Archive as Self-Portrait

Amy Furness, Rosamond Ivey Special Collections Archivist, and Head, Library & Archives,

Georgiana Uhlyarik, Curator, Canadian Art, and Co-lead of Indigenous + Canadian Art Department, Art Gallery of Ontario,

This session brings together scholars, curators, archivists and artists to discuss critical issues in collecting, documenting, researching and presenting artists’ archives (fonds). Specialized collections, whether in rare book university libraries, art museum libraries or private foundations, house and make accessible materials, records and documentary traces of the artist’s life and creative activity. The personal fonds as it enters the institutional sphere is shaped by archival practices that reflect the theoretical literature of archival studies, an institution’s collecting practices and priorities, and contemporary aesthetic trends. These bundled and boxed materials are as varied, ranging and diverse as the artists themselves, and may appear incomplete, edited, idiosyncratic, and even haphazardly compiled—sometimes by someone other than the maker. They are nonetheless—in their accumulation—a form of long-duration self-portraiture revealing nuances and complexities over time. 

We are seeking proposals from across cultures and disciplines that investigate the processes entailed by archival transfer from private working space (the artist’s studio, home, etc.) into an institutional, publicly accessible collection and how this relocation impacts and frames the artist’s archives as a self-portrait. We are particularly interested in case-studies and methodological propositions that address the complexity of the artist’s creative and intellectual engagement with ideas of archives, evidence and memory; the artist's studio as living archive; and the reliability of conventional notions of truth, fiction, autobiography and authenticity. This session will bring together models which articulate, formulate and implement new frameworks and theoretical propositions, as a means to broaden established traditions and re-centre art, artists and their voices.

Speakers & Abstracts

Triangulation, intercession and material presence in the artist’s archive

Sue Breakell (University of Brighton Design Archives)

Time spent with analogue artists’ archives brings to mind Prown’s description of the artefact as ‘the embodiment of mental structures’ or ‘evidence of the presence of human intelligence’. The archive offers a prosthetic version of a life, yet, considered as a whole material body, particularly as experienced by the archivist, it has its own distinct identity in its form, its mode of representation and the witness it bears. As researchers and archivists, we often collude with the notion that the archive brings us to the physical presence of the creator, through the things that they touched or - even more evocatively in the case of creative practices - brought into being. In this way, what might otherwise seem purely an ‘act of ventriloquism’ (Levy) by a researcher in giving voice to the archive, becomes an encounter with the creator, through the proxy of the archive’s material body. This triangulated relationship between archive, creator and viewer generates ‘chains of association’ (Latour) around the archive which present additional sources of knowledge.

Developing from research presented in the forthcoming edited collection Materiality and the Archive: Creative Practice in Context, (eds. Breakell and Wendy Russell, Routledge, forthcoming), which frames the archive as a primary body of creative production, this paper will discuss how we might interpret the user’s encounter with the material body of an artist’s archive and the creator it represents; and how we might capture and share the otherwise tacit knowledge generated by the archivist’s encounter with the material body of the artist’s archive.

A multitude of painters – Photographic portraits of Philippe Vandenberg

Eléa De Winter & Wouter Davidts (University of Ghent)

I believe one becomes a researcher in much the same way as one joins the anti-riot squad: our need for norms and security.
Philippe Vandenberg in
L’important c’est le Kamikaze. Œuvre, 2000-2006, s.l., 2006, p. 18.

Understanding renewal and movement as fundamental principles of his painterly practice, Belgian artist Philippe Vandenberg (1952-2009) developed a body of work that is as rich as it is variegated. The artist’s oeuvre reads as a cycle of endings and subsequent beginnings, as annihilation provides the germs for new formations. From the beginning of his career in the mid-1970s until the self-chosen end of his life, the artist regularly shifted directions and made radical stylistic and formal breaks – resulting in an artistic trajectory that was often hard to follow for curators, critics and the larger public alike.

This paper will look at one specific corpus of documents held in his personal archive, conserved at Ghent University Library since 2015: photographic portraits of the artist. At first sight, clichés about modern, predominantly male artistry pervade the majority of photographs: the artist is portrayed as the lonely genius or the madman whilst the studio appears as a mystical place of private creativity and seclusion. In recent exhibitions and publications, this material was all too easily employed to portray Vandenberg as a self-destructive personality whose career was driven by tragic fate.

However, when a close reading of the photographs is combined with a variety of other archival sources, a more ambiguous, layered, sometimes even contradictory portrayal of the artist emerges. Classical topoi about artisthood are equally confirmed and questioned, if not mocked, both by the photographer as by the artist himself. Mostly, if not always, the photographs are staged and hence convey a conscious play with truth, fiction, autobiography and authenticity.

Based on extensive research of the Vandenberg archive, this paper aims to demonstrate how mapping and reading an artist’s records not so much confirm as complicate the views held about the latter’s private and artistic personality.

Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective: Archival Reflection and Refraction

Jess Dobkin (Independent Artist)

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to undo, redo, represent, reimagine, activate, and upcycle the archive. For my purposes, I’m not interested in the archive as a repository of inert objects or presentation of historical documents; I am interested in how the archive can be performed and transformed -- how it can bend and defy linear time, how it can be in conversation with the past, present and also speak to the future.

