The Exploration of Identity through Self-Portraiture by Raymond Roca

The exploration of identity, a concept central to the human condition and sense of self, has been a theme that has resurfaced repeatedly throughout the history of art, with artists often using their works as a key means of expressing their complex identities to their audiences. After being restrained by the abstractionist, formalist tendencies of modernism, the relationship between art and identity has become increasingly significant during the postmodern era, in a context of growing multiculturalism, post-colonialism, feminism and civil rights. One of the most important ways in which artists have articulated their identities through their works has been self-portraiture, which has enabled the expression of the artist’s personal identity, as well as of collective identities relating to gender, culture and sexual orientation. Three artists whose practice has centred on the expression of identity through self-portraiture are Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura. Due to changes in their context, however, each of these artists has approached this genre in different ways and has utilised it to focus on different aspects of their identity.

Frida Kahlo, born in 1907, was a Mexican artist who painted mainly from the 1920s until her death in 1954, and is best known for her self-portraits. Her artistic practice was profoundly shaped by a traffic accident in 1925, which left her heavily injured, unable to walk properly and in periods of extreme pain throughout the rest of her life. Although influenced by surrealism, Kahlo refused to categorise her work, instead stating that, “[unlike surrealism], I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” Indeed, Kahlo’s sixty-six self-portraits can be seen as intense and personal explorations of her post-accident reality, as well as of her complex, multifaceted identity, influenced not only by her accident but also by her heritage and gender.

One of the best examples of Kahlo’s self-portraiture is The Broken Column painted in 1944, which reveals how the artist perceived herself, and hence offers an insight into her personal identity. The painting presents Kahlo’s nude body divided into two by a broken classical column, representing her accident-fractured spine. The compositional centrality of her spine, which is separated from the rest of the body by open flesh, alludes to more than just her spinal injury, instead conveying her personal perception of herself as disabled and fractured, both physically and emotionally. Her mental anguish at her state is also alluded to by the numerous nails which puncture her skin, acting as symbols of her intense pain, as well as the tight leather braces which hold her body together. These braces signify her entrapment as a result of her injury, which rendered her unable to walk for several years, and unable to engage in several social activities. Additionally, the fact that she is surrounded by a barren landscape transmits to the audience her sense of emotional isolation, while also accentuating her own figure in the frame and thus augmenting the importance of her “broken” body to her sense of self. In fact, it is evident from her work, but also from her own admissions, that Kahlo did not see herself as simply injured, but rather as “broken” in a more profound way; she once stated in an interview with Time Magazine that, “I am not sick. I am broken”. Kahlo hence uses The Broken Column to highlight that her disability, and the resulting physical, mental and social consequences of it, in many ways defined her sense of self and her personal identity.

Another work which explores Kahlo’s personal identity is Henry Ford Hospital , which was painted in 1932 and where she confrontingly portrays herself lying on a bed in a pool of blood, after going through her second miscarriage. Described by the American critic John Woodcock as “the frankest work of this famous self-portraitist”, the theme of her disability is again central to the work, considering that her accident gravely reduced her chances of having a child, even though she desperately desired one. Once again, Kahlo depicts herself as isolated, connected only to a foetus which she desires but knows is impossible to possess. In this painting, the artist thus conveys to the audience her concern and preoccupation with her persistent miscarriages, and the contribution this had to her personal identity as a female unable to have a child.

Aside from her intimate personal identity, Kahlo is also well-known for depicting her cultural and gender identity through her self-portraits. According to the critic Richard Dorment, it is this quality of “exploring every aspect of her identity” that has enabled Frida to become “the most important female artist of the 20th century”. The art historian Amie Gillingham also argues this view in her essay Frida Kahlo: Identity/Duality, where she states that, “Although Kahlo’s work is intensely autobiographical on the surface… her work was able to transcend the personal to have political and national relevance”, and thus be more universal in its focus. One of the elements most visible from Kahlo’s art practice was her concern with her mixed heritage and cultural identity, which was half-European and half-indigenous. This is explored in a variety of self-portraits, two notable examples of which are The Two Fridas and My Wet Nurse and I . In The Two Fridas, Kahlo depicts the division between her European self, on the left and clad in a white colonial dress, and her Mexican self, on the right and clothed in a traditional tehuana costume. In this way, she expresses her identity as a product of two cultures, which are separate, suggested by the painting almost to be opposites, yet connected by the delicate artery which runs from her European heart to her Mexican heart.

