[In Susan Kealey: Ordinary Marvel, edited by Jennifer Rudder, YYZ Books and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, 2003.]


Necessary Polarities: Susan Kealey


Self-portraiture is the most adversarial mode of creation.

— George Steiner, Real Presences, p.206, U. of Chicago P.


In Kealey's body of work there exists only one self-portrait. It has two components. The first is a large, unframed, unmounted colour photograph of Kealey's head, out of focus. The second is a smaller framed piece, on paper, of a text in Braille.



For Philippe Lejeune, the sheer number of self-portraits in the world — all those serious and dignified heads — indicate that art may be more concerned with the self-representation of humans than with the representation of the world. He sees the self-portrait as an allegory of art as a solipsistic endeavour. Here he speaks of a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in London:

The fun quickly gives way to nightmare. Heads, heads, heads. Monotony, frozen and stereotyped character of the art of the portrait itself. Centering of a solitary individual in a conventional decor (no matter what the convention). Terribly distressed, I no longer see any more than resemblances. And it is here I imagine, as Swift could have, the effect that a gallery of portraits of poodles and horses would produce. What bizarre obstinacy to paint and repaint, for centuries, the same thing, all those heads of animals protruding from lace collars or fabric, hair done, all dressed up, and all so profoundly serious. I see the self-portrait as a particular situation, somewhat irregular, in which in the middle of the most coded genre (the portrait) a spark abruptly bursts forth allowing the essence of the art to be seen in a staggering way: the self-representation of humans (and not the representation of the world), the self-portrait becoming the allegory of art itself.
— Philippe Lejeune, On Autobiography, 1989, U of Minnesota P., Milwaukee, p.113


Row after row of heads looking back at us, for in the self-portrait the gaze of the subject is generally aimed at us. Classically (in painting), the self-portrait is accomplished with a mirror. The gaze is the gaze of the artist directed at his (almost always his) reflection. We stand in for the artist, a projected replacement pinned into place by the rendered reflection. This assertion of the gaze posits an animating consciousness, a self-consciousness. The self-portrait is not an assertion of presence (I exist, and in this form), nor even of absence (I once existed in this form). It is an assertion of self-consciousness: I had the whole world to look upon, but was instead caught — snagged — in the mirror's return of my gaze: seduced. This quality is mute and is called dignity.

The self-portrait is mute. There is a gaze, but there is no voice. Self-portrait cannot be autobiography as there is no first person, no "I." (It's all me, me, me.) But Kealey's self-portrait has a second component, a supplement which is voiced (as well as being possibly felt), a chunk of text in Braille. This something else makes the work something other than a self-portrait. It makes the work about self-portraiture as a proposition.

If you are blind, you will not see the photograph. But you could run your fingertips over the Braille text and read — what? Not the expected description, paraphrase or synopsis of the image. Not even words in the voice of the artist/subject. Instead a didactic text from an essay by Audre Lourde, an inspiring text on difference and self-realization.

Difference is a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic ... only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways to actively "be" in the world generate as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters... Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.

If you are not blind you will likely be unable to read the text, but you will be able to look at the image. It is one of those serious, dignified heads Lejeune was talking about. It may be gazing directly at as, but it is difficult to tell.  The image is blurry, not blurry enough that the face is unrecognizable, without qualities or personality, but enough that the gaze is softened, indistinct. The grain of the image makes it clear that this blurring occurred not at the time of printing, but at the time of shooting, at the site of the camera. It suggests — in an adoption of filmic convention — that it is from a subjective rather than objective point-of-view. It suggests the blurring represents the subject's impaired vision, that we are seeing Susan as she would see herself in a mirror.

In the vast heap of identity politics work done in the eighties (which tended to simplistically confuse individual and group identities, deny the existence of the subconscious, and reduce subjectivity to a list of rules for declaring an enlightened empathy) Kealey's self-portrait could have been read as an invitation for a sharing of her otherness. Luckily the piece is too complex to locate difference in the focussing ring of a camera lens. Instead it locates difference in the relationship between our ability to read the text and read the image. Kealey does not merely represent this difference, she enacts it.



Nothing in the whole circle of human vanities takes stronger hold of the imagination than this affair of having a portrait painted. Yet why should it be so? The looking-glass, the polished globes of the andirons, the mirror-like water, and all other reflecting surfaces continually present us with portraits, or rather ghosts, of ourselves which we glance at and straightaway forget them. But we forget them only because they vanish. It is the idea of duration — or earthly immortality — that gives such a mysterious interest to our portraits.
— Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Prophetic Pictures," Twice-Told Tales

How easily Hawthorne posits an equivalence between portrait and ghost, sliding the idea in as a correcting subordinate clause. (Lejeune proposes that if every portrait is a mortuary we should perhaps call them mortraits and self-mortraits.) The dignity of the self-portrait is that of the ghost.

Susan was a friend of mine, and now she is dead. I haven't really mourned her death — I've been busy, and out of town. I haven't really mourned her death and so she is still alive to me, and vivid. Mourning is work, and I don't want to do it. First the memories become painful, and then they threaten to fade, and then they do fade and are gone and threaten to disintegrate everything.

Is it possible for me to write about her work as if I did not know her? Yes, of course. That particular blindness is productive and effortless. But in the presence of the work itself, it's a different matter. I am unable to look at her self-portrait — or any of her work — and not remember her, and scramble to avoid mourning.

Mourning involves incorporation of the one being mourned: incorporation, invagination, cannibalization, identification. Just like critical writing. They are almost the same thing, but I'll take writing over mourning — because sometimes I get paid and it seems to leave the world more whole. Every sentence — whether elegant or clumsy — is an adhesive bandage holding a little piece of the world together.