Balancing a self-conscious need to explore subconscious feelings through self-portrait photography
By Aude Barras & Karen Yoon-Kung
Intermingling her everyday experiences with art by using herself as the subject of her own artworks, Anh Duong is a French born painter, actor, former model and a dancer who dares to show the private moments of her life through her paintings.
Her intimate self-portraits are meant to be read like a visual diary of her life. In the spirit of Fri- da Kahlo or Egon Schiele, Anh Duong’s body of work is audacious, erotic, and intimate. Anh’s canvases depict the subject in a non-idealized situation, often left vulnerable with little or no clothes on, allowing the viewer access to the fra- gility of the subject’s inner-self.
After spending an afternoon in Anh Duong’s studio, The GROUND editors had the oppor- tunity to better understand what it takes to be a painter who is specialized in self-portraits and how Anh Duong’s transition from fash- ion modeling to painting took place.
From a Fashion Model to an Accomplished Fine Artist
Ever since childhood, Anh Duong had used art as a means to manage and express her strong emotions. As a young child, Anh loved art be- cause it allowed her to express herself through painting and drawing. Even though Anh dreamed of becoming a ballerina, Anh’s ballet teacher recognized Anh’s talent early on and told Anh to pursue art after witnessing some of Anh’s ballerina drawings.
Anh Duong began her career as a ballet danc- er, but became a supermodel by working with prominent designers such as British fashion designer, John Galliano and French fashion designer, Christian Lacroix. Anh initially be- gan modeling after meeting American portrait and fashion photographer, David Seidner, who asked Anh if she wanted to pose for him. Anh had never thought about modeling as a career until she started doing a photo shoot for Yves Saint Laurent. Her initial excitement continued shortly after meeting Christian Lacroix when he was starting out as a fashion designer. Anh recalled what she describes as a “fantastic mo- ment” upon modeling for Christian Lacroix’s first couture collection. Anh also met John Gal- liano after he finished school and ultimately worked on his first fashion show in London. Still, Anh appreciates the passion that existed in the fashion world. Anh recalls, “It was all these great people that really matter in the fashion world that I met and worked with. It was a very interesting group of fashion designers and pho- tographers. Fashion was not as commercial back then as it is now. It was very artistic in the ‘80s.”
Even though Anh was around such great artists in the 1980’s, Anh was completely absorbed into what other artists were doing at the time. It was during this time when Anh realized that while the fashion world excited her, her life purpose directed her to art. Anh added, “I felt like with being a model, there was a deadline, a day when the date expires so I didn’t like that. I saw what these artists were creating and they were totally free and that’s the freedom I was searching for. I wanted to be able to express myself in such an open and crazy way and without any limits.”
In 1988, Anh moved to New York where she started her new life as a fine artist. She devel- oped her artistic signature and self-portraiture during her first summer in the United States. Rather than sitting around waiting for her model to show up, Anh had found a better use for her time, explaining, “I first started paint- ing myself because my model didn’t show up. I was staying in Andy Warhol’s house in Montauk. I was waiting for my friend to show up and thought ‘Well, you know what? Enough is enough. I will just paint myself.’ So I grabbed a mirror, started painting myself, and thought, ‘This way I’ll always be on time, available, and ready to pose.’”
On The Craft of Painting
Anh Duong has created close to a hundred paintings during her career, but what does it take to be a successful painter, what drives Anh, and what kinds of challenges did she face as a painter?
As a model and as a painter, Anh Duong has continuously been the subject of representation, yet her experiences are distinctive in each situa- tion. In most of her self-portraits, Anh Duong’s face and gaze are blank, suggesting the presence of raw emotions underneath the mask of her face. “In my experience of being photographed, posing in front of a camera is different than posing for self-portraits. When I paint self-por- traits, I use a mirror, but it’s not like a camera. A camera is more like a wall in-between, but a mirror goes back to you. I’m the viewer and I’m the poser, so it’s like a full circle that goes… the image comes back to me,” says Anh.
There is a strong belief out there stating that cre- ativity increases with age. From Anh Duong’s perspective, that is the case. According to Anh, creativity is compared to wine. While youth is considered desirable and admirable, Anh sees a certain beauty with age. She hopes to become more creative and not to care about what ev- erybody thinks so much. In that aspect, she will have more freedom.
Furthermore, the purpose of creating art is very different from a traditional fashion photo shoot. Anh grasps the philosophy of the two very dif- ferent art forms very well. According to Anh, art does not have to have a reason, but it does in- ternally reflect the subject in any given moment. Commercial photography projects a more exter- nal image and message of a subject while self- portrait works offer a more introspective pro- jection of the subject. Anh muses, “When I was modeling, it was a whole different thing because it wasn’t really art. When I was a model on a fashion shoot, there was a clear purpose: sell the clothes, wear the clothes, do the makeup, look pretty, be in a magazine. What makes something art is that there is no purpose and that’s what makes it art. Maybe later there’s a purpose of selling, but it’s much later. What’s happening in the studio, what’s happening when you’re mak- ing art, it has no purpose except making art.”
Anh Duong’s canvases are not records of partic- ular moments or memories, but rather a ground for investigation and analysis of emotions that she processes through paint. The portraits are seen as a relationship between Anh and her subconscious. Even though other people may consider self-portraits as narcissistic artwork, for Anh, creating self-portraits is how she pro- cesses and understands the different emotions she encounters throughout her lifetime.
Every artist is faced with dilemmas when it comes to being satisfied with one’s own work. For Anh, it was the matter of when a painting is finished or the question, “Will it ever be fin- ished?” Did she paint too much or did she paint too little? For Anh, an artwork would be con- sidered finished when she is able to, in her own words, “declare to the world that this is how it’s going to be.”
Although Anh did not specifically prioritize nor put emphasis into selling her artwork, there is still a thrilling sense of fulfillment once her work interests the outside world. “Dennis Hop- per bought my first painting,” Anh states, “so it was like, ‘Wow, what’s going on here? These people are seriously interested in buying my work.’ But this is my fourth painting. I’m not planning to sell it.”
Remarkably, a year later, Anh held her first art gallery exhibition at Sperone Westwater in 1991 where she displayed most of her works that she completed the previous summer.
On the Spirituality and Subconscious Behind Her Craft
Being a fine artist focused on self-portraits en- tails having a strong connection to one’s spiri- tuality and inner self. This is a complex process Anh Duong had to go through in order for her to find herself as an artist and as a woman. Anh explains, “I think my first passion beyond art is understanding the meaning of life and under- standing what’s not understandable. You know,
feeling what’s intangible. It’s a lifetime search and there are no answers, but it’s the experience and you grow.”
Believing that there is a death-defying uncon- scious need to create something, creating a self- portrait is a way Anh deals with her fear of the unknown. Anh states, “For me, self-portraits are more about understanding myself and un- derstanding the different emotions that I had over my lifetime. As an artist, it’s very impor- tant to be spiritual. You have to know what it means, and I think spirituality is where creativ- ity comes from. It’s got to come from a force, from a life force that’s going through you.”
Experiencing Emotional Incitement
Anh Duong’s works may possibly come off as unbelievably raw, vulnerable, or shocking, but every bit of her emotion is attached to her work. Whether her works evoke a pleasant or unpleas- ant emotion, it can possibly throw a viewer off balance. It is through Anh Duong’s honest por- trayal of her self-portraits that allows viewers to fully experience the meaning and emotional incitement of her work. While Anh Duong con- tinues to balance her self-conscious need to cre- ate artwork in order to connect with her subcon- scious feelings, perhaps viewers of her artworks can relate and consciously experience emotional freedom through her artworks.
The GROUND Issue #03