In the Summer Issue of Art North magazine (Art North No.2), we ran a leader article on the topic of Women & Self-Portraiture, having put out an open call to artists working in this field. It was an interesting exercise, for the work submitted for inclusion far-exceeded our expectations and, for want of space, it was impossible to include even a fraction of that work, nor the many candid responses that were sent to us from female artists using self-portraiture for a variety of reasons. Our article was therefore couched as a signal that this was a subject we will return to regularly, both in the magazine and online, and so we begin with the work of Lucy Gans.
Gans has been making self-portraits for twenty years or more, although like many people, the first time she recalls making a self-portrait, “it was in highschool as an assignment.” Later, as an artist, she made drawings in graphite and then added gouache and watercolour, but, “now I usually make prints – I like having the ability to layer the image and to emboss and deboss text onto the image and work with a matrix using the same image and different texts, or the converse, the same text over different but similar images.”
Gans is Professor of Art at Lehigh University in the USA, and the first holder of the Louis & Jane Weinstock ’36 Chair of Art and Architecture. She teaches sculpture and drawing and is also an affiliated faculty member in the universty’s Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, as well as an artist/teacher in the Vermont College MFA program. Her exhibition, In Our Own Words, at Zoellner Center for the Arts’ Gallery, Lehigh University, was composed of over 400 ceramic heads, eight looping audio tracks and accompanying text. Its subject was Domestic Violence with an audio component derived from interviews with survivors, and In Our Own Words received a special award from the Fine Arts Commission for Social Impact.
As a student, Gans earned her MFA from the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY. She also studied painting and drawing at the Art Students League, NYC, and earned her BFA from Lake Erie College, Painesville, Ohio. For over 34 years, now, she has taught in schools, colleges and universities in Ohio, New York, Alabama, and Pennsylvania. Her earliest self-portraits as an artist were personal, she says: “All those doubts we have working alone in the studio, and the doubts we have as women, as mothers and partners, so I made self-portraits then wrote all over them… these really awful thoughts and doubts.” It was “cheaper than therapy,” she adds, but later she moved into what she terms, “more universal issues; such as ‘women in poverty’, ‘domestic abuse’, ‘workplace violence’, ‘murder and suicide rates’,” eventually arriving at that exhibition that won her the Social Impact award at Lehigh.
Invariably such subject matter throws up all sorts of challenges, of course – the main challenge for Gans being around issues of ‘authenticity’. “Although I used my face, my portrait, the words were often from my research or from interviews that I conducted with women who were survivors. Sometimes I encountered hostility when a viewer discovered that I personally had not been a victim of all those horrible acts that I wrote about. Mostly, however, the work opened doors to alternative spaces and opportunities to create safe spaces for women who have been victimised and survived unthinkable atrocities.”
Asked of the nature of the hostility she received, interestingly this did not come from the women involved in her research, nor female viewers of her work. “The negative reaction came from a few male artists I was at a residency with. Somehow, for them, the work lacked authenticity because I myself had not been a victim of all these abuses. I found that shocking, but that was not the general consensus, and the work has been well received.”
Another issue that is worthy of mention is the rigour with which Gans’ project was conducted. The safeguarding of respondees to research enquiries that spawn highly sensitive testimony is, after all, something that has to be very carefully handled. As Lucy Gans states, “Every woman I interviewed gave me permission to use her text, and they were very proactive towards the work and its exposure. I still believe firmly in keeping them anonymous and I only used their first names, but I had them all read or listen to the tapes to be sure I had accurately transcribed them.”
Most important of all, the research went before an IRB (Internal Review Board) at Lehigh University, which serves as what, in the UK, would be referred to as an Ethics Committee that vets the integrity of the work and the safeguarding of its participants. “I usually donate the work to different agencies so they can use it for fund raising,” Gans notes with regard to her work in this field.
Of those Gans cites as having a perhaps influential impact on her own work, “Käthe Kollwitz is probably the first who comes to mind, but I also love that Artemisia Gentileschi used her own image often for her paintings without it being a ‘self portrait’ in the traditional sense,” she says. At present, Gans is now working on a series based upon her own biography – a remembered trauma of her own, that is. “I have the text but not sure of the image yet,” she says. “I think it will be several blurred images. I am currently working on some solar plates for an exhibition in Spring 2020, a sort of narrative retrospective installation of small self-portraits spanning about 20 years, from age 50 to 70.”