My Wet Nurse and I also deals with the idea of Kahlo’s composite cultural identity, and emphasises the importance of her indigenous Mexican heritage. In this work, a weak, helpless Frida, European by the appearance of her dress, is nourished by a wet nurse wearing an Aztec mask, an allusion to Mexico’s Amerindian heritage. Through the metaphor of the nurse, Kahlo seeks to convey the maternal and nurturing influence that Mexican culture had upon her. Unlike in The Two Fridas, where the two halves of her culture are shown on an equal standing, My Wet Nurse and I likens the relationship between her Mexican and European ancestries to that between mother and daughter, or nurturer and nurtured, suggesting her belief that indigenous culture was of key importance in strengthening and developing her sense of identity, as opposed to European culture, which is portrayed as inferior in strength and in need of support. The nurse can also be interpreted as an image of Frida’s Mexican self, providing strength and sustenance to a European self which she always perceived as weaker, particularly after her accident. Additionally, in several other later paintings by her, she is often portrayed in a national Tehuana dress, further showcasing the importance of Mexican culture in the formation of her identity.

Kahlo’s complex exploration of her cultural identity has often been attributed by critics to the “identity problems inherent in a mixed heritage… in being a first generation mestiza”, as Amie Gillingham argues. In many ways, however, Kahlo not only reflected her own composite cultural identity through her works, but rather the collective identity of a nation which, in the context of post-colonialism, was still trying to find its cultural place in the world. As Richard Dorment argues, “Kahlo turned herself into a symbol of Mexico itself, a country whose identity was divided between its indigenous Indian heritage and the equally powerful Spanish colonial presence.” It is also important to note that Kahlo painted in a time when Mexican culture was increasingly inspiring itself from its indigenous heritage and trying to distance itself from its colonial European past. This context may explain Kahlo’s preoccupation for her Mexican identity and the somewhat negative portrayals of her European identity in works such as My Wet Nurse and I.

A third aspect of identity which Kahlo has articulated in her works, and which has become increasingly studied by postmodern critics, is her gender. Although Kahlo cannot be classified as a feminist artist, some of her self-portraits exhibit feminist concerns and reflect the female component of her identity and the way she perceived this. One such work is Frida and Diego Rivera (Plate 5), painted in 1931, where she portrays herself alongside her husband, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship that included several separations and a divorce. In this painting, Frida is presented as weak and somewhat submissive: she is not only standing behind Rivera, but the size differential between him and her is exaggerated to make him appear dominant in the frame. In this way, Kahlo is alluding to the traditional female identity of her social context, and the way in which this identity was often projected upon her by others, who considered her to be “the wife of a great artist” rather than a mature practitioner on her own. This view is supported by the art historian and critic Edward Lucie-Smith, who argues that, despite her talent, Frida was viewed condescendingly at the time, as the “gifted but semi-amateur painter-wife of Diego Rivera”. Interpreted in another way, however, this painting could also convey the importance of Diego to Frida’s own identity, particularly considering that the work was finished in 1931, when their relationship problems had not yet intensified.

In her later paintings, Kahlo tends to be significantly more subversive of gender stereotypes, thus elucidating her own view of her feminine identity. The majority of her self-portraits, for example, focus on her own figure, often dominant in the frame and thus constructing a female who, despite the struggles she experiences and depicts, is independent and in control of her own identity. Her perception of herself as a strong female going against traditional gender roles is also hinted at by her repeated portrayal in the tehuana costume, which, aside from its nationalistic connotations, also makes reference to the indigenous women of the Tehuantepec region, who were known for their courage and their indomitable nature. Furthermore, in what is nowadays an iconic symbol of her practice, nearly all of her self-portraits depict her with thick eyebrows joined together at the bridge of the nose, and facial hair above her lip. In a way that is more akin to postmodernism, Kahlo hence seeks to subvert the traditional female identity of that time, and instead express her own perception of her femininity and gender identity.

Frida Kahlo’s works became increasingly well-known and critically appreciated in the 1970s and 1980s, decades after her death and mainly in the context of postmodernism and feminist art. Several second-wave feminist artists and critics interpreted Kahlo’s works as an attestation to the physical and emotional pain of the female experience, and she thus gained the status of role model in much of the feminist art world. According to the critic and commentator Joy Press, “Frida Kahlo was the perfect feminist heroine for the 1980s”, particularly due the representation of her identity through self-portraiture and the way in which she often subverted gender stereotypes, both of which were also key aims of the second-wave feminist artists. The “Kahlo cult”, as Press calls it, was augmented by the 1983 release of Hayden Herrera’s biography of the artist, titled Frida, which led to several artists finding inspiration in Kahlo’s works.

One notable example of an artist whose practice is similar to and arguably inspired by Kahlo is Cindy Sherman, an American artist who is also preoccupied with self-portraiture, female self-representation and the collective identity of her gender. Sherman, however, approaches the exploration of identity through self-portraiture from a different angle, recontextualising it to fit in with the postmodern paradigms of her time. She works, for instance, in new media, particularly photography and video, and the vast majority of her works are staged and role-played, often appropriating other representations of women in order to highlight social stereotypes. Unlike Kahlo’s works, which are generally deeply personal, Sherman does not seek to explore her individual identity, but is rather concerned with the collective identity and representation of females (the way they self-perceive and are perceived by others).

