Mercury 20 Gallery’s ‘Self-Portraits in the Age of Selfies’ expands the scope of self-portraiture

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In 2013, “selfie” was named the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, drawing the requisite ire and eye-rolling that accompanies any addition of internet-age jargon to the lexicon. The idea of selfies in art has taken on a polarizing tone over the last decade, from the critical to the indulgent. Regardless, selfies are now the most ubiquitous form of self-portraiture, allowing anyone to become the portraitist.

In its latest exhibit, “Self-Portraits in the Age of Selfies,” Oakland’s Mercury 20 Gallery seeks to complicate the definition of a selfie. The exhibit is not a critique of the practice by any means but rather an expansion of what a selfie can be — beyond both the cell phone screen and traditional forms of self-portraiture.

Mercury 20 Gallery is an artist-run gallery where creators can exhibit and sell their artwork. “Self-Portraits in the Age of Selfies” features the work of numerous members of the arts collective, who use mediums including painting, sculpture, installation and photography to address how and why we seek out and express self-portraiture.

According to Mercury 20 exhibiting artist and collective member Mary Curtis Ratcliff, the gallery put out a call to its member artists, outlining this exhibition as an exploration of the selfie. Part of the inspiration for the exhibit idea came from Ratcliff’s own relationship with selfies: “I noticed I’ve been taking self-portraits as a shadow for many, many years,” Ratcliff said.

In the exhibit, multimedia artist Nick Dong interprets the selfie outside of its typical relegation to two dimensions; two of his pieces encapsulate both the varied nature of what a selfie can be and the ways in which he has grown as an artist. The first, “About Twenty,” showcases a more traditional self-portrait. Made at the beginning of Dong’s artistic career in 1993, the painted piece shows the artist’s visage peering out from the canvas. Situated next to the portrait is “Artistically Wiser,” a more recent sculpture made from the artist’s (now gray) hairs threaded onto pegs arranged on a reflective background in a starburst-like formation. The scope of difference between these two pieces and the two decades they span is a true testament to the infinite nature of self-interpretation.

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One artist, collective member Elizabeth Sher, takes the concept of self-portraiture outside of the hand of the actual subject with an eight piece collection of portraits of herself — but created by other artists. Though this could be interpreted as not a proper selfie, the curation of images of the subject becomes a selfie through collage or montage, with the individual pieces coming together to form a whole. Seven of the images are arranged around a central depiction of Sher in a cross-shaped canvas, adding a sense of devotion to the artist, with these distinct artists brought together around the focal point of Sher.

Artist Pantea Karimi created one of the exhibit’s most arresting pieces, offset in the gallery space by two small walls. Featuring digital archival prints of flowers arranged in circular fashion around a centerpiece, Karimi composed the piece as a reflection of the herbal medicine tradition in her hometown of Shiraz, Iran, as well as of her work researching medieval and scientific manuscripts. In this enclosed space, the piece takes up a sizable portion of the wall — yet another refraction of how the self-portrait can go beyond a physical representation and assume a more conceptual form.

“Self-Portraits in the Age of Selfies” is a comprehensive view of what self-portraiture can be, with a wide variety of pieces and perspectives on how we look at ourselves. Rather than indulgent or narcissistic, as selfies are so often seen, this exhibit is a celebration of self-interpretation and the many forms in which one’s self can be viewed.

“Self-Portraits in the Age of Selfies” will be showing at Mercury 20 Gallery until Feb. 9.

Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].