It’s a funny sort of self portraiture that keeps the face hidden. I’ve never fully understood why an artist does it. Is it because they don’t want the work pegged solely as self-portraiture? Or they’re rubbish at painting faces? Maybe seeing their face before them is a bit like when I hear my voice on a recording and recoil in horror. That’s not me.
Perhaps it’s that faceless self-portraiture protects the artist from explicit recognition and having to explain. Whatever events and emotions may be covered in a work, without the inclusion of the face, the identity of the protagonist is implicit and therefore open to various interpretations and denials. It’s disconcerting for the viewer, because we don’t know for certain that it is self-portraiture, and denies us the chance to feel that intimate connection between artist and viewer we crave. We aren’t ‘in the know’, so to speak.
Faceless self portraiture is perhaps closest to what I do as a writer. Not being blessed with any artistic ability, I must rely on words to explore myself and whatever I’m going through. Sometimes that’s hard, because words are definite and don’t allow for detachment from serious scenarios. But depending on the sort of writing I’m doing, I have the option of disguising myself and others through narrative. And on the odd occasion I am forced to describe myself, none of the words I choose ever relate to my physical appearance. If you don’t know what I look like already, you won’t get any better idea from reading my personal view of myself. My written self portrait is a faceless one too.
It’s here within this narrative self that I find I connect with the work of Brisbane artist Megan Rohan. Since leaving art school just five years ago, Rohan has made her career out of faceless self-portraits. We know they’re self portraits because she says so, but without the face to confront and focus us, we are allowed our own interpretation. Her paintings are a tumbling, falling, floating mess of girls shrouded in fabric and textiles. The colour schemes, patterns and movement are what drive the emotion of these works which, done with oil on board, take on the effect of painted tiles and ceramic glaze.
Rohan’s early works did occasionally include the face, alongside muted tones and subdued patterns, but the last two years has seen a stronger use of colour, more intricate patterns, expansive motion, and complete elimination of the face. Whether that was done consciously or instinctively, it is easy to see her new works as more confident and buoyant, despite the apparent shyness of the subject. Her recent solo show at Jan Murphy Gallery, called Topsy-Turvy, felt joyous and triumphant, even with angst ridden names such as Yeah Right Okay, Consequence and Predicament. The satisfaction and wonder evoked in me must have hit the mark elsewhere too, as the show was an immediate sell out.
Having last year completed a residency at Tweed Regional Gallery, Rohan’s work will be on display there until 4 October 2015, and will soon be seen in QAGOMA’s forthcoming GOMA Q exhibition from 11 July 2015.
It’s too corny to say that despite painting herself as falling, Monica Rohan is most definitely on the rise – but bugger it. I’m going to say it anyway.