Me Myselfie and I

Looking at DAI’s Portraiture: Mirror or Mask? & ourselves

by Amanda Dee

When we look in the mirror, we can’t always change what we see, nor can we when someone else does the looking. But when we hold a camera to ourselves, we wield complete power. With angles. And lights. And filters polishing blemishes like strokes of fresh paint. Perhaps this begins to explain the popularity of the selfie medium, with  social media apps like Snapchat, which allows members to manipulate and send photos and videos that disappear in one to 10 seconds, reporting more than 100 million users every day.

Although the surge of the selfie has swelled in the past decade, self-portraiture has existed since artists saw their reflections. However, when portraiture was more formally established on tableaus, elite patrons funded it. To offer a disservice of surface art history; this remained the status quo through the 18th century. Then, the camera emerged into the art scene in the 19th century, with some of the art world casting it aside and some fighting for its place as “fine art.” By the ’60s, artists could use Polaroids to capture their subject before taking ink to the page, as could anyone for that matter. By the ’80s, Fotomats (remember those little stands where you’d drop off your film?) dotted the U.S. map in the thousands. Cameras got cheaper, designs got simpler, and, suddenly, Kim Kardashian-West is selling thousands of copies of “Selfish,” her 448-page book of selfies.

My, Myselfie, and DAI

On one hand, the democratization of self-portraiture is positive, enabling body- and self-positivity among the masses. On the other, it can harm our sense of self, lending us overinflated, false control over our image. As someone once said, a picture’s worth a thousand words – but words can deceive.

Tucked between the Dayton Art Institute’s European and American wings, Portraiture: Mirror or Mask? lets viewers toy with these contradictions by presenting a series of visual ones, with pieces from across cultures and times hung salon-style.

“You walk through the Renaissance galleries, and then, suddenly, you’re greeted by this Kehinde Wiley painting and others,” Curatorial Associate Katherine Ryckman Siegwarth describes. “It’s just dramatically different.”

The large Wiley painting, “The Honourable Augustus Keppel, Admiral of the Blue II,” enshrined in a gold-leaf frame, makes the entrance grand. An afro-ed African-American man in a black wife-beater gazes down at the viewer with head held high, proud, against an opulently patterned red and blue backdrop.

“The title of the Kehinde Wiley references a painting by Joshua Reynolds, who was an 18th century society portrait painter,” Chief Curator Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Ph.D., explains. “And, we have a number of Reynolds’ paintings in our collection, and we thought, right there, there was this interesting conversation between a contemporary artist looking back and selecting a genre that was normally reserved for high society. He’s placing someone who he found off the street in that same kind of exalted role. And so, it’s really kind of turning that whole genre on its head, and we thought that was a great moment to start out with this question of constructions of identity.”

“Especially with the Wiley,” Ryckman Siegwarth adds. “He’s really analyzing and critiquing the construction of identity and social status. And so, with Snapchat and selfies, those people with duck faces, they are creating a very specific idea of themselves and sending it out to the world, and that is something we should all really consider – how we’re framing ourselves and what identities we’re suggesting to others. So, it is very relevant to the current social trends.”

Wiley himself defines portraiture as “choice,” “the ability to position your body in the world for the world to celebrate you on your own terms,” as the wall holding his work reads.

Author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates echoes this message in his 2015 book “Between the World and Me,” stressing this message to his 15-year-old black son, who has now witnessed the authorities “destroy the bodies” of Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, John Crawford. Wiley’s work attempts to regain control of the body, to make a decision rather than have one made against his own body or the body of anyone in the fringes, like “The Honourable Augustus Keppel.”

“I just love poking holes through those constructions of 18th century society portraits,” Marcereau DeGalan says. “So, the Wiley next to the Reynolds is one moment of that. We have a photograph by Catherine Opie, who’s a contemporary photographer, and that’s next to a [British vanity artist Thomas] Gainsborough portrait, which is another 18th century portrait, which is next to a big Cecilia Beaux [American 19th century painter]. I like those moments where there’s just kind of tension that’s created between different time periods with artists that are looking back at previous time periods.”

Curator of Education Susan Martis developed the patron survey for the series, located in a binder at the exhibition. According to Marcereau DeGalan, exhibition survey responses typically range from 25 to 30 responses, filling up a portion of the binder; Martis has had to refill the entire binder.

Of the freshly filled surveys, three of the five that responded to what most appealed to them selected “considering the concept of photography and truth” over five other choices.

“I think there’s probably an easier point of entry for [those less familiar with art],” Ryckman Siegwarth comments. “The exhibition is asking people to consider how they construct their own identity. So, people can walk away from it on a more personal engagement level.”

“We try to stress that this is your Dayton Art Institute, and we really mean that,” Marcereau DeGalan says. “We want people to find pathways to engage with works of art in a way that they find is accessible. And so, part of the strategy in these test galleries, and there’ll be another series after this, is to find those pathways and see what works and what doesn’t work and then integrate what works into our thought process for the next go-around.”

