Year

2014

Degree Name

Doctor of Creative Arts

Department

School of the Arts, English and Media

Abstract

This practice-based doctorate in painting explores the perplexing subjectivities in portraits of people with dementia and my response as an artist in relation to changes in his own identity. The research discusses the intersubjectivity of portraiture through portraying institutionalised residents with dementia in the UnitingCare Ageing Boronia Hostel at Gerringong, New South Wales, and also the artist himself during a three year project from 2011 to 2014. As well as small scale oil paintings from life, the artist documents the physical and psychological alteration in his subjects through photography to reflect the changing relationship between his subjects and himself in their portraits. Through several strategies, including large scale self-portraits, this research provides a decentered perspective of the artist to contextualise theories of subjectivity in contemporary portraiture.

The exegesis that accompanies the exhibition asks two questions: what is the perspective of an artist in relation to people with dementia during the process of portraying from life? And how is a reflexive sense of subjectivity represented in their portraits? Inspired by nineteenth century French artist Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) who portrayed hospital inmates with mental illnesses from life (Portraits of the Insane, 1822) the artist embarked on a journey of portraying people with dementia. During the project years, as he depicted the residents in Boronia his own identity was constantly forgotten by them.

A companion to the visual effects in the artist’s self-portraits is the work of British artist William Utermohlen (born U.S.A, 1933-2007). Utermohlen was diagnosed with dementia in his late life, but continued to paint for six years. By employing his case study, this thesis also examines the role played by family, friends and the medical establishment as interpreters of the works of an artist with dementia. Unlike the common analysis of Utermohlen’s late self-portraits through the pictorial narrative in these works, this thesis examines his selfhood through a procedural memory that was developed in his professional career. Rather than addressing the truth of his psyche and emotional states, this thesis argues that Utermohlen’s selfhood is embodied in his act of painting.

This artist’s work with dementia patients initiated a sense of the precariousness in his own idea of himself. In responding to the crisis of losing his identity in the Boronia Hostel, the artist takes painting as an analytical vehicle to explore this loss of identity in the social dimension. By installing four series of works in his exhibition “Searching for the Vanishing Subject in Portrait of Dementia” in the Faculty of Creative Arts Gallery, including Absence (2011-2014), Presence (2012-2014), In Proximity (self-portrait) (2011-2014) and Anonymous Portrait (2010-2014), the exhibition reveals the consequent psychological impact on the artist though he lives without dementia. In order to recreate a similar effect on the viewers, the artist employed over-painting and the tactile texture of paint as the strategy to destabilise the viewer’s subjectivity through her/his process of viewing his paintings. Projected onto the broader relationship between the artist’s marginalised identity and the community, the metaphorical position of the viewer is constructed in the exhibition to convey a need for personal engagement in recognising the identity of people with dementia through the artist’s self-expression under the threat of his own losing identity in Boronia Hostel.

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