Self-portraits were rare before the Renaissance, that notorious period of burgeoning humanism that renewed the belief that self-discovery was a worthwhile pursuit. Before that time, artists were generally considered to be mere craftsmen, and anyone not of royal descent, in possession of extreme wealth, or essential to the religious narrative was considered unworthy of having their likeness made. In the wake of the Renaissance, artists began painting their own reflections, partly in order to elevate their social standing nearer to those who, for so long, had been the only ones to possess images of themselves.
Since then, self-portraiture has been tied to the power of self-invention. The access and aesthetics have evolved through technological and social revolutions, but self-portraiture remains a potent way to explore identity, role play, and affirm or defy expectations about who one should be. The effervescent art of Kat Wilson is at play with this history and mode of portraying the self.
Wilson was born in Fort Smith and is based in Fayetteville, where she is heading a sprawling interactive artwork from the quarantine. Her Quarantine Habitats project extends the invitation to anyone with a camera to view themselves in a new light through the composition of a self-portrait in an intimate space. Wilson’s prompt for the project is this: “If someone saw your photo a hundred years from now, what would they know about you and about this time from seeing your habitat?” In this period of isolation and reflection, Wilson invites us to understand ourselves more deeply through an art form whose history spans the virtuosity of the Renaissance-era trailblazers, like Raphael and Parmigianino, and the contoured selfies of Instagram.
The composition of your Quarantine Habitats portraits includes a triangular configuration, dramatic lighting, and a heroic stance. In your TED Talk, you spoke about the single, dramatic source of light in Caravaggio’s work and the iconography of Renaissance paintings. Why did you choose these elements as the essential facets of Habitats?
I struggled a lot in the late 90’s/early 2000’s when I was in undergrad — everybody was such brats about photography, like trying to always diss it and say it wasn’t art. … My painter guy friends that are older (and still seduce their students, you know what I’m saying?…) None of my painter guy friends congratulated me when I got into Crystal Bridges. They just totally write off my photographic work. … I was like, ‘I’m going to elevate photography so much that you will never be able to say that to me again.’
…..[When] I graduated in 2002, I moved to Little Rock and started assisting different photographers so I could be better technically, and I just thought about all of these basic elements of art. It just slowly came to me, and I thought, ‘I’m going to choose a specific composition.’ The iconography really comes from how everyone says people look at art for 8 seconds….I wanted people to look at my work. I wanted them to study it and [to] want to get to know the sitters. So the iconography is really a hook to get people to spend more time with it and get more information. Then the lighting — in art history, you know, that’s the first thing we learn about Caravaggio — his dramatic lighting and just how beautiful it is. And I just knew it would translate well in photography. I was obsessed with lighting at this time; I was trying to really master lighting. And I just put all of those elements together and did my first habitat pic, not knowing it was going to be called Habitats and all that. It was beautiful, and it was everything I’d wanted. That was in 2004.
Was that the one of you and your friends?
Yeah, they were my roommates, and we lived right next to White Water Tavern.
One of the photographers I thought about when viewing your work was August Sander. I always think of him when I see humanistic, ennobling portraiture — he paved the way for that genre. Which photographers are touchstones for you?
….I will immediately say that I love the medieval, renaissance, and baroque [periods]. You notice the [Habitats] photos are desaturated — I was trying to mimic the color of Renaissance painting….the dulled down colors we now see that we were once bright. I was really into Shelby Lee Adams’ [photography] at that time, Diane Arbus, and Annie Leibowitz.
Are you preparing for an exhibition, or online show, right now?
The big thing I had going on was the Selfie Throne. I had several Selfie Thrones. I’m about to do one for 21C for Gay Pride…..and everything’s been cancelled. Selfie Thrones is what I really was working on before quarantine. … It’s a lot like Habitats. It’s like Habitats’ sister that wants to party.
In your artist statement, you say you’re seeking to help participants “renegotiate their sense of place during a complicated time.” How does self-portraiture play into a renegotiation of one’s sense of place?
