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The original selfie

1/20/2016

Alexander Korda’s 1936 film “Rembrandt” ends with Charles Laughton, looking remarkably like a Rembrandt self-portrait, winking at the camera and saying, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” That is from Ecclesiastes and refers to an archaic definition of the Latin word “vanitas” as “futility.” Skull-obsessed Dutch and Flemish still life painters of the 16th and 17th century are described as coming from the Vanitas School. Korda and Laughton were more ambiguous and worldly. For that reason, Rembrandt self-portraits have been called the original selfies.

Loren Holland’s “Formal Garden Follies”

Loren Holland’s “Formal Garden Follies”

Appropriately, Rembrandt’s “Self Portrait with Velvet Cap and Plume” is featured on the Des Moines Art Center’s promotional literature for their exhibition “Selfie.” That show covers the vanity of self-representation, from the Dutch masters to contemporary filmmaker Ragnar Kjartansson, whose “Me and Mom” explores the ambiguous border between tragedy and comedy. Famous self-portraits include a vanitas take by Andy Warhol, a large grid portrait by Chuck Close, a Cindy Sherman self-portrait with her mirror image from her career-long series about the Golden Era of Hollywood, and “My Blue Lake,” a 360-degree Kiki Smith panorama of her body as cartography.

Lesser-known works are no less interesting. Danny Lyon is shown during his immersion with the bad-assed biker gang, The Outlaws, posing with his motorcycle and its busted gear shaft in New Orleans. Graciela Iturbide poses with black snakes partially inserted in her mouth, a Medusa for the age of self-indulgence. Robert Arneson has a laugh on himself with “California Artist,” which portrays the artist a “smirky, lazy and stoned.” Stephen Rhodes poses with a stray cat that seems to have an effect on the artist, not unlike the feline equivalence of lycanthropy. Franceso Clemente adds bright colors to his self-portrait, which drastically change the mood from that of the original vanitas. Iowa artist Anna Mendietta goes in the opposite direction. She is represented by four pieces forged by fire in which she carved self-images in the earth and then let fire transform them.

The exhibition encourages its audience to join the show by posting their own selfies on social media, using the Art Center as background. This show continues through April 24.

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Moberg Gallery’s Winter Show is so popular that it has been extended a month beyond its original closing date. This is an exhibition by 27 artists, with something for every taste. Entering the gallery, one is confronted by two large paintings that could not be less alike. Jordan Weber’s “If I Can’t Blast Through, I’ll Burn Through” combines two of that artist’s memes — iconic cartoon characters and civil disobedience. What’s new is Weber’s media. He mixed his “paint” out of asphalt, tar and earth, which is contrasted by Richard Kelley’s “Flow of Life,” a familiar, futuristic cityscape of freeways and cars in dramatically bright colors. Kelley also uses rather new media — acrylics instead of oils — in part to make the paintings more affordable, and in part because he thinks the quality of acrylic paints has improved.

Two African-American artists take radically different looks at racism in America. Dread Scott presents an in-your-face warning about police. Loren Holland’s “Formal Garden Follies” looks at African American women in various degrees of denial about their identities in a white dominated culture.

Andrew Abbott’s “Caution Inter-dimensional Painting” is adorned so colorfully it could be confused with an elephant dressed up for a Divali parade. Frank Hansen’s “Mi Coche Es Tu Gordo Hermano” is every bit as much fun as its name. This plays through February.

Tout: The Salisbury House will open its new art gallery with a night free for the public. “The Garage: A Portrait Show,” will include works by Brad Ball, Stephanie Brunia, Rachel Buse, Catherine Dreiss, Larassa Kabel, Tatiana Klusak, Annick Sjobakken, Scott Sjobakken and Lindley Warren. CV

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.

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