Regan Golden-NcNerney, "What Lay Hidden: A Conversation Portrait with Jan Estep," 2015. This essay was originally commissioned for an unpublished artist book documenting the year-long exhibition and performance schedule at The Soap Factory, Minneapolis.
The portrait [. . .] calls for immense intelligence. No doubt the artist's submissiveness must be great, but his power of divination must be equally so. Whenever I see a good portrait, I can guess at all the artist's efforts, who must not only have seen at once all that lay on the surface but must also have guessed at what lay hidden.
— Charles Baudelaire, "Review of the Salon of 1859"
I sat down with the artist, Jan Estep, to have my portrait made. It is not a lavishly painted portrait of a mother to be, or a forthright photograph of a stern maternal gaze, but a portrait made of words. Estep's loosely structured poem encapsulates a moment of anticipation in my life—ripe with both worry and excitement. The poem is based on my responses to a set of questions that Estep poses to every participant who sits down at her plain wooden desk in the gallery for Conversation Portraits: For the One Who . . .. Estep asks participants to describe themselves in three words, then to describe what comforted them as a child and brings them solace now as adults. Lastly, she asks what hurdles the individual is currently facing and could use extra support with, and what three qualities they could cultivate to help take care of the situation. Estep encourages her sitters to speak directly and openly, to answer with the first thoughts that come to mind, as she rapidly takes handwritten notes. Estep then uses her notes to knock out a poem on a magnificent Royal Deluxe manual typewriter—the keys clacking away loudly—with the same sort of unfettered immediacy with which she asks her participants to respond to her questions. Each poem takes a similar form and lays out the rough shape of a figure: at the top, a header of three words that define the individual, followed by the body of the poem comprised of three short paragraphs about the individual's past and present, and, lastly, a blessing of sorts for the individual's future. Estep describes these works as “text poems” to clarify that they are somewhere between a poem, an essay, and a blessing, both in terms of their content and their format. The sitter receives the original, a carbon copy is posted on the gallery wall alongside the others in a neat grid, and the portrait is complete.
The remarkable thing about any portrait, whether painting, photograph or text poem, is that it tells the sitter something about how they are seen or understood by the artist. Expanding on the artist's view, the portrait provides an inkling of how others see us, as well as how we construct our own image. My responses to Estep's questions were a string of muddled memories and rambling phrases, but what she distilled from those responses is a startlingly precise rendering of my life at present. My experience of this process was very much the "divination" that Baudelaire describes in his treatise on portraiture: it was akin to visiting an oracle and being able to take home her blessing. By Baudelaire's standards, Estep produced a "good portrait," for she perceived what was on the surface and some of what "lay hidden."
There is incredible risk involved in this process both for the participant and the artist. For the sitter the risk, as in any portrait, lies in gauging how much of one's self to reveal, and for Estep the risk lies in her writing process. As an art critic, as well as an artist, who typically writes several drafts before publishing a review or essay, here Estep writes with willful abandon. Letters are typed over, words are misspelled, keys stick mercilessly when the moist summer air rising off the nearby Mississippi river pervades the gallery. The ink itself comes out uneven on the page, thick and dark in spots, thin and pale in others. The mottled page mirrors the uneasiness felt perhaps on both sides, as artist and participant negotiate this experience.
For the sitter the risk lies in exposing part of their past as well as something of their aspirations for the future to a stranger. In an era when an increasing number of our daily interactions occur online, there is something unusual and refreshing about sitting down next to someone you've never met to be interviewed about your life and then having a snapshot of your existence translated into a poem that is posted on the gallery wall. Facebook status updates or tweets tend to focus on the present, the day-to-day ebb and flow of life, but you are never assured that anyone is listening. Some posts may garner a "like" or a brief comment, but none of this compares to having the person in front of you listen intently to your story. And this is the challenge to Estep, listening. As she describes the process, she tries not only to be attentive, but to "show listening" through her direct gaze and diligent note taking, also in simply sharing "the stage" with the sitters, taking a seat alongside them rather than on the opposing side of the desk. Conversation Portraits is ultimately a durational performance piece during which Estep must be present for several hours’ worth of interviews.
The process itself, as well as the nature of Estep's questions, fixates on the present: both on current events in the individual's life, as well as the embodied sense of being present to oneself and to one’s thoughts and feelings. Estep begins the interview by asking the sitter to settle into the seat and become aware of being here now, present to this experience, and Estep demonstrates a similar attentiveness to the present moment through her careful listening. Once the interview is completed, composing the text poem demands a similar presentness: the awkwardness of typing in such an antiquated way makes Estep all too aware of the slowness of her fingers on the keys, their loud clacking keeping her attuned to the machine in a very deliberate process that demands intense concentration not simply of her mind as she quickly turns out a poem, but also of her body, as her fingers assertively press the keys of the typewriter.
