The Mirror and the Mask: Holly Trostle Brigham's Self-Portraits
For two decades Holly Trostle Brigham has made self-portraits that deny a fixed identity and imaginatively engage the past. She has tirelessly explored gender and sexuality through self-representation, often using her body to subvert misogynist histories and reclaim the female nude. In her earliest self-portraits, Brigham appears close to the picture plane, confronting the mirror without guise, attentive to the viewer and aware of the emotional charge carried by self-scrutiny. Gradually Brigham began to enact the traditional poses of mythological figures – goddesses such as Isis (1997) or Cybele (2000) – incorporating their iconography into full-length self-portraits. While the paintings depict Brigham, her body bore additional meanings by performing ancient ciphers of female power. As Cybele, the Roman goddess of nature and fertility, Brigham appears nude, seated on a wooden birthing throne holding a pomegranate. She gives birth to violets, a symbol for her son Attis and a poetic expression of generation and Spring. Her intense expression suggests that we witness Cybele engaged in a ritual trance, her physical and spiritual selves unified in heightened consciousness.

Soon after completing Cybele, Brigham embarked on her current series of self-portrait homages to female artists. These paintings represent her most complex and sustained exploration of self-hood and artistic identity. Through them she has explored such wide-ranging themes as celebrity, innovation, mortality, piety, sexual violence, and sexual liberation. In each instance, though we know the subject to be a historical artist, the figure at the easel, flying a plane, aggressively wielding a dagger, and cradling a skull, is Brigham. Thus far she has completed paintings of and about Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625 – Italian Renaissance artist), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1651/53 – Italian Baroque innovator of traditional themes), Judith Leyster (1609-1660 – versatile Dutch artist of the Golden Age), Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980 – Bohemian exemplar and icon of Art Deco figuration), Frida Kahlo (1907-1954 – the one and only), and plans one in honor of Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (1755-1842 – official portraitist of Marie Antoinette and French Royal Academician). She is currently at work on Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717 – German naturalist and scientific illustrator).

Brigham’s choices reveal an affinity for strong personalities who determinedly earned critical and commercial success in environments that were hostile to women. Not only did they succeed at their craft but in many cases they transformed its possibilities. Significantly, Brigham has only depicted two as artists witnessed at work (Sofonisba and Leyster). This emphasizes the degree to which they are imaginative meditations on the women as important historical figures (beyond their status as significant artists) and symbolic mentors for Brigham – women with whom she feels a strong personal connection. This is critical, for Brigham elides her identity with that of the historical artists, inhabiting their bodies through self-superimposition. The gestures, symbolic attributes, and references to existing paintings contribute to a composite portrait of the individual artists but also a collective portrait of Brigham. These are extraordinarily intimate self-portraits, bravely exposing the psychology of their author as they meditate on the histories of their ostensible subjects. Brigham’s depiction of herself as an artist at work (specifically as Sofonisba) has the added ability to become an allegory of the art of painting or the female figure of
pittura. The multiple and overlapping meanings concentrated in her self-images expand through the convergence of gender and history.

Freeing the Frida in Me (2003) combines elements of Frida Kahlo’s personal mythology with that of her lived reality to ruminate on the life cycle – when Brigham started the painting her father had just died and she was contemplating mortality. Artemesia: Blood for Blood (2000) is an extraordinary image of strength, aggression, defiance, and desperation, its emotional impact embodied in the figure’s dramatic expression. According to Brigham the image represents the moment following Agostino Tassi’s rape of Artemisia, which for many feminists, art historians, and biographers was a pivotal point in her history that has affected interpretations of her work. Accordingly, Brigham has included details that were brought out in Artemisia’s testimony and torture during Tassi’s trial. A virtuoso balance of lighting effects, symbolic color, and kinetic gestures, the watercolor transcends the expectations we have of self-portraiture to become an essay on human limits. Partially inspired by the intensity of Artemisia’s peerless Susanna and the Elders (1610) but expressed in a composition wholly Brigham’s own, this confrontational image is aggressively open ended and full of unresolved tension befitting the subject.

The Surrealist poet André Breton famously mused, “I wish I could change my sex the way I change my
shirt.” Brigham’s work posits no gender-bending transgressions. Yet she is fascinated by the fluidity of identity and the potential for enhanced meaning that comes from merging with the persona of another artist. In this she shares territory with contemporaries Cindy Sherman and Morimura Yasumasa who have through staged photographs, cast themselves in the roles of figures from famous paintings. Artists throughout art history have been fascinated by what preceded them and have conceived their projects to build on, defile, obliterate, or expand the achievements of the past. Brigham’s work provokes significant questions about the relationship between past and present. Is it a one-way communication? Clearly the biographies and artifacts of earlier artists speak to and transform the experience of living artists. In that way Brigham’s work is a collaboration, unlikely and yet inevitable. When one takes on the guise of an historical figure there is an inherent loss of identity just as there is an enhancement of the self. Brigham’s self-portraits are a tangible manifestation of what all artists do in their heads or in their studios, following in footsteps, emulating, discarding, and wrestling with art of the past. The resulting work invites viewers to consider the ways we navigate identity, sift and incorporate experience to form our persona, and the means by which we project it to the world.

Robert Cozzolino
Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art