That out of place strand of hair still captivates me.
When I first saw this seemingly quiet and controlled self-portrait by Gwen John, with its old master color range and varnish, I felt nothing but struggle. Why did this buttoned up, cameo-wearing woman in a chignon paint one precise hair out of place on her forehead? Once I started examining the painting closely, I realized her self-scrutiny was challenging me to some of my own. (And I was at a point in my life when I knew I wanted to make a big change). John introduced me to the idea that self-scrutiny is crucial to making art that is durable and truthful. She showed me mercifully that doubt and perseverance–both so evident in her face–can co-exist. That strand of hair grabbed my attention because I look for imperfection. Everything that moves me can be found in the space where things go wrong, or fall short.
Now as a photographer who often feels–perhaps perversely–that these days only the “staged” can be authentic, I remain struck by the image John presents to the viewer in this self-portrait. She is projecting a power and status that didn’t exist for her–or any female artist–in 1902. As I consider, and try to avow, the power of the fictional–the concocted, the made-up–in my own work, I respond to the way John is creating the self she wants on her canvas. The color of the matronly dress is bold, the cameo is of a goddess, the quiet expression is resolve, the eyes and shoulders confront the viewer directly. To fabricate without irony–to fabricate in pursuit of some vision or truth–is perhaps the skill I am always trying hardest to learn; and Gwen John’s work made me see how it could be done.
Tabitha Soren had her first museum show at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012 (The Natural World, with Min Kim Park). Public collections include the Oakland Museum of Art, Cleveland’s Transformer Station, the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art as well as the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, both in Louisiana. She is represented by Kopeikin Gallery, where her show Running is on view until July 13, 2013. (Photo of Soren: Todd Hido, 2010)