My exhibition, Jess Dobkin’s Wetrospective, curated by Emelie Chhangur and presented at the Art Gallery of York University (September 2021), repurposed my 25+ year performance art archive into a vital and pertinent engagement with a living audience. The Wetrospective celebrates the “We” of collectivity, collaboration and community and the “Wet” of slippery, messy life with porta potties (“latrine vitrines”) and mischievous self-portrait gremlins playfully subverting and upending conventions of the gallery, institution and exhibition practices. It’s an invitation to an intimate encounter that reflects and refracts trauma, ritual, healing, memory and the necessarily untidy overlaps, intersections, collisions and frictions of my deeply personal Venn Diagram of self. The Wetrospective asks: How can archival material perform anew? How can documentation of prior work be used as material for a new performance? How can digital and analog technologies be in service to activate the archive and facilitate audience encounters? How can an exhibition be an archive of expansive, radical possibility -- a portal that calls me - and us - to face all directions and dimensions at once?

Unpacking Marisol’s Library

Julia M. Vázquez (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)

In 2016, the Venezuelan-American artist Marisol (née María Sol Escobar, 1930-2016) bequeathed her entire estate to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This historic bequest included over 100 finished sculptures and studies, over 150 works on paper, and thousands of photographs and photo slides, in addition to the artist’s personal archive. This archive included Marisol’s library of approximately 1,400 books; her correspondence; her journals, sketchbooks, and datebooks; her tools; and her clothing, from designs by sometimes-collaborator Halston to the scuba gear that she wore while deep-sea diving.

This paper addresses the many ways that Marisol appears and reappears across this bequest, and in what forms. It will focus on Marisol’s library, which I processed in its entirety. Over the course of three months, I produced a comprehensive inventory of her books, recording the many inscriptions and ephemera extracted from amongst their pages. Walter Benjamin’s seminal “Unpacking My Library” (1931) will serve as the theoretical framework for thinking through the implications of imposing archival order on these lived-in materials.

Throughout her career, Marisol was a dedicated self-portraitist who incorporated her own image in much of her work, whether collaged as a photograph, carved out of wood, formed out of plastic, cast in plaster, or drawn or painted directly on the sculptural surface. She was consistently preoccupied with the question of selfhood and interwove modes of self-representation both indexical, mimetic, and abstract. The paper will use the artist’s archive to reconsider the many Marisols that reveal—or, more often, conceal—themselves in her oeuvre.

She is Me, Sort Of: The Archival Conjuring of Lynn Hershman Leeson as Roberta Breitmore

Lotfi Gouigah (McGill University, Montreal)

In this paper I discuss the pioneering multimedia articulations of selfhood in the work of American Feminist artist Lynn Hershman Leeson and their distribution across a vast array of archival material. I will draw on items from a Lynn Hershman Leeson fond at the Whitworth Gallery of Art Manchester, and archival research that I conducted at the Getty Research Institute.

I will argue that rather than existing simply as material traces of an art practice, the various forms taken by Hershman Leeson archival material are part and parcel of an oeuvre committed to performative renditions of the self. More specifically, I will discuss collection items from Hershman Leeson’s Roberta Breitmore project (1973-78), during which the artist lived as a fictional persona named Roberta Breitmore. The archived wig, clothing, photographs, and urine and blood samples of Hershman Leeson as Roberta Breitmore together perform a far from conventional portrait of the self as other. Archival documents from Roberta Breitmore also exist in the online game Second Life, allowing further iterations of a performance whose embodied component ended long ago. I will show how the archival choices made by the artist participate in the conjuring of a performative portrait of the self as other. 

My theoretical approach in discussing the significant role archives play in Hershman’s work draws on the work of physicist and feminist cultural theorist Karen Barad and her notion of performative onto-epistemology. The implications of this approach mean I will consider Roberta Breitmore not as a discrete work of art but as a phenomenon occurring through an array of material manifestations.

Mapping Jeff Thomas – a Q & A about archives as art practice

Jeff Thomas (Artist and Independent Curator)

Anna Hudson (York University, Toronto)

Over the course of the last four decades, self-taught Onondaga artist, Jeff Thomas, has made a career of blurring the lines between art and archive. His goal continues to be to confront photo-based stereotypes of Indigeneity, and to address the absent archive of active Indigenous presences in urban centres. “I was frustrated by the silence,” observes Thomas, who identifies as an urban-Iroquois. His art practice stimulates conversations, awakening viewers to the reality of North American colonialism and Indigenous survivance.

Curator and art historian, Anna Hudson, will engage Jeff Thomas in a Q & A conversation about the evolution of his archives as art practice. Beginning with The North American Indian, a multi-volume of portfolio project by the American photographer, Edward S. Curtis, Thomas always addresses the absent and the missing. From his pow-wow series, to photographed fragments of 19th C architectural sculptures of colonized bodies, to detailed records material culture artifacts boxed in museum vaults, and finally to his most recent landscapes recording Indigenous culture in the Americas from time immemorial, we will explore the question: how does Thomas’ post-colonial blurring of art and archive address Indigenous self-determination?



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