You know how you feel when you go through your stuff and you haven’t seen it in forever? … You know, like an incense you smell, and it takes you back to your college dorm? I just felt like going through our stuff and thinking about our life before…..would kind of be like therapy. It could also be painful, but at least you’re working through it. It’s just like revisiting your life.
Sort of like establishing a personal history through the objects in your home?
Yeah, it’s working though that, as painful or glorious as it is. It’s also an art project [that’s] keeping people busy….This is a lonely time — even if you have a family — in a lot of ways. People are dying alone because they won’t let families in [the hospitals]. My wife and I were scared to death because we were told by our midwife that we might not be able to let me in the room when she’s giving birth. Luckily, we’re in a birthing center, so I will [be able to go] as of now. Can you imagine giving birth alone?
…..And dying alone — I had a friend in Little Rock die alone [of COVID-19]. … I won’t get into it; I don’t want to talk about it too much. … We’re dying alone; we’re suffering alone, and Habitats make me feel not alone. Everyday I get one, and I get to see inside somebody’s quarantine — inside their home and their life, and it definitely makes me feel not alone.
Can you talk about the evolution of the Habitats project to #SelfieThrones to the Quarantine Habitats self-portraiture? Was it organic?
I see Habitats as thrones; I always have in a lot of ways. Thrones with objects, and we sit stoic and proud. … I want my sitters to sit stoically. … Shelby Lee Adams, in his photos, people don’t necessarily look proud of who they are, and they’re mostly people with lower incomes. My Habitats aren’t all lower income people — most of the lower income people are my family members. The stoicness comes from “we’re proud of our stuff; we’re proud of who we are.” In the Renaissance, only God, Mary, kings and queens got their portraits done. So I just wanted to elevate the portraiture [of Habitats] in that way.
…..I started Selfie Thrones in 2016 as a result of shooting portraits, and [as a result of] people being uncooperative — because we’re so used to handling it ourselves. You know your good angle. You don’t need me anymore! So that was my answer to not needing me anymore — Selfie Thrones. So I control the lighting; I control the content; I control where you sit and how you sit, essentially. You take the photo and you disseminate it for me.
And I slowly keep learning from it: the lines [for the Selfie Throne installation] start getting longer, and I don’t want a bunch of bored people in my line, so I started adding music, then a microphone…..then actors and performance people…..and they tease and heckle people as they’re getting on the throne to take their photo.
I’d been planning my next move for the 20-year anniversary of the first Habitats in 2024, then all of the sudden it felt like the world was ending….I’m completely freaked out, and I immediately was like, “everybody’s going to be quarantined?” Everybody just needs to make Quarantine Habitats. I think the same day my wife came by and said, “you know you’ve got to do something for everybody; you’ve got to entertain everybody somehow,” and I was like, “already got it!” And here we are.
Are you still painting? I saw your impasto emoji paintings. That Soutine-like t-bone steak really stood out. Beyond composition, lighting, and the art historical references, does painting influence your photographic process?
Definitely in the beginning, but now photography affects my painting…..I see things so much more clearly than I did 20 years ago. I see light and darkness and all of these things that I’ve controlled for 25 years now in my photography. But the reason I say that is not because of the technical aspects. I say that because my iconography and the objects in Habitats made me look at different means of communication.
That’s why painting emojis was important to me — because you can say so much with an emoji. You know the eggplant emoji sold immediately. It did! And I hand out stickers all the time…..and listen, they don’t want a steak. They want that damn eggplant!
You’ve said that it’s harder to be a woman in the art world and that women need to wear emotional armor in the current cultural climate. Part of the emotional suit of armor in the Warrior Women series was something you called the “revenge titty.” Why was that part of the iconography of the series?
My “revenge titty” was really spurred by…..how it felt during the Kavanaugh trial…..and then there were all of these rape cases that were getting quashed here…..and I’m sick of sitting there being a Southern girl who’s been so sweet all these years…..about my opinion…..and when all of that dropped, I was like “I’m not doing it anymore. Why don’t you guys join me, and let’s talk about what we’ve gone through because of being a woman.” And so, I just wanted to hear women’s stories and let them get it out. You know I have a major collaborator on that, Trisha Guting. She’s a beast…..and she will go to bat for women.
