Ivan Le Lorraine Albright (1897–1983), Self-Portrait at 55 East Division Street, 1947
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When we look into a mirror, what do we see? Gazing at our reflection transforms us into images. Only our external appearance is visible in the mirror, while all the complexities of human thought and interiority may remain beneath the surface.
Many artists, in their own self-portraits, make use of the mirror's flattening effect. Yet the mirror image is not static. It poses the challenge of drawing a dynamic, living self always in flux. In this interaction between artist and reflection, the artist negotiates between image and interiority.
The mirror bids us examine our defects by knowing ourselves.” - Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (1593)
As Ripa indicates, the mirror has been conceived as a tool for understanding the self. It sets the stage for introspection and self-reflection. But such uses of the mirror are culturally and historically specific. Mirrors are used across time and place for distinct purposes and to sometimes contradictory ends. What can we understand about ourselves by consulting our reflections?
How do we choose what to wear? Is this choice entirely free? Whether it is selecting what to wear in the morning or dancing a mask as part of a cultural rite of passage, we fashion ourselves in relation to our social world. Dressing up in costumes or masks might allow us to perform our sense of self differently, disrupting the assumption of a singular self and demonstrating the performative nature of selfhood.
Is your sense of self, your identity reducible to your appearance? Sometimes we assume we can know something about people based upon their appearance. Do we use appearances to gender or racialize bodies? These artists use masks or mirrors to resist the ease with which we might interpret appearances as gendered or racialized identities.