My aim is to be as open and as incomprehensible as possible. There has to be a perfect balance between open and shut. 11
For an artist who consistently claims to be without ideas, as is the case with Cattelan, selfportraiture is a logical mode: one need not look beyond one’s own face to find material. In Cattelan’s early work, his presence was implied but never literally represented, but by the late 1990s, a battery of lookalikes, mini-mes, doubles, and surrogates began to populate his work. He has plastered gallery walls with 500 painted latex masks of his face; pictured himself in miniature on a bookcase, gazing absently into the abyss; and been photographed rolling around on the floor like a panting dog. Charlie (2003), depicting a boyhood version of himself, sped around the grounds of the Venice Biennale on a radio-operated, motorized tricycle, narrowly missing visitors. This juvenile iteration of the artist having the time of his life both annoyed and entertained visitors to the exhibition.
First created in 1992, the
self-portrait Super Us
also demonstrates Cattelan’s
approach to this type of work. It consists of
portraits of Cattelan produced by
police-composite-sketch artists and
accounts submitted by friends and
results are a record of the
varying impressions that he had made on
who provided the descriptions. Beyond
portraying the self as
a network of other
people’s appraisals, Cattelan’s goal was also to
the way in which our perceptions of
others can never form a complete
work provides 50 different views of the artist,
a multiple and fractured self rather
than a unified, integrated
states, “That piece was really about how people
you perceive you in different ways than
how you really are. So I was
visualizing the idea of the self. The drawings
looked like me, but at the same time they
were like cartoons. They
were terrific. I don’t
know if it was a fluke.” 12
A more recent work, We (2010) is a double self-portrait of the artist that relies on scale shifts, doubling, and theatrical presentation to present a surreal, psychological depiction. Wearing tailored suits and well-made but scuffed shoes, the similar, but not identical, three-foot-tall likenesses lie on a small wooden bed covered with delicately embroidered bedding. Without touching, they stare blankly into space. The work depicts the artist much as he looks today, if not a little older. These identical, yet subtly different twins, have different facial expressions. As with many of Cattelan’s pieces, the work is both clever and mysterious, a puzzle you can’t solve.
- Ask the
class to describe this work. What
do your students notice?
These sketches were all done by a police-sketch artist, a person specially trained to create likenesses based on verbal descriptions of a person’s facial characteristics. The subject of all of these drawings is the artist, Maurizio Cattelan, based on information provided by his friends and family. What characteristics are common to many of these images? Which characteristics are limited to only a few?
states, “That piece was really
about how people around you perceive
in different ways than how you really
are.” Do students agree or
this statement? Whose perception is
descriptions from 50 people
who know you well or your internal
of yourself? Explain.
- After surveying the art included in the 2011 Venice Biennale, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith highlighted works that impressed her, including We, and invited readers to add their impressions in six words or less. Each student should brainstorm a list of six words; then as a class, see which six occur most frequently. Compare the words selected by the class with those posted at nytimes.com/interactive/arts/ design/2011-venice-biennale.html#/2 and add your impressions.
- To create Super Us
(1992), Cattelan asked an expert in police-composite
he had never met, to create 50 drawings
of the artist based on
descriptions given by his friends and
acquaintances. To make these
images, trained artists draw, sketch,
or paint after communicating
with a witness or crime victim who
describes the suspect. Though
technology has improved, this
process still requires interpreting the
spoken word and drawing skills.
Try this exercise, which has both writing and drawing components and some similarities to Cattelan’s process, with your students.
1. Have each student write his or her name on separate small pieces of paper. Place the names into a paper bag. Each student takes a name from the bag but does not divulge the identity of the person selected.
2. Each student writes a careful facial description from memory of the student he or she has chosen without naming the person.
3. The descriptions are collected and then randomly distributed, so that each student has an anonymous description. Students now draw an image solely from the written account. When the drawings are complete, display them. Do any bear a resemblance to the students in the class? Discuss the process of creating these works and the challenges encountered.
Visual Arts,English Language Arts
- Cattelan’s double self-portrait, We
(2010), makes one wonder
about the artist’s intent and message. Why
might he depict himself
in this way?
most of us do not have the means to create an exact
ourselves as a three-dimensional wax figure, a digital
help students create a self-portrait. Like We, this
work can be as personally
symbolic or mysterious as they want.