Self-Portrait (2002) questions purity, identity and identification, consumer culture, as well as the use of skin color as racial signifier in the United States. The work displays Ralph Lauren paint swatches arranged in a grid and held between two sheets of transparent acrylic. Together, the colored swatches form an image of the artist’s face. Self-Portrait is not only a representation of identity in terms of the artist’s self-image, but also a symbol of how people unknowingly frame their judgments using a limited palette.
Color Studies (2004) brings together three works that question the construction of race as it relates to identity, skin color, perception, categories, and hierarchies in U.S. American culture. Gallery 111, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY.
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Self-Portrait displays 289 Ralph Lauren paint swatches arranged in a grid and held between two sheets of transparent acrylic. Together, the colored swatches form an image of my face. However, Self-Portrait is not only a representation of identity in terms of self-image, but also a symbol of how people unknowingly frame their judgments using a limited palette. The work hangs from the ceiling and is viewable from both sides. The back of each color swatch is labeled with the Ralph Lauren logo, the color category, color name, numeric code, and a disclaimer about color quality variation. The paint swatches used in Self-Portrait are artifacts of consumer culture. The swatches have no exchange value; they are free samples designed to sell paint. I collected them from the Ralph Lauren paint displays of several Home Depot stores. In light of the cultural production power of the advertising industry, Self-Portrait inverts these advertisements as art and as critique. Self-Portrait questions purity, identity and identification, consumer culture, as well as the use of skin color as racial signifier in the United States.
Self-Portrait is a low resolution visual image. Resolution refers to the amount of visual detail available for someone to recognize an image. In this piece, the image of my face was abstracted into a low resolution grid of paint swatches, with about 1 swatch every 3 inches, or 0.33 ppi (pixels per inch). The original image was a digital photograph resolved at 72 ppi, more than 200 times the amount of visual detail. Abstracting the image simplifies the image into square blocks of color. This limits the visual palette to raise questions about color-as-category, and asks the viewer to judge the image only in terms of color. I limited the image resolution and color palette of Self-Portrait as a metaphor for the limited palette often used to identify individuals. For example, the limited palette of the person who reported me to the FBI acted to reduce the different parts of my appearance to match a profile defined by the cultural context of racial fears and terrorism.
As people experience the world around them, their perception is shaped by their context and worldview. When someone looks at another person, the first thing he/she may see is the individual’s physical appearance. This impression can be interpreted in a plethora of different ways, depending on who is doing the looking. The subjective perception of the viewer colors their interpretation. If an elderly person looks at me, they may see a young person, if a driver, a pedestrian, if a police officer, a criminal, etc. When I was reported to the FBI, the caller interpreted my appearance and actions within a social context that supported their fear of “Middle Eastern” people as terrorists. During this heightened period of time in US history, the caller didn’t see an artist, or even a tourist creatively shooting footage. They saw a threat. Following the plane crashes on September 11th, 2001, images of the hijackers were shown repeatedly on television news programs. The repetitious representation of their faces, framed by newsmakers in black and white equally cropped headshots, minimized differences and unified similarities, defined the visual profile of terrorism.
Self-Portrait puts the viewer in the analytical seat of power, allowing them to define my identity from their perspective, to identify me through their worldview. The process of interpreting my portrait reveals more about the outside viewer’s identity than Self-Portrait necessarily reveals about mine. In the same way the FBI incident reveals more about the caller’s identity than it does about mine. Self-portraiture is an example of representing the self, the self-image, or some form of one’s identity, to be viewed by an audience outside of the self. I constructed, literally, a representation of my identity as trapped within the frame of a controlled grid structure to reference the imposed structure within which I am asked to define my identity. I view identity and identification as separate but related modes of being. Identity is a complex concept related to how a person perceives and identifies herself or himself. Identification, on the other hand, is a projection that marks or labels something or someone from an outside perspective. The act of identifying something or someone manifests the worldview of the person or group conducting the labeling. In the same way, the process of self-identifying and the process of identifying another person are both modes of identification that reveal an individual or group worldview or perspective.
Having been considered “Hispanic,” “Middle Eastern,” and “White” at different times based on my appearance, I am fascinated by the fluidity of racial perception. Perceiving race is a complicated process of parsing, processing, synthesizing, and totalizing physical characteristics that signify a particular race in the United States. Despite the many factors used to categorize race, skin color has become a symbolic method for perceiving race. However, skin color varies within racial groups and across different categories to the point that skin color cannot accurately identify a person’s race. A person identified as Asian may have very similar skin color to that of a person identified as Caucasian, Latino, or Middle Eastern. Attempts to use skin color as a factor for determining a person’s race reveal inconsistencies in the fabric of race recognition and racial categories themselves.
Self-Portrait leaves my face in an unresolved state, allowing the viewer only to see abstracted sections of color. This draws attention to inconsistencies in the idea that a person has a single skin color. Human flesh ranges in tone from reddish to yellowish hues, with light and dark variations of each, running the gamut of combinations between. Moreover, skin color varies over any single person’s body, changes over time, from sun exposure, vitamin intake, scarring or other anomalies. In addition, light sources create highlights and shadows, which affect the look of the skin.
One of the reasons I chose to use the Ralph Lauren color swatches was to question the idea of purity. “Naturals,” “Whitewash,” and “Thoroughbred” are some of the color categories prominently noted on the backs of the swatches. My initial interest was the category “Thoroughbred,” a term that references breeding and purity in horses or other animals. A purebred or thoroughbred animal is commercially more valuable than an animal of mixed stock. Historically, when ideas of racial purity have been pursued by institutions of power, it has devastated entire populations. Lifting racial purity to an ideal has led to the oppression and genocide of millions of people worldwide. The idea of purity connotes perfection, cleanliness, and superiority. Any modification to purity is considered imperfect, dirty, and inferior. As a person of mixed racial heritage, I identify with the oppression inherent in the idea of racial purity. I also can’t help seeing the irony of racial purity, considering purity is achieved through inbreeding.
I also chose the Ralph Lauren brand to frame my identity as trapped and suspended within the framework of US consumer culture. Born in 1938 the son of Jewish immigrants, (Lauren’s original name was Lipshitz) Ralph Lauren went from the Bronx to owning a $10 billion dollar commercial empire. Ralph Lauren epitomizes the “American Dream.” The red, white, and blue Ralph Lauren logo forms the US flag but replaces the stars with the initials RL. Ralph Lauren Media LLC sells cultural sophistication in the form of magazines, restaurants, home decor, sports, travel, and fashion. People purchase these luxuries as status symbols of their social class, reflecting their own sense of identity through brand identity. The “American Dream” is a myth, US propaganda that says people can have a better, higher quality, higher standard of living in the United States. Defining life in the United States as better, elevated, or higher quality is built on consumer culture and the assumption that having lots of nice things is “better” than not having those things. This “higher standard” of living also demotes other countries and cultures as less sophisticated, a lower form on the cultural evolutionary chain.