Deborah Brown and Patty Horing on Curating “Sit Still” at Anna Zorina Gallery in Chelsea
As some NYC galleries are starting to reopen their doors on an appointment-only basis, we are thrilled to see an intimate contemporary self-portrait exhibit, “Sit Still: Self-Portraits in the Age of Distraction,” opening at Anna Zorina Gallery in Chelsea. The 29 artists in the show are diverse and varied in their approaches to self-portraiture. However, one commonality among many of the included pieces is a rawness and vulnerability that leaves the viewer feeling voyeuristic; these are private moments not ordinarily meant for public scrutiny.
The theme of unabashed self-examination feels especially poignant under the shadow of the global pandemic and the era of social isolation that it has ushered in. New Link Art recently discussed the inspiration behind the exhibit with curators and artists Deborah Brown and Patty Horing.
NLA: An exhibit of this size must have taken awhile to put together. How long have you two known each other? Have you worked together in a curatorial capacity before?
Deborah: I got to know Patty from seeing her 2019 show, “Underdressed,” at Anna Zorina Gallery, an exhibition that received a lot of attention… I was impressed by Patty’s bold, empathetic treatment of her subjects. I can’t remember who reached out to whom, but shortly after we met one morning for coffee. The conversation turned to a group show titled “Sit Still: Self-Portraits in the Age of Distraction,” that Patty was organizing for Anna Zorina for the summer of 2020. Patty had begun to populate the show with artists in her circle whose work she admired. After she asked if I wanted to be in the show, I began to send her the names of artists whose work she might wish to consider. Before long, I accepted Patty’s generous offer to be her co-curator. This show reflects our relationships with other artists and is a representation of our community.
NLA: This exhibit seems to have been perfectly molded for this moment in time, when we are all self-isolating with such a heavy reliance on digital technology for connection. How did you come up with the idea for the show?
Patty: Last summer I had been thinking a lot about the superficial nature of our online lives, and how, especially for my kids’ generation, the selfie is their most accessible form of self expression (and also frequently the most psychologically misleading). I know from doing my own self portraits that having to just be with yourself and deeply consider all the things you are seeing and feeling as you make a work over a period of time can result in art that has depth and an underlying authenticity; in other words, the opposite of a selfie. Looking across the range of figurative artists I tend to admire, most lean toward the expressionistic and make work that conveys feeling and inspires an emotional response in the viewer. That became the crux of the show. The title, “Sit Still: Self Portraits in the Age of Distraction,” just popped into my head. It’s a little academic but it clearly contextualizes the work and underlying concept. What’s been really interesting is to see how the implications of the show and the works we selected over the course of a year have taken on new meaning as our world has changed so drastically during the unprecedented events of 2020. Now everyone has had to ‘sit still’ in quarantine; all of us have had to face ourselves in collective uncertainty; and all of us seem to be confronting our complicated relationship with digital life.
NLA: The artists in the show approach self-portraiture in many ways, from whimsical to allegorical, and representational to abstract. How did you arrive at the final list of included artists? Were you interested in emphasizing any particular themes when curating the show?
Patty: The goal was to bring together artists whose self-portraits would reveal how it feels to be them, rather than how they appear to others. Picasso once said ‘art is a lie that tells the truth’ and that is what we were going for (rather than technical or surface realism). We began recruiting several artists who use self portraiture as their central subject (Julie Heffernan, Ashley Doggett, Polina Barskaya, Aubrey Levinthal, Brittney Leeanne Williams) and branched out from there, with a goal to make the show diverse, inclusive and challenging. As Deborah mentioned, it was a boon to be able to recruit from our respective circles– and a great opportunity for each of us to meet some wonderful new artists and people!
NLA: My favorite shows are often those curated by artists. Could you each briefly discuss your own work in this exhibit?
Deborah: My painting depicts me nude in a claw-foot bathtub with Zeus, my recently deceased Jack Russell Terrier. It’s partly a memento mori and tribute to Zeus, who was my sidekick and alter ego. The composition is based on Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat,” in which the murdered Marat is depicted bleeding to death in his bathtub. The painting is constructed from my imagination but all the elements are based on things that exist in my life. I have a claw-foot bathtub in a room hung salon-style with artwork. Zeus often sat on the bathmat while I bathed. I have altered several things, making myself a self-figure rather than a realistic portrait and painting images of my own artwork on the walls of the room. I reference similar subjects in the history of art including Bonnard’s portrayals of Marthe in her bath, the treatment of Susannah and the Elders from the Bible, and the plethora of bathers and odalisques by Old Masters and Moderns alike. As in so many works by contemporary artists, I part company with the past to upend the male gaze by transferring power to a female artist to depict herself.
Patty: My painting, titled “Self-Portrait Worrying About the Future,” is a bird’s-eye view of me and my husband in bed in the middle of the night. In it, I am staring with dread at the ceiling as a reading light illuminates my face. The covers are flung off me, and one hand clutches my chest. An open book is at my side: It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s 1936 novel imagining fascism in America (which I listened to while making the painting, and which was terrifyingly Trumpian). In stark contrast, my husband is facing away from me in a fetal position, wearing an eye mask, plugged into head phones. It started as a humorous study of different responses to stress, but as Covid crashed down and the political hits keep coming, I can’t help but feel that the painting’s meaning has grown darker and more urgent. Crazy! But that is something I love about art — it can reflect the times but also change with new contexts, as is evident in all the works in this show.
NLA: We are living in such an exceptional time right now, particularly from a social justice perspective. Do you feel that any of the artists in the show are using self-portraiture as a political statement and, if so, how?
Deborah: The show sparks interesting conversations about the current social and political turmoil, which we tried to reflect in the installation. One of my favorites is the juxtaposition of the work of Julie Heffernan and Ashley Doggett. Julie depicts herself as the reclaimer of an art and cultural history written by men. Ashley’s self-portrait portrays the artist with an awareness of the history of African Americans and herself as a Black woman in America. Both are poignant and arresting and question our assumptions and the status quo. Overall, I am struck by the hunger of artists working today, particularly young artists of color and women, to use figuration in the service of their own truth. Abstraction cannot narrate their story with the kind of specificity they require to communicate their message.
NLA: Is there anything else you would like to share about the show?
Patty: Yes! — a shout-out to our gallerist, Anna Zorina. This started with an out-of-the-blue proposal for a small back-room show, but Anna saw the potential to make it bigger and offered us the whole gallery for this summer slot. She is a wonderful advocate for artists, and Deborah and I are both grateful that [she] gave us this opportunity to put together a truly artist-centered exhibition.
NLA: What’s next on the horizon for both of you, either curatorially or artistically?
Deborah: My solo show “Parts Unknown” was to open March 28 at Gavlak Gallery in Palm Beach and was moved online. I anticipate that this work will be exhibited IRL at some point at Gavlak. Working on my contribution to “Sit Still” has led me to do a series of self-portraits and portraits of friends and family in the company of their pets–dogs, cats and birds. I hope to exhibit this body of work in the future.
Patty: This was my first time curating and I loved doing it, but now it feels like time for me to truly hunker down in the studio and develop my next body of work. I had a whole bunch of ideas percolating in February, but the world has changed so much since then that I’m finding those no longer feel relevant. So I’m really looking forward to just taking some time to experiment, write, think, draw, and see what emerges.
Anna Zorina Gallery is currently open by appointment only. “Sit Still: Self-Portraits in the Age of Distraction” is on view through August 15, 2020. Contact the gallery for more information: http://www.annazorinagallery.com .