A Portrait of Gender and Self

Upcoming exhibitions at Cornell Fine Arts Museum include the premier solo exhibition of Jess T. Dugan’s photography, which offers an intimate look at gender, identity, and desire.

Jess T. Dugan, Alex, 2012, Pigment print, 
©Jess T. Dugan, Courtesy of the artist, Gallery Kayafas and Catherine Edelman Gallery Jess T. Dugan, Alex, 2012, Pigment print, ©Jess T. Dugan, Courtesy of the artist, Gallery Kayafas and Catherine Edelman Gallery

For nearly a decade, critically-acclaimed artist Jess T. Dugan has been making photographic portraits that explore issues of gender, sexuality, identity, and community. The result has been images that are deeply personal and intimate—of both of the subjects and the artist herself.

Her most recent project, Every breath we drew, explores the power of identity, desire, and connection through portraits, and is scheduled to open for the first time as a museum exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on August 15, 2015.

Jess T. Dugan, Jess and Vanessa, 2013, Pigment print, ©Jess T. Dugan, Courtesy of the artist, Gallery Kayafas and Catherine Edelman Gallery
Jess T. Dugan, Jess and Vanessa, 2013, Pigment print, ©Jess T. Dugan, Courtesy of the artist, Gallery Kayafas and Catherine Edelman Gallery

While working within the framework of queer experience and from her actively constructed sense of masculinity, Dugan’s portraits examine the intersection between private, individual identity and the search for an intimate connection with others. To accomplish this, she photographed people in their homes, often in their bedrooms, using medium and large format cameras to create a very private perspective.

“Jess Dugan’s works, recently featured in The New York Times, among other media outlets, simultaneously possess the universal and the personal,” says Curator Amy Galpin. “They are at once about the issue of human dignity and also the intimate relationship between artist and subject.”

Jess T. Dugan, Betsy, 2013, Pigment print,
Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Diversity Council, Rollins College, ©Jess T. Dugan, Courtesy of the artist, Gallery Kayafas and Catherine Edelman Gallery
Jess T. Dugan, Betsy, 2013, Pigment print, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Museum Purchase with funds provided by the Diversity Council, Rollins College, ©Jess T. Dugan, Courtesy of the artist, Gallery Kayafas and Catherine Edelman Gallery Combining formal portraits, images of couples, self-portraits, and photographs of her own romantic relationship, Dugan investigates broader themes of identity and connection while also speaking to individual experience. The photographs of men and masculine individuals act as a kind of mirror; they depict the type of gentle masculinity Dugan is attracted to, yet also the kind she wants to embody.

Similarly, the photographs of relationships speak to a drive to be seen, understood, and desired through the eyes of another person—a reflection of the self as the ultimate intimate connection.

The artist’s choice of large format photography is significant for its historical reference to classical portrait photography. By using a more traditional format to look at a very contemporary and complex subject, Dugan is inviting a sustained look from viewers who might otherwise shy away from the subject matter, asking them to engage with our shared humanity across borders of gender and sexuality.

“While Dugan’s works belong to a history of portraiture in their composition and construction, they are distinctive and profound on their own,” says Galpin, who wrote an essay for the debut of Dugan’s first monograph Every breath we drew, which is being published by Daylight Books and is scheduled for release in September 2015.

 

A Lesson in Portraiture and Photography

For visitors interested in learning more about the history of portraiture and photography, the Museum will feature two additional exhibitions: Fashionable Portraits in Europe and Enduring Documents: Photographs from the Permanent Collection. Both will also be open to the public beginning on August 15, 2015, and run through January 3, 2016.

Attributed to Paulus Moreelse (Dutch, 1571–1638), Portrait of a Lady, 17th century, Oil on panel, 35 x 25 in., Gift of the Myers Family, Mr. and Mrs. John C. Myers, Jr. '42 and June Reinhold Myers '41, Cornell Fine Arts Museum Attributed to Paulus Moreelse (Dutch, 1571–1638), Portrait of a Lady, 17th century, Oil on panel, 35 x 25 in., Gift of the Myers Family, Mr. and Mrs. John C. Myers, Jr. '42 and June Reinhold Myers '41, Cornell Fine Arts Museum Drawn primarily from the collection of the Cornell, Fashionable Portraits brings together works spanning five centuries and investigates the historical tradition of portraiture in Europe, its function and symbolic significance, and the way in which identity was defined and dictated by social norms and expectations.

“Fashionable portraits of the past record and preserve not only their likenesses but also their most cherished attributes, be they fame, wealth, status, family, talent, or faith,” says Rangsook Yoon, Dale Montgomery Fellow at the Cornell and curator of the exhibition. “They are objects with enormous rhetorical power that helped the sitters fashion themselves. Self-fashioning through portraiture was subject to the sociocultural, religious, and political circumstances of the time, as well as to the individuals’ personal backgrounds.”

A Portrait of Charles IX of France after Francois Clouet  (ca. 1561), The Countess of Beaufort by Louis Michel van Loo (ca. 1760), and the Portrait of Harriet Gordon attributed to Thomas Lawrence (ca. 1820) are some of the works on display. Loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston; and the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven augment the exhibition.

Mathew B. Brady, Abraham Lincoln, 1861, Albumen print, Purchased with the Michel Roux Acquisition  Fund, Cornell Fine Arts Museum
Mathew B. Brady, Abraham Lincoln, 1861, Albumen print, Purchased with the Michel Roux Acquisition Fund, Cornell Fine Arts Museum If Fashionable Portraits offers historical precedents to portraiture as a genre, Enduring Documents: Photographs from the Permanent Collection contextualizes Dugan’s art within the history of photography. Trailblazing artists such as Matthew Brady, Gertrude Käsebier, and F. Holland Day—some of the earliest American photographers—are represented in this exhibition presenting recent acquisitions for the Cornell.

The photographs included present images of the American landscape—from the mountains of Colorado to the encroaching industrialization of telephone wires in a deceptively mundane environment—as well as portraits of important figures such as President Abraham Lincoln and artists Henri Matisse and Clarence White. Together, this presentation of photographs demonstrates the ability of the medium to exist as both a complex art form and as a documentary tool that reveals political, social, and cultural histories.

Together, these fall exhibitions at the Cornell invite visitors on a voyage of discovery that details and provides counterpoints to the thematic Conversations in the permanent collection galleries. Old favorites like the Madonna Enthroned Nursing the Christ Child (ca. 1470) by Cosimo Rosselli, one of the painters of the Sistine Chapel, and Thomas Moran’s beautiful Moonlight Seascape from 1892 are joined by Jay Heikes’ 2013 Philosopher’s Stone, part of the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, and our newest acquisition, Francesco Solimena’s Saint Francis Xavier Baptizing the Indians (ca. 1680–85).