The ancients invented the portrait, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages, apparently, that anyone thought of painting, drawing or engraving their own image. This is because “these were an era concerned with personal salvation and self-examination,” according to James Hall, author of Self-portrait: a cultural history. We can draw a straight line to the photographic selfie of the present age, in which we are concerned with self-documentation and “likes”.
Over the centuries, countless artists have created self-portraits – and why not? The template is free and almost always available. Painting your face over and over again is, after all, a great practice for getting the nose just right, capturing the drop of light on the cheek, and so on.
But the self-portrait can be less a question of technical mastery than of exploration of identity, trying to answer the existential question: who am I?
James rauchman is squarely in the latter camp. “Self: Reflection”, her current exhibition at River arts in Morrisville, is intensely psychological. A large painting dates from 1978, but most of the pieces have been made since 2015 – an “explosion of self-portraits at a difficult time,” as Rauchman put it during a visit to the gallery. Some works do not represent the artist at all but rather views of his studio. “I consider that some of the interior spaces reflect who I am,” he explained.
The New Jersey-born artist, now 69, moved to Vermont with her husband in 2018 and settled in Morristown. This marked a return to the state: he had obtained a bachelor’s degree in painting from Goddard College in 1974 and “had interned at Vermont Studio Center when it started, ”he said.
In the decades that followed, Rauchman lived in Philadelphia and New York City, where he obtained an MA in Arts Education and an MA in Painting, respectively. The teaching did not hold; painting certainly did. “Art for me is like breathing,” he said.
Rauchman is by no means entirely self-absorbed. Her website reveals many impressionist landscapes, genre scenes, and watercolor portraits of friends made on frequent trips to Cuba, as well as abstract and video-inspired acrylic works. But when curator Beth Weintraub Liberman visited Rauchman’s studio, she was drawn to his self-portraits.
“Her sense of light and line was still there but with completely different content,” she said.
Rauchman recognized that self-portraits may be less commercially viable than landscapes, but, according to Weintraub Liberman, art sales are a secondary concern at River Arts. The gallery committee was open to an exhibition focused on an artist’s personal experience, she said.
Admittedly, these are not “pretty” pictures. Rauchman does not spare the folds of the eyebrows, the dark circles under the eyes. He makes the bangs of hair around his bald head with aggressive strokes of white paint. Some works have a “melting” character reminiscent of the disturbing forms of the British artist Francis Bacon.
This harsh physicality serves to underline Rauchman’s restlessness. The later paintings correspond to a recent period of conflict over his sexual preference, he revealed.
“When you realize you’re gay it’s in the background all the time,” Rauchman said. “But something came to a head in those years with the family. I had to face the problem publicly – face some people and be confronted.” He is grateful to have “had the painting to express what I was going through”.
The inner conflict is evident in works such as “Winter Blues”, in which only Rauchman’s troubled eyes and black cap point to the foreground of a snowy urban park scene. In “Emptiness”, he is beyond nudity: he painted his whole torso like a void; that is, a viewer can see through Rauchman’s naked body, standing in his studio, other paintings beyond. His raw vulnerability almost forces the viewer to look away.
One of those paintings seen through his body is “The Dance”, and this cross-reference – one of many in his works – is surely intentional. At 48 by 72 inches, “The Dance” is one of the largest paintings in the exhibition. It’s also older, painted in 2001 from a photograph. In it, Rauchman, clad in denim shorts and a short-sleeved plaid shirt, dances reluctantly among a group of Cuban women as several men watch. “I ended up there in a way,” he said. “Whoever I am, I was accepted.”
It’s a painting about being happy, and it’s an emotional buttress in this show. “I wanted to keep that moment of escape from my middle-class suburban life,” Rauchman said of the work. “It was very liberating.”
Although the artist is outspoken about her struggles, the paintings in “Self: Reflection” do not signal explicit concerns. As such, any viewer who has ever felt doubt, anxiety, or insecurity can relate to themselves.
In several of the paintings on display, strange vermicular shapes suggest a sense of humility, similar to a worm. In an interior studio scene, an empty trash can somehow communicates a sense of loss.
In an original play titled “Monster,” Rauchman inserts his face in color onto Frankenstein’s black-and-white head – although he actually resembles the character from the 1960s television comedy, Herman Munster. Is Rauchman mocking his own angst?
The most eloquent painting in this exhibition could be “Offering”, which also mixes color and grayscale. In the 30-by-40-inch room, Rauchman stands to the right, wearing a pink-colored shirt, and extends a bouquet in his right hand toward a painting on an easel to the left. The latter is painted gray, and as the flowers overlap with the canvas, they also turn gray.
But, as Rauchman pointed out, the gesture could be read backwards: the flowers become colored when he tears them from the gray canvas. Whatever one sees here, “Offering” exudes serenity, a sensation enhanced by its peachy, aura-like background and the calm expression of the artist-subject.
“It’s kind of a thank you to art,” Rauchman said. “[Art] asks a lot, but it gives a lot. ”