Perhaps Sherman’s best-known works are her Untitled Film Stills series, which were created between 1977 and 1980 and which feature the artist posing in sixty-nine photographs reminiscent of Hollywood movie scenes at that time. In each of the film stills, Sherman is never herself, but rather plays the role of different female characters. In this way, she explores the various stereotypes which construct society’s perceptions of female identity, particularly in the media, claiming that she only concluded the series when she “ran out of clichés”. In Untitled Film Still #35 , for example, the artist plays the middle-aged housewife, subjected to a life of boredom and tedium as a result of her gender role. Untitled Film Still #15 presents a young woman gazing out of the window, her naked thighs and pose working together to create a sexualised portrayal of the female. Untitled Film Still #21 explores yet another identity stereotype, namely that of the young and confused female office worker, featuring copious amounts of makeup and gazing towards the metaphorical glass ceiling, uncertain of her future in a patriarchal world. By presenting females in their stereotypical roles, Sherman thus invites the audience to question the applicability of these roles, and whether female identity can adequately be defined in such narrow terms. Additionally, as the curator and designer Michael Douma argues, “her work encourages self-reflection in the spectator”, provoking female audiences to question their own identities in relation to the stereotypes presented. According to the artist herself, “part of the idea [of her works] is to get the audience to question their preconceived ideas about women, sex – things like that”.

Even though Sherman’s representation of female identity is intentionally-stereotypical, her work also conveys, subtly, a concern for feminine power and resilience. Despite the circumstances and struggles they are faced with, and the stereotypical identities projected upon them, her compositions are constructed in such a way that they maintain a sense of dignity. In Untitled Film Stills #35 and #21, for example, the artist captures herself from a low-angle shot, placing her in a position of strength and superiority. In Untitled Film Still #35, this is augmented by the determined glance and stance of the woman, who is presented almost as a female heroine, defiant in the face of her patriarchally-imposed role of housewife and the symbolically-begrimed room she is contained in. An alternative interpretation of Sherman’s film stills is also provided by Michael Douma, who argues that, when viewed as a whole, the work subverts the idea of a single, archetypal female identity simply because of the diversity of the artist’s portrayals, where “women adopt several roles and identities depending on their circumstances”. In this way, Sherman’s work can be seen as a manifestation of the complex and multifaceted nature of female identity.

Sherman’s later works, produced in the mid- to late-1980s, are also of key importance in understanding the ways in which she explored female identity. In Untitled #193 , which is part of her series titled “History Portraits/Old Masters”, Sherman appropriates the painterly style and use of light of classical paintings, returning to the subject of the classical reclining female but giving it new meaning through recontextualisation. By recontextualising the reclining female as her own self-portrait, Sherman seeks to accentuate the inappropriateness of such traditional representations and identities of women in a contemporary, postmodern context, where the portrait appears to be anachronistic and almost humorous.

Cindy Sherman, as well as other feminist artists, are often seen as the forerunners of postmodern identity art, with other minority or disadvantaged groups, such as ethnic and LGBT communities, inspiring themselves from feminist art practice in order to visually-represent their own collective identities. In particular, a connection can be made between the art practices of Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura, a Japanese appropriation artist who similarly makes use of photographic self-portraiture by placing himself into several staged roles in order to represent identity stereotypes and then question their applicability. Unlike Sherman’s feminist concerns, however, Morimura utilises the self-portrait to explore issues of cultural identity in a globalised world, as well as his own sexual and gender identity.

One of the best examples of Morimura’s concern with cross-cultural identity is After Brigitte Bardot 2 , which was completed in 1996 and is part of his Self-portrait (actress) series. In this composition, Morimura appropriates himself into the figure of Brigitte Bardot, an archetype of American popular culture, who is depicted standing on a Harley Davidson motorbike, similarly valued in the American identity. The image, however, is removed from its natural context and instead placed into a stereotypical streetscape of downtown Osaka, Morimura’s native city. The resulting juxtaposition between Western and Eastern culture seeks to subvert the idea that identity can be defined in terms of national icons, such as the Bardots and Harley Davidsons of the USA and the narrow neon-lined streets of Japan. Rather, Morimura’s Bardot possesses a more complex, hybrid identity, augmented by the fact that she is played by an Asian male (the artist himself) while being quintessentially Western in terms of dress and cultural association. Consequently, the artist proposes that, in the current context of globalisation and transculturation, identity should be perceived as a composite of multiple identities, rather than as a single entity. When read from a post-colonial perspective, the work can also be seen as an articulation of Morimura’s Eastern identity and its increasingly important role in world culture. In this way, the recontextualisation of Bardot into a context where Eastern identity is normative represents a “reverse colonial conquest of the East over the West”, as critic Margaret Marsh puts it.

