Self, Observed
N.C. Museum of Art
Through Jan. 22, 2012

Rembrandt helped form the portraiture envelope but he didn’t exactly push it. However, just outside the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Rembrandt in America show exit, another exhibition does just that.

Self, Observed comprises 41 self-portraits by college students selected from more than 160 submitted to elin o’Hara slavick’s undergraduate curatorial projects class at UNC-Chapel Hill. This intense exhibition provides an alternative to the kind of connoisseurship that the Rembrandt show engenders, while holding true to the classic role of self-portraiture as an expression of an artist’s identity in his or her moment and place. It’s interesting to see how the psychological indicators in Rembrandt’s face, posture and clothing here become radically externalized and aestheticized.

In collaboration with NCMA’s education department, slavick’s class held a national open call for entries over Tumblr. During each class meeting, the students debated their selections and worked with the museum’s staff to put the show together.

Some of slavick’s students enacted that debate at the press preview last week when asked to point out a piece that sparked a particularly lively classroom discussion. They gathered around Nicole Jennings’ “Painting Me,” in which the artist, a student at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, N.C., is seen in her chemise, applying eyeliner at a bathroom mirror. Some students found this image of femininity oppressive, others empowering. In her artist’s statement, Jennings describes how the mirror is a perpetual witness to her family’s private life. The morning ritual of putting on makeup becomes a valuable personal moment.

Many images have comparable interpretive edges. Parsons School of Design student Lisa Gonzalez’s pristine photograph “Untitled (Lunch)” depicts a poised woman from neck to knees in a white blouse, pastel yellow skirt and pearls right off the set of Mad Men. She holds an open lunch box but, without her face to provide a context, it’s hard to tell if she’s offering or impatiently foisting the white-bread sandwich and pink-iced cupcake at us.

Sue Hickman, also from Cleveland College, provides a puzzler of a photograph titled “Freedom.” Using an old medium-format Yashica, she has captured blurry graffiti art, the concentrically beveled grain of a platen or lens and a clear reflection of herself and the camera. Red reticulating lines further define the image, which is itself surrounded by the darkness of her studio. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to work out what exactly is being looked at and how the photograph, which combines with Hickman’s title to imply a tantalizing identity statement, was taken.

Although the term “student work” is often used to dismiss work by artists still learning their craft, this show is more about decision-making than it is about how well someone can handle charcoal, pastels or acrylic paints. If anything, the interference of unmastered craft makes the expressions more urgent. And it’s a great ellipsis for the museum to put at the end of its Rembrandt show.