January 23, 2005

I wanted to share a real slice of Americana with some friends from France. Where would I take them? What was a defining cultural experience in the heart of LA county? I tried to ignore my inclinations toward irony— how about the tar pits, or that stretch of Long Beach that you couldn't swim in do to an elevated bacterial count, or the Costco in Azusa— but I couldn't help myself. I took them to Chuck E. Cheese.

Apart from the blaring games, screaming children, garish colors, petrie dish carpeting, animatronic abominations, and the sickly smell of burnt cheese I think they found it intriguing. They just kept thanking me in a most emphatic way and I, being somewhat humbled by all this gratitude, assured them that there were many other cool places I could show them. After all, "I grew up among this." This was home.

* * * * *

Inside the Chuck E. Cheese was a new-fangled photo booth that made "drawn portraits" in the style of the old masters Leonardo, Michelangelo, or Rembrandt. I could hardly contain my excitement and immediately insisted that my wife and I have our portrait done. You see, I have a history with this sort of portrait booth that can be traced back to my final year of art school when one such booth played an important role in my thesis.

Here is an excerpt that will explain:
Prior to my thesis year I’d heard rumors of a photo booth that produced a finished drawing of the subject rather than the traditional strip of small glossy photographs. . . My excitement to see this marvel was severely curbed however. . . when I came to realize that the Portrait Studio was little more than a booth that took your photograph, ran it through a filter or two in Photoshop, and signed the resulting inkjet print on bond paper with the name Rembrandt, Leonardo, or Michelangelo (depending of what artistic medium you wished to have your visage rendered in), I was both disappointed and amused enough to initiate a project entitled Self Portraits of the Masters.

Self Portraits of the Masters consists of three framed portraits created by the booth introduced by a computer-printed reproduction of the sign that advertises the booth on its exterior. This poster-like display invites mall denizens to “Step Inside my Studio” and receive “Your Portrait by a Famous Artist in Minutes,” as well as giving a heavily abbreviated list of steps that are required to obtain this masterpiece. Once inside the booth you realize that masterworks don’t come cheap, because a black and white “drawing” costs $3.00 and an original “oil painting or color pastel” work runs $5.00. Leonardo da Vinci works only in pencil, Michelangelo draws with color pastel, and Rembrandt is a virtuoso of both charcoal and oil paint. I was hardly surprised at the Portrait Studio designers choice of representative artists, wondering only about the absence of Van Gogh (I later decided he would prove a poor choice because even in his own day few people appreciated the portraits he painted), because these three giants of the art world are probably the most recognizable artists to the majority of people.

Unable to quell my penchant for irony I obtained large renderings of one of Rembrandt’s painted self portraits and a copy of da Vinci’s supposed late-in-life self portrait in red chalk. I then held these images up in front of the Portrait Studio’s camera, chose the appropriate artist settings, and waited for the booth to present me a portrait of the old master created by the old master (the printouts are even dated by the artist, so now I own a Rembrandt and a da Vinci from 2003). Since Michelangelo’s only known self portrait was as a flayed skin within the Last Judgment on the Sistine Chapel’s anterior wall I decided that the third artist depicted should be the booth itself. Placing a mirror in front of the camera I indicated that I’d like an oil painting in the style of Rembrandt. The resulting image shows a blurry, almost atmospheric, reproduction of the camera that photographs the subject, the screen where one watches their portrait being “drawn,” and the arrows indicating where to direct your gaze when capturing your pose.

After spending so much time and money obtaining these portraits I felt it only proper to protect and present them in a manner befitting their significance, so I purchased three plain, sale-priced wood frames from Aaron Brothers Art Mart and proceeded to pain-stakingly gild them in metal leaf. I cut two decorative mats for each image that complimented the antique luster of the frames. As for the informative sign that precedes the row of portraits, I printed it out on canvas paper, mounted it behind a scratched piece of plexiglass and set it in a bright red frame that was unceremoniously screwed to the wall. This presentation roughly approximated the way such signs are often presented on kiosks, carnival booths, and at bars.

Finally, each of the three portraits is underscored by the gallery tag placed beneath it on the wall. Each tag lists Leonardo, Rembrandt, or Portrait Studio as the artist, each title is Self Portrait except for the Portrait Studio printout which reads Self Portrait in the Style of Rembrandt, and all three list the supposed medium that they’re created with rather than ‘inkjet print.’ While this work obviously satirizes notions of artistic originality and authenticity in our culture, it also attempts to parody the display methods used to imbue art objects with preciousness, as well as to draw attention to some of the problematic notions or art engendered by Post-Modern and Conceptualist ideology.
For those of you who are visually inclined take a look below:

Leonardo da Vinci, Self Portrait, 2003

Portrait Studio, Self Portrait (in the style of Rembrandt), 2003

Jeffrey Baker, Self Portraits of the Masters, 2003

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