This attention to the individual being present on the part of both the participant and the artist is where Estep's Conversation Portraits stands out from much of the "social practice" or "socially engaged" art being made today. "Socially engaged art" is a loosely defined category of contemporary art described by the artist and museum educator Pablo Helguera in Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook (2011). For Helguera this category covers a wide array of participatory artworks that tend not to produce an object for display in a gallery but focus instead on the interaction between people in a given situation. Within this larger category, Helguera locates "dialogic art," which he again loosely defines as a situation established by the artist, either inside or outside a gallery, to facilitate dialogue. From community forums to reading rooms, from lectures to dinners, conversation in these settings may be highly directed by the artist or just the opposite, unstructured and free-flowing. But Helguera finds, after surveying many of these "dialogic artworks," that the goal of these works is generally to raise awareness of a political or social issue in order to try to reach some consensus on how this issue might be addressed by the community. For example, in the 2012 exhibition "Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art" at the Smart Museum in Chicago, several artists brought together groups of strangers at the gallery to share a meal and discuss the politics of food in a city known for its gourmet restaurants, as well as its "food deserts." There is undoubtedly a certain level of intimacy created by sitting down for a meal with others, but the artist in these participatory artworks is primarily the facilitator, perhaps not only as the cook, but also as the one directing dinner conversation. In contrast, Estep's focus on the dialogic interaction between artist and participant means that fewer gallery goers are able to join in the event, but they are assured direct contact with the artist. Furthermore, the focus of the artwork shifts to a quiet intimate experience between two individuals rather than the dynamics of a group sitting down for dinner. Estep's Conversation Portraits focus on the identity of the individual rather than the identity of a community or trying to produce a community within the gallery. Nevertheless, by posting a copy of each poem to the gallery wall the individual is recognized as part of a community: not only the larger community of gallery-goers, but also as one of the few to complete this unusual interview process.
Rather than trying to reach consensus amongst a group of people around a particular issue through conversation, Estep's open-ended questions serve to highlight the diversity of individual experiences. This diversity is evident in the finished poems pinned to the gallery wall: from the one who cleans to unwind at the end of the day, to the one who finds solace in hiking in desolate canyons. Not only does Estep privilege the individual over the group, but she also draws out the individual experience and illuminates it in a unique way. In this era of social media, I was surprised by how much more information I revealed about myself in my short conversation with Estep than in a year's worth of Facebook posts. Hundreds of selfies would not convey the depth of feeling that Estep's questions and resulting poems expose. In this respect, Estep's Conversation Portraits also challenge the assumption that images are inherently more revealing than words. The abundance of media like Instagram and Flicker suggest that the images we put out into the world of ourselves are more indicative of our identities than what we say about ourselves in a few short paragraphs, but the depth of Estep's portraits suggest otherwise. Estep's choice to create portraits in an art gallery out of words rather than images subtly raises the question, which medium most effectively conveys one's identity?
If these poems were not anonymous, or were posted to a social media site rather than a gallery wall, the responses might be markedly different. As Estep pointed out, "whether consciously or unconsciously we all tend to filter our thoughts before we share them, or our identities as we create them. What changes is the way in which these thoughts and identities are filtered in different situations." For Estep Conversation Portraits is partially a study in how the mind organizes memories and filters the emotions attached to them so that they can be put into words. This approach is informed by her previous work Thinking Portraits: Mind, Body, Language (2009-2012), a series of self-portraits made with the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota using the neuroscience technology of MRI brain imaging. Each self-portrait is a grey-scale scan of Estep's brain in the midst of various thought processes; the scan is then used as the first layer of an emotionally driven abstract drawing. These "thinking portraits" question the degree to which our thoughts and emotions can be imaged—what the empirical data actually shows—whereas the "conversation portraits" focus on how thoughts and emotions are put into words by both the sitter and the artist. Despite this differences, both artworks call attention to the way information is transferred and then transformed in a conversation between two people, between a person and a piece of technology, or even between one's own brain and body. Estep exposes the gaps in this transference, relishing acknowledging the moments when information is inexact or incomplete and also still trusting our ability to communicate and connect with one another despite these gaps. In the struggle to effectively picture her own emotions or make a portrait out of words, Estep points to all that is missing from a brain scan, or a poem, or a portrait. These are but sketches of a moment, brief glimpses of a life, leaving space for us to guess at what lies hidden and to move into the mystery of what comes next.
Copyright 2015 Regan Golden-McNerney