Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sean Gyshen Fennell: Fashioning the Facade

For nearly a half century now the politics of identity have been a staple subject within the artworld. Critical Theory has caused many artists to reassess the cultural narratives that may have left certain persons—because of gender, culture, or race—to have no voice in larger conversations. The resultant art can sometimes be a bit too esoteric or narcissistic, but when the work touches on the universal human qualities we share it speaks to everyone.

Sean Gyshen Fennell’s work is based in gender identity. Many works are highly personal, yet they remain open enough to strike an empathic chord with those who do not share his identical experiences. The self portrait photographs that compose his Sewing the Facade (Sean) series come from a specific back story. One need not know all the details to uncover much of the emotional content.
In the pieces a viewer finds the artist, nude from the waist up, in evocative poses. Facial expressions fall somewhere between ecstasy and grief. The black background and choreographed movements recall Bill Viola’s Passions videos. Both artists are heirs of the postures found in religious art from the Renaissance.
Looking closer one finds that the artist has broken the picture plane. Actual needles and thread are piercing the surface of the work, creating sutures across the artist’s chest and torso. Stitches encircling the artist’s nipples seem at once sensual and painful. They call attention to a highly sensitive area and stir up questions about sexuality. As the chest is pushed together to form cleavage, the artist binds the gap with a seam of cross stitches. Although there appears to be no physical wound here, there is no escaping the concept of healing in this gesture. The placement of the actual needles in the hand of the artist lets us know he is working to heal his own wounds.
A related series of photographs, Sewing the Facade (Nathan), pushes the idea out of the artist’s strictly personal experience into a universal realm. These digital photographs are printed on canvas. That media choice is profound. The texture of the canvas can make the work appear like a photorealist painting. With similar poses, the photos seem even more closely aligned with renderings of mystics and martyrs depicted in Renaissance paintings.
Placing the images on canvas also connects the work to trends in mid-twentieth century artworks. The canvas, again, is pierced with needles and thread. One can relate this to the aggressive and destructive slashes of Lucio Fontana’s canvases. However, Gyshen Fennell is not content to leave gaping holes in the canvas. These pieces offer healing. When we find the double portrait of Nathan, connected by threads from one canvas to the other, we experience the desire to heal the wounds of the self.
The fabric and instruments of sewing also connect to the feminine. These tools were reclaimed as badges of honor for early Feminists. They were the indicators of “women’s work”—tools of the lesser crafts that the artists wore as a badge of honor. For Gyshen Fennell to appropriate these materials in his own work is to question gender identity once again. Is there now any gender specificity to the tools of art? Is anything appropriate for one artist but not another?
Since these pieces are about identity, the double portrait is significant. The images of Nathan appear less like works of healing and more like construction. The individual is creating his identity, fashioning his persona. The exterior facade is a construction based on the interior life of the individual. It is these universal elements that extend the artist’s work past the merely self referential and into a place in which we all exist.

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