Although the works of traditional 18th century vanity portrait artists like Cecilia Beaux were curated alongside pieces like Catherine Opie’s “Mitch” – which played off the format and style of those portraits while subverting the subject to include, in this case, a shirtless man with arm tattoos – to question and/or challenge them, the question of truth in photography still rings. However, even if images aren’t close to reality per se, they can still reveal larger truths about who we want to be – and who we are. And with the proliferation of the selfie and social media, our relationship with others and ourselves is stuck in a similar tension.

Vanity Mirrors

Amy Alkon, or the Advice Goddess as most recognize her, gives relationship advice for a living. She’s been listening to people’s problems and researching why they have them and how to solve them since 1989, when she and a few friends formed “The Advice Ladies” in New York City, sitting in SoHo with a cardboard sign as a joke – until people started lining up around the block. That joke turned into her full-fledged career: a column in New York Magazine, now syndicated and published in more than 100 publications across the U.S., including Dayton City Paper; two books with a third on the way; and a talk in her current home of California coming soon. She’s also been on the internet since about 1992. In her words, “I still have my AOL address, and people make fun of me at least once for it, which is really nice. My stalkers can still find me from the ’90s – I love that.”

Using a “broad base” of social psychology, anthropology, and evolutionary psychology, she digests a question sometimes for a week or longer before shedding light with her insights and wit, as she did with Dayton City Paper’s questions about the selfie.

“First of all, there’s very little research on selfies,” she explains over the phone, with a pile of research on her desk. “Some of it’s not so hot. There just isn’t a whole lot of it, and some of it’s contradictory. There are all these questions that are digitally related, that are related to being on the internet, being on social media. The interesting thing also has been seeing internet dating go from this thing that everybody was ashamed to admit to, ‘Yeah, we met on!’ or like, ‘I swiped her for sex on Tinder; we’re getting married in two weeks!’ It’s really amazing how the shame has gone out of that.”

Shame has diminished in some regards, but the ability to proliferate our image to every one in our social networks in seconds has influenced how we perceive others and ourselves.

“One way [the selfie phenomenon] has affected our perception of self is there’s competition for mates, and this is something evolutionary psychology looks at, so we have a higher bar for what is attractiveness because there are all of these people taking selfies,” Alkon explains. “And what are they doing when they take them? They don’t take one selfie. They get all made up and they take 35, the people who are these big selfie-takers. And, they put out the most gorgeous one. So that means … it’s sort of like the way magazines have been airbrushing people – you think this is what people look like. You see so many of these shots on social media, these people who look so beautiful – and they’re not movie stars, they’re just people who have really cultivated how to do the selfie with the duck face lips and everything like that…neotenous features, which are baby-like features, so big lips, a small chin, big eyes… They indicate youth and fertility in a woman.”

In a recent column called “Duck Face the Nation,” she addresses the selfie’s connections to the two types of narcissism: vulnerable and grandiose, the latter of which is the kissing your reflection variety.

“Even though we have a sense that things get photoshopped and photos are screwed with, when you look at the photo and somebody looks beautiful, you’re not thinking that because we still are these Stone Age brains: like, oh look, well I don’t look that cute compared to that person…We have a distorted picture of ourselves,” she says. “And, when you see a picture of someone, that’s them for a second. It’s really distorted to see a selfie or these other things because it’s not you. It’s not how you move… But that’s where the vulnerable narcissism comes in. People are able to put out a bit of themselves, where it’s sort of like they’re putting themselves out there, but not really. So, it’s safe but it doesn’t look like that.”

Alkon concludes with a pattern she discovered in her research: those who used the selfie medium as a way to share their hobbies typically weren’t displaying signs of narcissism. Rather, it was a form of creative self-expression.

“Our bodies are intimately connected with who we are, with our emotions, with our thoughts, with our patterns of action,” Alkon states. “This goes back to William James [American philosopher and psychologist]. And so, to not have more than a still shot of you is a distortion of who you are…I mean, it’s your nose, and you got those eyebrow things from your grandma, but, still, it’s a brief representation of you.”

Leaving DAI Gallery 218, an 18th century mirror hangs with a placard just like the other works, framed in gold-leaf, intricately sculpted, once exclusively reserved for nobles, now available for any visitor. A tangible statement that art imitates life… Or life imitates art.

Portraiture: Mirror or Mask? remains on display through Oct. 31 in Gallery 218 at the Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North in Dayton, due to upcoming renovations starting Oct. 31. For more information, please visit or call 937.223.4ART (4278). If you need advice from Advice Goddess Amy Alkon, please email her at For more information on The Advice Goddess, please visit, 


Reach DCP Editor Amanda Dee at

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Amanda Dee
Reach DCP Editor Amanda Dee at

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