Alex Barbera on Selfies: Over 50 Years of Raoul Middleman’s Self Portraits at MICA
“Art is a form of masturbation,” Raoul Middleman says, a wall of self-portraits hanging behind him.
I sat in a sea of students for Middleman’s MICA lecture on Thursday, February 5th, in the center of his new exhibition, Selfies, which features over fifty years of self-portraits. Before his lecture began, the artist took us on a short tour of the exhibit, which is not organized chronologically, but rather by type of self-portrait. The artist proudly, yet humbly, led us from wall to wall of the gallery, as if flipping through pages of his life’s quirky photo album, including snapshots with muses, monsters, hats and violins.
As a native Baltimorean with a nomadic history of odd jobs, Middleman sees himself as a “loose-mouth Burlesque comic.” Frequently moving locales and shifting moods, he uses self-portraits to explore “what painting is all about, as well as who I am.” Although his paintings explore his physical evolution from a twenty-something to a septigenarian, it is his psychological progression that infuses this collection with emotional depth. In certain portraits, a virile, confident, Indiana Jones-esque Middleman stares out at the viewer. Standing in the gallery with the artist, the contrast is even more stark as the wrinkled eyes of an older, graying version of the artist looks back at his younger self with a soft smile. Even the portraits that are closer to the artist’s present age seem drastically different than his physical presence because of the artist’s changing interpretations of himself. According to Middleman, “the notion of self is always up for grabs.”
Despite his evolving appearance and self-awareness, the artist’s distinct style, that includes harsh contrasts of light and dark, as well as his thick, slashing brushstrokes, unifies his paintings (he talked a lot about the benefits of painting fast). In addition to a physical likeness, the artist strives to capture his environment. In his most recent self-portraits, Middleman says he hopes to capture “the decay of Baltimore” using “the old and funky colors” he likes, such as Indian Yellow.
This collection presents half a century worth of locations, generations, and states of mind – hung in an overwhelming salon style from floor to ceiling, it encompasses much of Middleman’s history. Although he shares a journey of self-discovery that started five generations ago, it could not be more relevant to the selfie-obsessed world we live in today. Unlike the majority of people in our society, Middleman is actually eager to present himself as an aging human being. The artist calls himself an “uglifier” because he paints the good and the bad, but most importantly, the ugly. The ugly is proof that you have made a mark on the world and it has made a mark on you.
The next time you snap a selfie for Instagram, consider the portrait as part of a larger, lifelong series and remember the many faces of Raoul Middleman. Consider “the power of your own seed” and use it to learn more about yourself.
Alex Barbera is a harsh food critic, addict of Netflix and dog enthusiast from New York City. She is an expert at getting lost and making guacamole.