Morimura also explores identity through his appropriations of classical works, which are remarkably similar in technique to Sherman’s “History Portraits/Old Masters” series. In these photographs, the artist draws inspiration from well-known classical and early modernist painters but gives their works entirely new meanings by placing himself in the role of all of the subjects. A significant example of this is Portrait (Futago), an appropriation of Manet’s Olympia, where Morimura plays both the reclining nude and the black maid. Even though it is evident that Morimura’s personal identity is represented by neither of the two figures, his placement into their roles once again rejects the idea that identity is absolute or unitary, rather presenting it as fluid and ambiguous in nature. The work can also be seen as an example of post-ethnicism, considering that the work’s Morimura is at once Asian, white and black, and by representing himself as all ethnicities, he almost does away with the idea of ethnicity as a basis for distinct identity in the first place, or at least suggests that ethnicity is not a major component of his own personal identity.

Portrait (Futago) reveals yet another layer of identity when read in an LGBT context. Morimura’s choice to portray himself as female in his self-portrait, achieved through crossdressing, challenges the notion of fixed, binary gender roles and instead constructs a more elastic gender identity. He thus provokes the audience to not only consider what constitutes distinct male and female identities, but also to reflect on the validity of cisgender-normativity in general. In fact, the fusion of male and female characteristics in his figure establishes an indifference for gender-based identity, alluding to a post-genderist view of the world. Alternatively, as a gay artist, Morimura may also be exploring his own sexual orientation through Portrait (Futago), thus revealing another aspect of his identity, or at least identity stereotypes commonly associated with gay people, such as effeminacy.

In the more recent years of his artist practice, Morimura has increasingly found inspiration in the works of Frida Kahlo, appropriating himself into in what he calls his “dialogue” with the Mexican self-portraiteur. In these staged photographs, such as Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Crown of Thorns) , Morimura once again transcends gender and ethnic boundaries in order to reflect his postmodern view on the fluidity of identity. However, when viewed in the broader context of the artworld and the links between artists, most critics have predominantly read Morimura’s Kahlo series as a tribute to Frida, reflecting his admiration for the artist and acknowledging, as critic John McGee argues, “the power and importance of her artwork”, particularly to the development of identity art and self-portraiture.

By examining the art practices of Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura, it can be seen that all of these artists were concerned with the exploration of identity, both personal and collective, and the use of self-portraiture as a means to achieve this. Even though they lived in different contexts and interpreted identity in different ways, the three artists are significantly linked through the influence they had on one another. Kahlo, who chiefly explored her own, complex identity, had a noteworthy impact on both Sherman and Morimura, in part due to the “Frida cult” that was popularised from the 1970s onwards. Sherman also had an important influence on Morimura’s practice, with both artists working in appropriation and role playing in order to investigate how identity is constructed and represented. In turn, Sherman and Morimura’s practices have given Kahlo’s works new meaning when viewed in a contemporary context, enabling audiences to ascertain how “rich and complex” her art can be, in a “neat example of how the art of the present influences our responses to the art of the past”, according to critic Richard Dorment. This interplay between artists, which is a key component of the artworld, has enabled the art of identity to present an increasingly-sophisticated examination of the human condition and of human societies and the way they perceive themselves and are perceived by others.


LUCIE-SMITH Edward, “Movements in Art since 1945”, 2001

LUCIE-SMITH Edward, “Art Today”, Phaidon Press, 1999

MARSH Margaret, WATTS Michelle, MAYLON Craig, A-R-T: Art, Research, Theory, Oxford University Press, 1999

PHELAN Peggy, RECKITT Helena, “Art and Feminism”, Phaidon Press, 2001

“The 20th Century Art Book”, Phaidon Press, 1996

BRENSON, Michael, “Art: Whitney shows Cindy Sherman photos”, New York Times, July 24, 1987

DORMENT Richard, “When the artist is the canvas”, The Telegraph (London), 8 June 2005

DOUMA Michael, “Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills”, 2006

FALINI Daniela, “Frida and her obsession of self-portraits: fetishism or idolatry?”, 2005

GILLINGHAM Amie, “Frida Kahlo: Identity/Duality”, 1996

GREER Germaine, “Frida Kahlo: Patron Saint of Lipstick and Lavender Feminism”, 2005

LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, “Masquerade: Photographic Self-Portraiture on View at LACMA”, 2006

MoMA, “Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills”, 1997

PRESS Joy, “Frida Icon: The Return of the Kahlo Cult”, The Village Voice, May 15-21, 2002,press,34763,1.html