We did this recently for the prisoners at the women’s prison here…they’re all there for hot checks or drugs…..[We just wanted to] be there for women and hear their stories. And if they wanted to be in the project and put a titty out, we’ll make their armor to protect them for the next time they go to battle.
And why put a titty out? Remember in “Braveheart” when they all pull up their kilts and they’re about to go to battle? To me, it’s intimidation before battle. “Look what I got. Let’s do this. Tits out. Let’s fight.”
Is there any ambivalence in your work about Westerners being surrounded, almost inundated, by their possessions? I noticed in the Habitats portraits some of the objects are utilitarian, such as the portrait of your dad in his shop. But some of the portraits have an accumulation of objects that reads more as just “stuff.” Is there any ambivalence in your work about how much stuff we have?
In the beginning [of the project], I felt that — since I do come from a lower income background and still have a lower income family — people that don’t have as much money collect a lot more objects. I used to think that. I can attest to yards full of junk that you see in Arkansas. I just kind of always associated a lot of stuff with poverty. … A lot of stuff…..makes you feel more powerful. … That was 20 years ago. Now, I care for the Earth so much — a lot of times you’ll see the plastic cups…..and their Big Gulps [in the portraits]…..and it’s definitely this consumer mass that we do have. It’s not my objective…..but it’s something I do think about, and I have a little writing about it.
What’s the difference between a selfie and a self-portrait?
At this moment, I think selfies and self-portraits are the same. The self-portrait just seems more momentous than the selfie because of a long history of exclusion in art and the lack of resources in photography. Once only the chemist and chemistry-curious artists were able to take self-portraits. The first self-portrait/selfie was taken in 1839 by Robert Cornelius, an amateur chemist, and oddly enough, he was extremely handsome. Yes, Kodak invented the roll film in the late 1800’s, making photography more accessible, but still, there were money constraints, and the logistics were much harder on a bulky sealed box. Perhaps the selfie is the technological offspring of the self-portrait. Selfies’ inclusivity, user-friendliness, effortless output, access to a broader audience, (a larger audience than any art opening could provide) has given the “selfie” the ol’ pop culture complex. Photography itself has been the central bearer of historical narrative over the past 180 or so years. How will the selfie add to history with so many records of so many moments? Awwww — the “selfie” so young, it just got its first tattoo. The old “self-portrait” carries a leather case and smells like pipe tobacco.
Once your art moved out into the self-portrait/selfie sphere, were there any surprises? Have you learned anything from the people who are participating in the Quarantine Habitats?
I started out super complicated. I made eight [instructional] videos: “This is what iconography is!” … And nobody was making Quarantine Habitats except for close friends. Then I kept simplifying it…..and I commissioned someone to make that sheet, the Quarantine Habitats sheet — even simpler with visual aids. … So just simplifying it has helped people create them. … ….Then with the Quarantine Habitats, anything shocking that they’ve done….I’m just amazed by the amount of people who have sent me a picture of a dog with no stuff.
How are you managing your own quarantine? Are there any surprising or positive things about it?
Well, I haven’t suffered as much as my wife, who’s pregnant and can’t go anywhere hardly. The doctor even asked her to stop going to the grocery store. … But I’m still going to work — I don’t have to be around people very closely, and I don’t have to go inside of our office, but I’m shooting properties. … So I haven’t been home as much as my family has. But it has been hard to get some alone time…..to be in my own head.
[Quarantine] has been a nightmare, really, but one good thing is that I’m going to be at home with the baby a lot more than we once anticipated, since my job went to part-time. … I think the Quarantine Habitats is the best thing about the quarantine for me. It’s thrilling every time I get a new one. I’m like “Oh my God, I can’t believe they did this — it’s so good!” Or, “Oh my God, that’s a dog!