Morning rituals may differ, but most of us find ourselves at some point staring into the bathroom mirror. I scour my face, studying every detail and vigilantly checking for wrinkles, grey hairs, pimples, and anything else that may have changed. It goes further; I push and pull at my skin and cover things I wish weren’t there. We find ways to hide our imperfections or liberate ourselves from bodies that feel hostile as opposed to home-like. Whether through make-up, clothing, or surgery, we smooth out lumps and bumps, accentuate our best features, and shamefully hide the worst. In this way, my work is confessional. It is, in part, the way I connect to viewers on an intimate level. My self portraits’ contorted, macro view and cramped compositions coupled with their small scale beg for viewers to examine them, and in turn me, as closely as I do myself, perhaps making them become more self-aware.
I have felt at times that my body is like clay and I am a sculptor. In my personal case, I transitioned from one gender to another, one of many methods of human shape-shifting. If my body is a work of art, then my plastic surgeon has been my collaborator. One way I highlight this is by using long, thick, singular brushstrokes that evoke bandages. Paint is to me as flesh is to the surgeon. I can manipulate it by pushing it around and scraping it away. Oil paint is the only appropriate medium for my process. The fact that it forms a skin when it dries is not lost on me.
Hair is a recurring subject in my work because it is a strong cultural signifier. We first judge the gender of a figure in the distance by the length of hair on the head and the amount of facial and body hair. For my paintings, I first lay down a dark brown-purple, filling large areas with a thin application of paint. When that has dried completely, I begin the painting in earnest and while the paint is still wet I use an Exacto knife or razor blade to scrape away thin lines of paint exposing the tone of the under-painting. This way I render one hair at a time. It is a painstaking process that takes much time as I carefully consider each mark.
I do seek to expose and make known the existence and reality of trans lives, but I have no interest in glossing over the truth or putting it in a pretty package. Even though I show the toughest moments, I want to reveal the often over-looked beauty in what many people consider ugly. Instead of wincing and hiding their eyes, viewers can see in my work that bruises are beautiful. I educate about trans lives, yet I am more concerned about minimizing the differences between myself/trans and non-trans people. We all experience growing pains. I am amazed by the many breast cancer survivors who have told me how much my work resonates with them.
Both the artistic process and the process of claiming and realizing my identity have been difficult. However, I went through the ringer and came out better and stronger. I pushed the limits of my ability to recover emotionally and physically and I share that with my viewers the best way I know how–through my work. I have often been asked why I stick to self-portraits. I am not a narcissist. I simply know myself the best, so portraying what I know feels genuine to viewers. I also find it vital to avoid the risk of appearing that I am exploiting someone else.
My solo exhibition this spring, “Naked” at G Fine Art, was the culmination of years of tunnel vision. The works all examined my emotional and physical evolution over the course of three years. Now I can close the door on this phase of my life and career. Starting over with a new body of work intimidates me. It will take time to really make my work again. Right now I’m mostly thinking about my next move and sorting through many ideas. I see the potential for my work to explore memory and the suppression of one’s past and also become more abstract, but I’m not making any promises.
Al Miner (b. 1977, New York, New York) is an artist, curator, and curatorial assistant at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. For the Hirshhorn he curated projects with Yoko Ono and Dan graham and has worked with Smithsonian Artist Research Fellows Runa Islam and Henrique Oliveira. In spring 2009 he curated “Domesticated: Men and the Domestic Interior” at Transformer Gallery. In fall 2009 he was awarded a German travel fellowship from the Goethe Institut to spend one month in Berlin in 2010. As an artist he has exhibited extensively and received awards including the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities Young Artist Program Grant and two Artist’s Fellowship Awards. Miner holds an M.F.A. in painting and mixed media from Queens College, CUNY (2000) and a post-graduate certificate in museum studies from the George Washington University (2006). To see more visit the artist’s website.
Edited by Ellyn Weiss