State University College of Oneonta, “Frida Kahlo’s Self-Representations and Questions of Identity”, 2006

TATE MODERN, “Frida Kahlo: Exhibition Information Pack”, 2005

WOODCOCK John, “Henry Ford Hospital”, 2002

YABLONSKY Linda, “To Thine Own Selves Be True”, ARTnews, November 2003



The success of an artist can be defined in terms of their position, or value, in the artworld. This success does not arise in a vacuum, but rather comes about due to an artist’s complex interactions with the other agencies of the artworld, including educational, commercial and public galleries, as well as curators and critics. It is these agencies, and the relationships between them, which work together in constructing a dialogue about an artist’s work to audiences, enabling the artist to articulate their position in the artworld and thus become more successful and well-known.

The significance of the relationships between the artist and the other agencies of the artworld can be understood more profoundly by examining the practice of the Australian contemporary artist Jacky Redgate. Redgate, who was born in the United Kingdom in 1955 and migrated to Australia in 1967, is currently one of the most successful artists in the Australian contemporary art scene, and is well-known for her highly-conceptual and distinctively-minimalist work that explores the nature of systems and codes of representation. Redgate’s rising prominence in the artworld is due to a number of interrelated factors, including her relationship with educational and commercial galleries, which functioned as agents for her promotion, her exhibitions in public galleries, which exposed her to progressively-broader audiences and elevated her status as an artist, and the various reviews that her work received from art critics.

Redgate’s first formal involvement with the agencies of the artworld came about in 1978, when she exhibited in various non-profit and educational galleries while she was still undergoing her tertiary studies in Adelaide. Her first individual exhibition, at the South Australian School of Art, was followed by a series of group exhibitions in 1978-80 with the Women’s Art Movement and the Experimental Art Foundation. These non-profit foundations, which are partly government-funded, serve an important function in supporting and promoting emerging artists, thus enabling them to form an identity as actively-exhibiting art practitioners.

The Women’s Art Movement and Experimental Art Foundation were particularly significant in Redgate’s development as an artist, as they provided her with the resources and experience to facilitate her initial introduction into the artworld, while also presenting her with a means of experimentation in a genuine gallery context. Redgate’s early work consisted almost entirely of performance installations, and her ability to exhibit this body of work in a gallery, with a relatively low cost of entry, gave her the opportunity to experiment with this media type and gauge the audience’s response to her work. In this way, art foundations provided Redgate with the possibility to exhibit her work numerous times, something which would have been impossible in, say, commercial galleries, due to her art’s experimental nature and the fact that Redgate was still an emerging artist, and thus not commercially-viable in most contexts. The curators of her initial group exhibitions, such as Free Fall through Featherless Flight and Sleep has its House, were also important in using their experience of the artworld to select those works of hers that they believed would be most successful, thus further refining and validating Redgate’s early practice.

Non-profit foundations also furthered Redgate’s career by exhibiting her works in public contexts where she was able to form relationships with the other agencies of the artworld. Her membership of the Women’s Art Movement, for example, facilitated her contact with a community of other female artists, curators and critics, many of whom were linked to commercial galleries or actively published in art journals. This enabled the emerging Redgate to attain greater prominence in art circles, particularly considering that second-wave feminism was still influential in the late 1970s and multiple commercial and public galleries were interested in showcasing the work of female artists. Also of significance is Redgate’s inclusion in the journal Women’s Art Movement: 1978/79, published in 1980 with the support of the Experimental Art Foundation, which further popularised her as an emerging female artist, particularly to new audiences that may not have seen her art in a gallery situation. Her publication alongside other similar artists also placed her in a context which added further validation and thematic background to her work.

Redgate continued exhibiting with Adelaide art foundations until 1983, when she moved to Sydney to study for her post-graduate diploma in the visual arts. During this time, she came into contact with a number of commercial galleries, which perhaps played the most pivotal role in the launch of her professional artistic career. The first institution that represented Redgate was the Mori Gallery in Sydney, where she took part in four exhibitions between 1985 and 1990, three of which were individual. The role of the Mori Gallery, which is known for its promotion of emerging artists, was significant in elevating Redgate’s position in the artworld. As her first commercial representative in this artworld, the Mori was involved in the promotion of her body of work, even though it may not have been commercially-viable at that time. It also played a key role in the consolidation of her artist profile, providing Redgate with her initial introduction into the professional artworld of Sydney and its various agencies. Specifically, Redgate’s exhibitions at the Mori offered her various connections to prominent art dealers and collectors that would have been difficult to establish otherwise.

