The portrait and the self-portrait are ways of expressing and exploring personal and collective identity. As a genre, portraiture has not remained a static form of representation governed by strict conventions but, as can be expected, it has evolved according to the social and cultural developments of our times.
Max Dean’s entire body of work from the early 1970s to today is autobiographical. To this extent it can be seen as a form of self portrayal but not in the conventional sense of capturing an image of the self in a single defining moment. Rather than representing himself in a body of discrete self-portraits as did Dutch 17th century artist, Rembrandt Van Rijn in his moving series of paintings of his likeness from youth to old age, Dean has presented performances, made installations, videos, and created photographic tableaux.
Underlying each of Max Dean’s works of art is a marker – almost like genetic coding – that identifies the artist’s preoccupation with his personal history. As such, it is work that reminds us of the challenges and risks to which the universal human body is subject: its extensions, its limitations, and its mortality.
While Dean is unquestionably the key actor in these works in which he not only represents himself but enacts his role as artist, his concerns and his actions are not entirely solipsistic. The assertion of his identity, from his earliest performance works, such as Max Dean A Work, 1977 (above) and _______ 1978, to Be Me, 2002, is intricately related to the presence of others. This expresses itself through his inclusion of his family as subjects and the viewers of his art as participants in the works themselves.
Max Dean – A Work, 1977
Be Me, 2002
By the simple act of participating in his art, viewers identify themselves through physical presence and by psychological traits or behaviours that range from enthusiastic participation to withdrawal. In so doing, the “selves” of the artist and that of the viewer touch upon and on occasion merge with one another. Be Me, 2002 is an example where the artist uses technology to not only engage but embody viewers by adopting their gestures and their utterances into a projected image of his head.
In addition, Dean also incorporates into his work the persona and art works of a wide range of artists whom he has admired throughout his career. The power of individual iconic paintings such as Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni? Arnolfini and his Wife, 1434, and Titian’s Sisyphus 1548-49, have inspired him as much as Marcel Duchamp’s work has offered him licence, playfulness, and an appreciation of the role of the everyday object in his practice.
In his Gesamstkunst, Still – Living through Cancer and Covid, 2020 (see https://youtu.be/nZzWS41xSjY) – an epic work that includes a three-dimensional piece and a suite of staged photographs, Dean draws significantly upon two of Thomas Eakins’ most celebrated paintings: Gross Clinic, 1875 and The Agnew Clinic, 1889. In several of the tableaux included in this exhibition, we see Dean posing as a central figure that references Eakins’ paintings. In the elaborately composed Gross Clinic, Case Study, 2016, his presence is highlighted. Standing and gazing to the right side of the picture, he is accompanied by assistants, all of whom are engaged in efforts to restore the damaged animatronic moose.
In creating Dissecting Thomas Eakins, 2020 and The Agnew Clinic, 2020, Dean has not only cast characters from his team of human animatronic figures in the roles of the artist and principal subjects, but also used individual “actors” including himself.
In the Agnew Clinic Jodie Jenkinson (Professor, Director of the Master of Science in Biomedical Communication, University of Toronto) plays the part of Dr. Agnew. Dean, seated in the second row, head resting on his right hand, takes a seat among the animatronic medical students.
While individual identity and the uniqueness of the self can be spelled out today with great accuracy in an abstract order of letters and bars, as in a DNA sequence, the casual ease of the “selfie” prevails as a mode of recording the self. However, as much as technology has advanced both the scientific and the expressive forms of recording identity, it has proved equally successful in subverting the truth- telling capability of the recorded image. Deep Fake technology and the mediating of identities through a variety of electronic communication platforms on the internet unsettle our collective confidence in verifiable identities. Dean’s exploration of the self opens up an urgent dialogue about the nature of who we are and how our experiences have shaped us and how we communicate these individual and collective identities to one another.