Interesting Artworks: Self by Helen Masacz
Helen Masacz is a well-established artist working in Britain. She has studied at the prestigious London Atelier School, exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery and won The Arts Club Award in 2011. ‘Self’ is a particularly thought-provoking painting. Ostensibly, it’s about the Anthropocene. It critiques the impact of the ‘human’ on our planet. It’s also, however, about the ‘human’ as such. Masacz’s ‘Self’ is carefully composed and offers the viewer an intelligent picture of contemporary issues regarding the ‘self’, ‘subject’, and ‘human’ of our contemporary moment.
In ‘Self’, a woman’s portrait occupies the bottom-left corner of the painting. In the top-right, there’s only half of an animal’s horn. Presumably, it’s a trophy hanging on the wall. Does it belong to the woman in the bottom-left? Possibly. She’s wearing sunglasses. It’s impossible to look into her eyes. It’s reasonable to assume that the figure in the bottom-left corner of the painting is the eponymous ‘Self’. Now, it’s usual for the figure to assume the centre of the canvas. Isn’t this about the Anthropocene? Isn’t it about the dominance of the Human? And yet, the ‘self’ of the painting is decentred. The ‘self’ sits passively in the corner of the painting. It’s as if she’s unaware of the reminder of violence in the top-right. Isn’t this precisely the operation by which many of us buy our food today? We’re passive and blissfully unaware of the violence of our dominance.
So, what is the ‘self’ in philosophy? It’s clear that the word ‘myself’ suggests some sort of ownership of oneself. For e.g., it is mine as ‘it’ is me. Furthermore, ‘oneself’ implies that ‘I’ experience ‘myself’ as just that, i.e., ‘one’ ‘self’ rather than, say, two or three selves. Of course, the ‘self’ is near synonymous—today, at least—with the ‘individual’ or the etymological in-dividere (indivisible) from Latin. So, what’s at stake in this painting’s relegation of the so-called ‘self’ to the bottom-left corner of the canvas? It’s quite literally de-centered. Now, the decentering of the subject is one of the great achievements of twentieth-century philosophy. In many ways, this achievement is descended from the psychoanalytic work of Sigmund Freud. He’s credited with decentering the subject because: (i) the unconscious erupts into our conscious existence; and (ii) there’s no such thing as ‘one-self’ given the famous tripartite division of the psyché into ego, super-ego, and id. In brief, what was in-dividere (indivisible) was divided against itself. And so, the ‘self’ or ‘subject’ is relegated from the centre-stage in favour of its unconscious urges. Importantly, there’s another decentering at work here. Significantly, the ‘subject’ of the painting is female. It’s another decentering of sorts. Specifically, of the subject as exclusively male. Kant’s philosophy centered a male subject. Simply put, women couldn’t attain reason nor wisdom. And so, only men could become proper subjects. Masacz’s ‘Self’ is very clever in this regard.
The centre of the canvas now reveals a blank space accentuated by the pastel blues upon the sandy coloured primer. It’s void where subjectivity formerly reigned. The viewer’s focus is therefore split in indeterminacy between two portraits: the ‘self’ in the bottom-left and half of an animal’s horn in the top-right corner. It’s likely that of a bison, ox, or buffalo. Consequently, it’s the cloven hoof of ‘game’ and the abattoir. Its fatal relationship with humanity is thus presupposed. It’s positioned as if it were a trophy. Or, as it’s on the mind of the subject if one were to draw a series of thought-bubbles from one to the other. It’s also further de-centered in relation to the ‘self’ in that only ‘half’ of the animal’s portrait appears on canvas. The rest of the skull and, presumably, its other horn, are relegated from view—only half a ‘memento mori’ if ‘death’ is rendered almost invisible in today’s culture and society. It’s as if the message is: yes, the subject of the painting is decentered and yet, the animal is decentered even further. But it strikes us that the ‘subject’ in the bottom-left is neither truly alive. The inner-life communicated by the eyes is invisible—obscured by the fashionable sunglasses. The subject stares straight ahead—a dead gaze without subjectivity. The anthropocene is rendered visible yet relegated to the margins, the dark reminder of the rest of non-human life appears in the top-right corner, the subject is critiqued even in this new position upon the canvas.