The Mori Gallery was also important in promoting Redgate’s work to a broader audience, enabling the artist to become more well-known both domestically and internationally. The gallery’s publication of catalogues for her two principal exhibitions, Work-to-Rule (1987) and Hungry Birds (1989), enabled her works to reach audiences outside of those who directly visited the gallery. More importantly, the Mori used its links in the artworld to organise the launch of Redgate in other commercial galleries throughout the country, such as Melbourne’s United Artists Gallery, which exhibited a show of Mori Gallery collections that prominently featured Redgate’s Work-to-Rule series and thus gave her access to a larger market in which to sell and promote her works. Additionally, her exhibitions at the Mori enabled her to win an Overseas Fellowship from the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, where she lived and exhibited in 1988, thus exposing her to an even broader, international range of art collectors, dealers and audiences.

Redgate’s exhibitions at the Mori Gallery also created significant links between her and art critics, who played a key role in adding value to her works and promoting them in the artworld. For example, following her Work-to-Rule exhibition at the Mori, the critic Edward Colless wrote about her in his article “Tradition: Jacky Redgate”, which was published in 1988 for the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Although Colless’ critique was balanced, lauding Redgate for her “patient and laborious work” while noting the shortcomings in her “mediocrity” at conveying meaning, it was important in validating her practice at a time when she was still considered an emerging artist. The role of the critic in establishing and elevating Redgate’s position in the artworld is therefore of key importance. While the other agencies of the artworld, such as galleries, present the artist’s works to the audience with no direct evaluation of their subjective worth, Colless’ article actively constructs and articulates a meaning for Redgate’s art, thus adding value to her work, while also creating an insightful dialogue with consumers of her art, be they viewers or collectors.

It is this combination of links to the various agencies of the artworld, provided by the Mori Gallery, as well her rising prominence in the artworld, which enabled Redgate, by 1988, to be curated in her first exhibition in a public gallery. In this year, she took part in the 7th Sydney Biennale, with her work exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Redgate was also curated into the next Biennale, in 1990, when she was once again featured at the same gallery. Her participation in the Sydney Biennale, which is one of the largest contemporary art festivals in the Southern Hemisphere, further consolidated Redgate’s success and fame, exposing her to significantly broader and more diverse audiences than her previous exhibitions. Her opportunity to exhibit at the Biennale was directly facilitated by the curators of the exhibition, Nick Waterlow and René Block, who selected her as a participating artist for the festival and hence played an important role in furthering her success. The function of the Art Gallery of New South Wales was also significant in raising and broadening her profile and recognition as an artist, considering that the gallery, which is the most prestigious and important in Sydney, is visited mostly by the general public, as opposed to the more specialised audiences that are patrons of private institutions such as the Mori Gallery.

Redgate’s selection for two consecutive Biennale festivals, as well as her continuing exhibitions at the Mori Gallery, enabled her to become rather well-known in the artworld by the early 1990s. One of the most significant effects of this was her possibility to become associated with the Sherman Galleries in 1994, described by the critic Sunanda Creagh as “a heavyweight of the Sydney art scene”. The Sherman Galleries therefore played a key role in the development of Redgate’s art practice, and were in many ways the agency that completed her transition from an emerging artist to a well-established, commercially-viable art practitioner. As Cay Lang states in his book Taking the Leap: Building a Career as a Visual Artist, “there is no doubt that representation by a commercial gallery [such as the Sherman] significantly adds to an artist’s status”. For Redgate, this elevation in status was came about not only due to the reputation of the Sherman Galleries, but also through the institution’s active promotion of her artist profile. This was achieved through the gallery’s marketing of Redgate’s exhibitions by means of home mailers, advertisements in art journals, and catalogues, all of which exposed her works to new audiences and raised her identity in the artworld.

The Sherman Galleries also promoted Redgate through their wide-ranging connections to other agencies of the artworld, ranging from prominent art collectors to well-known critics and curators of other galleries. For example, her early Sherman exhibitions, Equal Solids (1994) and Life of the System (1998), were reviewed by critics such as Ross Gibson, who remarked a “cluey, peripatetic continuity in her investigative process” and described her works as “sophisticated mediations on the intricacies of perception, institution, cognition and communication.” This positive reading of Redgate’s exhibitions had the effect of raising the value of her works – both monetary and otherwise – in the artworld, and once again provided validation for her practice.

The curators of the Sherman Galleries played an even more important role in the formation of Redgate as a well-established, successful artist. The function of these curators, such as Blair French, was to select Redgate’s work and group it in exhibitions based around a central theme or style, such as her photographic investigation of taxonomies in Life of the System (1998), or the distinctive exploration of perception and geometry conveyed through her orange-and-white plastic forms in Straightcut (2002). In this way, Sherman curators took Redgate’s discrete works and combined them in such a way as to create coherent, unified exhibitions that could be used to promote the artist much more powerfully and eloquently. Due to this, exhibitions curated by the Sherman were shown throughout Australia in the late 1990s, in contexts as diverse as the New England Regional Art Museum, the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival, the Robert Lindsay Gallery and the ARC One Gallery Melbourne. Once again, the Sherman Galleries’ links to other art institutions enabled Redgate to reach broader recognition as an artist outside of Sydney.

