Characters looking into mirrors for the sake of the audience getting to know their appearance is a standard devise in film and literature. However even in the visual medium of portraiture there are artists who step beyond pure physicality of their subjects to bring the viewers into a deeper consideration of a person. These abstract portraits can be powerfully emotional and have a much fuller sense of a whole human because there is not easy mental image being formed. Works like Rebecca Belmore’s Mr. Luna are windows into deep personal relationships and demonstrate what is possible when an artist moves beyond traditional conceptions of portraiture. It is not unlike the deep inner life that stream of consciousness writing brings to classic books like James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a young man. For the viewer or reader of such works the impact comes from the emotions and connections of the person being presented, not some meticulous description of physical characteristics.
I saw Rebecca Belmore’s Mr. Luna piece (mixed media instillation) when it was on display at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre as part of the Absence/Presence exhibition. It was an important summer in my life and this work in particular had a huge impact on me. The piece is non-representational and looking at it portrait is not the first word that comes to mind but it was the work that showed me that art could powerfully represent relationships (there is a link to an image of the piece at the bottom of this post). The piece depicts Belmore’s mentor James Luna who was an icon in the indigenous art world and is not just a portrait of the man – it is a portrait of their relationship. The warm glow of the show lights that sit bellow a pair of yellow shoes at the top of the work capture the sense of connection and safety that Belmore has spoken about in interviews. Both Belmore and Luna are indigenous artists and working at the Mr. Luna piece helped me to think about kinship ties in ways that I had previously struggled with. Since viewing that piece I have done a lot of research about Belmore and Luna but the basis of my understanding of these artists was formed looking at that unconventional portrait.
It is the warmth and shared past that is compelling in Mr. Luna. He feels like a real person in a way that many figures in art do not. Writers like James Joyce have tried to create this feeling of connection with their fictional characters. In particular the stream of consciousness writing that Joyce employs gives his characters depth and intellect that was not possible in more traditional styles. Stephan Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has his mental anguish and religious doubts brought to life because the reader gets a sense of how it pervades all aspects of his daily life. The writing is often disjointed, much the same way that the elements of Belmore’s work appear initially disconnected but viewed as a whole they form a cohesive idea of a person.
Above all else depictions of people, whether real or fictional, must be believable for an audience that has never met them. In both Mr. Luna and A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man there is no sense that the figures have been touched up to meet some idealized idea of themselves. The cords and feathers that descend to the floor in Mr. Luna are tangled rather than meticulously arranged, Stephan’s thoughts waver and jump around instead of following some railroad track to conclusions. These disordered moments lend a sense of life to these works even though the person consuming them will never meet the person being depicted.
There is theory behind why people feel emotionally impacted by the arts. Jacques Lacan in particular proposed a paradigm of reciprocal looking wherein the act of experiencing the artwork has implications for the audience, the object essentially looks back at them. Its difficult bit of theory to wrap one’s head around and I am very much not qualified to be making general statements about Lacan’s work but at least in my understanding it speaks to the way that we experience depictions of people with emotional depth. We connect to these works because when we look at them there are familiar aspects, I look at Mr. Luna and think about my connection to my blood family while the piece looks back at me to remind me that blood family is just one interpretation of kinship that happens to be privileged by the settler culture I live in. When reading A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man as a LGBT person who grew up in the Catholic Church I think about my own journey which ultimately took me away from faith but how for different people in different contexts doubts can take a person to very different places. Moving depictions of people or characters away from the physical increases these possibilities for reciprocal looking and self reflection.
If a work of art, be it visual or literary, is able to create a true sense of character the audience is able to forge an emotional connection. Rebecca Belmore’s abstract portrait of James Luna exposes not just elements of his personality but also the deep personal connection between two artists. By moving beyond purely physical reproduction of his appearance there is a sense of a person in her work. Successful literary conceptions often share a fragmentary approach but in stream of conscious writing as implemented by writers like James Joyce this comes together to form a person with a rich internal life. A good mental picture of a character or person’s physical appearance only takes the audience so far, depth is what inspires emotional engagement.
Mr. Luna in the Agnes Etherington Collection: https://agnes.queensu.ca/explore/collections/object/mister-luna/
Absence/Presence at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre: https://agnes.queensu.ca/exhibition/the-art-of-absence/