The Sherman Galleries were also the medium through which Redgate came to be appreciated by the curators of several other galleries, particularly following her highly-successful Straightcut exhibition of 2002. This resulted in the launch of her Survey 1980-2003 exhibition by the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, which included a selection of her works from the Sherman Galleries, as well as her older productions that were exhibited at the Mori Gallery. The exhibition, presented in Adelaide in early 2004, was then transferred to the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, and is noteworthy because it was Redgate’s first major individual exhibition at a public gallery. Survey 1980-2003 was jointly curated by Blair French, from the Sherman Galleries, and Zara Stanhope, a Melbourne curator who was familiar with Redgate due to her frequent exhibitions at the prestigious ARC One Gallery, made possible as a result of the gallery’s partnership with the Sherman.

The Survey 1980-2003 exhibition allowed Redgate’s art to reach its largest audience yet, while also affirming her status as a mainstream, public artist. As opposed to commercial galleries, which strengthened Redgate’s links with art professionals and connoisseurs, the government-funded galleries of Adelaide and Perth and their broader cultural role in the artworld offered her direct exposure to the general public. This enabled her to become identified by a significantly broader group of people outside of her traditional exhibition locations of Sydney and Melbourne. Her reputation as an artist was also augmented by Zara Stanhope’s positive review of her in the exhibition’s catalogue, which describes Redgate’s work variously as “intelligent”, “beautifully-toned” and “elegant”, further adding to the worth and status of her artist practice. In addition to this, the two public galleries played a significant role in documenting Redgate’s history as an artist from her initial launch into the commercial artworld, with this documentation remaining permanent as a result of the exhibition’s catalogue and archives.

The collaboration between the Adelaide and Perth contemporary art galleries, as well as the Sherman Galleries, raised Redgate’s profile to such an extent as to lead to the inauguration of her Life of the System 1980-2005 exhibition, which was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney in late 2005 and early 2006. This exhibition, which was virtually identical to Survey 1980-2003, provided the most comprehensive validation for Redgate’s reputation as a well-known artist, mainly due to the status that the MCA has as an internationally-renowned public gallery that plays a highly-influential role in the artworld. Redgate’s opportunity to exhibit in such a gallery was hence a recognition of the success and significance that her works have in the contemporary cultural context. The exhibition’s location in a major public gallery further built upon this significance, adding value to her works, as well as an “aura of respectability, worth and permanence”, as Craig Judd stated in his discussion of the role of state-funded art institutions.

Redgate’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art was also important in transmitting her works to a large, diverse audience, as well as generating significant critical and media attention. This attention created an extensive dialogue about her works from some of the most well-known and influential critics in the Australian artworld, which not only encouraged greater attendance of the exhibition, but also enhanced the public’s identification with Redgate’s works and contributed to her success and status as an artist. Life of the System 1980-2005 received positive criticism from a variety of critics, the most prominent of which are Jill Stowell and Robert McFarlane, both of whom frequently publish in art journals and newspapers.

In her article “In a class of their own”, published on January 21, 2006 in the Newcastle Herald, Stowell describes Redgate’s photographs as “elegant assemblages of everyday items” which are “justly celebrated” in the gallery and “make a welcome contrast with the vast and now rather fetid installations of Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz”, an exhibition that was also taking place at the MCA in summer 2005-06. Through her critical review and evaluation, Stowell not only interprets Redgate’s work to make it more understandable and evocative to audiences, but also promotes the artist by constructing an undoubtedly-positive image of her practice. Additionally, Stowell’s preference of Redgate over Kienholz & Kienholz adds significant value to her works and her profile, considering that the latter are internationally-acclaimed artists.

Robert McFarlane’s appraisal of Redgate is similarly positive, as can be seen in his article “A certain grace in the ordinary”, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 10, 2006. McFarlane remarks the structural sophistication of Redgate’s works, describing them as “expansive primer[s] on visual literacy” that have “immediate visual impact”, while also acknowledging Redgate as a “maturing artist who regards photography as a central pillar to her vision”. Through these insightful evaluations, as well as the laudatory language used throughout the article, McFarlane encourages readers to explore Redgate’s works, thus marketing her to audiences that may not have otherwise been aware of her work, or at least of the significance that McFarlane finds in it. This promotion  becomes even more noteworthy when considering the fact that the article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, a newspaper which has a very broad circulation and is read much more extensively than art-specific publications.

Despite the importance of positive criticism in creating an image of artists to audiences, negative criticism also encourages greater interest in an artist’s work, and in this way may also add value to an artist’s practice. This can be seen through John McDonald’s review of Redgate’s Life of the System 1980-2005, which comments on the resemblance of the artist’s works to “arid designer exercises” and questions whether “the course of Australian art [would have] been noticeably different” had Redgate “never existed”. In this way, McDonald downplays Redgate’s status, criticising her “hermetic thinking” and arguing that her work has been overrated by curators and other critics. For all its negativity, however, McDonald’s review of Redgate is in many ways an acknowledgement of her success, and, when taken in the context of reviews by other critics, contributes to the construction of a more complex and realistic view of Redgate’s practice that enhances her attractiveness and prominence in the artworld. In fact, it can be argued that negative criticism, particularly in eminent publications such as newspapers, contributes more significantly to an artist’s fame simply because of the allure that controversy and the “forbidden fruit” regularly have to audiences, who, in any case, most often come to their own conclusions regarding the success or subjective qualities of the artist’s works.

By looking closely at the practice of Jacky Redgate and its growth and development throughout history, it can be seen that an artist’s success is most often determined by the interactions between the agencies of the artworld that they come into contact with. In the case of Redgate, educational and commercial galleries, augmented by publications such as catalogues and compilations, were significant in introducing her into the artworld and promoting her to audiences and other consumers of art. The curators of these galleries played a particularly important role in selecting and refining her work into a unified whole, while critics utilised their insight and analysis to validate and project an eloquent image of her practice to audiences. In turn, these agencies connected Redgate to other institutions, such as public galleries, which further promoted her to the general public, enabled her to articulate her status in the artworld and, in an almost cyclical fashion, once again consolidated her links to critics and commercial galleries. In this way, a retrospective look at Redgate’s interaction with the agencies of the artworld – a “system” that underpins her life as an artist – provides the best understanding of why, in 2005, she came to be described as an artist whose “singular combination of sculptural and photographic practice was so influential in determining the course of Australian art in the ensuing two decades.”[1]


COLLESS Edward, “Tradition: Jacky Redgate”, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 1988

CREAGH Sunanda, “The new landscape”, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 April 2006, p. 15

FRENCH Blair, “Life of the System”, Life of the System catalogue, Sherman Galleries, 1998

GIBSON Ross, “The Colour Clavecin”, Jacky Redgate: Survey 1980-2003 catalogue

LANG Cay, Taking the Leap: Building a Career as a Visual Artist, Chronicle Books, 1998

McDONALD John, “Visual Art: Get into the groove”, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 December 2005, p. 28

McFARLANE Robert, “A certain grace in the ordinary”, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 January 2006, p. 11

STANHOPE, Zara, “A Clear Eyed Look”, Jacky Redgate: Survey 1980-2003 catalogue, 2005

STOWELL Jill, “In a class of their own”, The Newcastle Herald, 21 January 2006, p. 14

SHERMAN GALLERIES, Artist Profile: Jacky Redgate, 2006


BIENNALE OF SYDNEY, From the Southern Cross: A View of World Art c1940 – 1988, 1988/2006

[1] Michael Desmond, Life of the System 1980-2005, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia


By Raymond Roca

By Raymond Roca

The day cannot be far off when men will have to face the fact…” begins with the premise of offering an insight into the mechanical system that defines and controls our everyday lives, a system that is at once constraining due to its rigid routine and meticulous quantification, and seductive due to its order and orga- nisation. Through the photography of household objects we encounter on a daily basis, I have sought to explore this central tension in our society’s system, utilising the motif of water, both visually and aurally, to represent life. Through its title, my work also makes an allusion to Raoul Vaneigem’s seminal Situationist work, The Revolution of Everyday Life, which was a major influence on my concept”. (Raymond Roca)

By Raymond Roca

By Raymond Roca

Raymond Roca

Raymond Roca

Raymond Roca is a high school student in Year 12 at Sydney Boys High School, a selective school where he is the dux of his year. Also, he excels in
English, French, German, Com- merce, Geography, History and Visual Arts, where he is the first
among the 180 students in his form.

Raymond is also a keen debater, being part of the team of three that won the Debating Championships for the state of New South Wales, Australia.

He has already self-published more than thirty books, created as part of his school assignments. One of his books, Euro: The Largest Monetary Changeover in the World, received the appreciation of the European Commission and is currently housed in the Euro Museum in Brussels, Belgium.

Raymond also has a passion for writing short stories for children. Some of them were translated in several languages and published on the Internet and in magazines.

One of his other hobbies is design and visual arts. He has created several websites and presented some of his sculptural artworks in exhibitions. Raymond also paints, but his great enjoyment is to design large billboards and posters, as well other print design media and digital photography.