Saint Mary's Project 2000

Alexis Nutini


The works I have made for my senior exhibition are autobiographical self-portraits. The variety of figures and forms in the works are references to my diverse and changing identity. This is the starting point--the unchanging notion that as an artist I will express myself to the world by inventing a personal language from the visual languages that have come before me. Through analysis and free association my works convey information about my identity. Every composition deals with a part of my existence and each element in the work may also be seen as an individual segment of my life. A single image may be interpreted in the context of a whole work but it also may be understood as independent of other forms and stand on its own. It is important to understand that the meaning of the images vary and are not meant to be read in a fixed way. Every image has its basic associations but the relationships between images are more complex and often ambiguous. This is significant because the viewer's free association is similar to how I select and juxtapose images for my compositions. I reject the idea of fixed meaning because I believe that I can never fully capture the essence of my identity. There is no limit or hierarchy to what things I choose to render. Anything in my consciousness is available for exploration and may become themes in my work.

These works are placed in the order that they were made.











Alexis Nutini

Artist Statement

The works I have made for my senior exhibition are self-portraits. The variety of figures and forms in the works are references to my diverse and changing identity. This is the starting point, the unchanging notion that as an artist I will express myself to the world by inventing a personal language from the visual languages that have come before me. As I reach the final stages of this rigorous process, I feel confident that I am a self-motivated artist and that my artwork speaks best and most about me. In my life I have come to believe that the greatest expression of my identity is achieved through visual images rather than verbal and written explanation. But in my ongoing efforts to express myself I remember what a professor said during a critique-- that writing can only improve what I have already done visually. In response to this I have resolved to continue the struggle for personal expression by enhancing my artwork with verbal commentary.

The first half of my SMP can be described as a struggle to bring meaning to art that was created through the desire to make marks and compose pictures. I am a lover of images, and above all it is the visceral attraction to line, form, color and composition that drives my work. Whether I paint, draw, or cut out, it is the forms that I make and their relationship to other marks in the picture plane that gives me pleasure and the drive to continue making more images. However, merely one semester ago, the formal qualities that have always been my strongest motivation in making art impeded my work from reaching a higher level. The problem was that my desire to compose and make marks was the only creative process I employed in creating art. This excluded a conceptual method of art making and made it difficult for me to integrate image and content in such a way that could elevate my work. As I struggled with my SMP I realized that my art would not grow unless I could find a way to integrate greater conceptual meaning into the formal creation process of each work.

The solution came to me during the last winter break. Up to that time my only conceptual intentions were to speak broadly about identity and the self. I achieved this by rendering a variety of stylized masks and faces as a sign of a changing and multifaceted identity. The work, 'Self- Portrait: Death' was different than anything I had done before. This composition was the result of eight striking images that I cut and pasted from magazines and books I had on hand during the carving of the block. When this predominantly visual experience was completed, I realized that not only did I experiment with a new kind of composition but I also gave birth to a way to conceptually push my work farther. As I regarded the finished work I realized that from a pool of hundreds of images I selected only eight. When I considered what these pictures represented I came to the conclusion that they were all in some way a reference to my identity. One example is the colossal Olmec head referring to my Mexican background. This was an important conceptual advancement for my work. I had moved from simply depicting masks and faces as a sign that I am a changing person with different identities, to rendering images that relate to specific aspects of my unique identity. The process of collaging images as a way of referencing a personal, cultural and historical self has given the work a greater conceptual dimension. By selecting pre-existing images that are relevant to my life and forging them into a whole image, I make an autobiographical self-portrait. To me this is a powerful idea because my works are now a greater expression of my identity, in addition to being complex formal compositions.

Central to my work is the idea that each composition is an autobiographical self-portrait that is meant to inform the viewer about my identity through free association. Essentially I consider all of the images in my work to be representative of my past and present identity. The sources for the images I choose to represent myself come from the innumerable things that I have come into contact with in my life. Essentially, I choose images that relate to the thoughts, emotions, and events that I experience every day. Although there are countless ways that I could present my identity, there are some sources that I use more often. Among these are memories, friendships, likes and dislikes, emotions, myths, cultural icons, and fine art. Like each work, every individual image speaks about particular things in my life and my environment. Every composition is about some part of my identity and each element in the work may be seen as an individual segment of my life. It is important to understand that the meaning of the images varies and is not meant to be read in a fixed way. To demonstrate this I will analyze the work that started this idea. As a whole, the images in 'Self-portrait: Death' work together to represent several ways in which I relate to the cessation of life. The graveyard, grim reaper, bleeding man, praying mantis and raven may all be read as images representing my macabre and sometimes sanguinary fascination with death. For example, in the context of the death-portrait, the praying mantis wielding its razor sharp limbs may refer to the insects mating ritual, which ends with the female devouring its mate. However, each image can also be understood as independent of other images and stand on their own. In this case, the praying mantis may be read as a symbol of serenity and wisdom, in addition to having the reading of an animal that intrigues me because of its strength and physical beauty. The result I desire from creating this diverse interplay of meaning is an analysis based on free association. This form of interpretation is what I want viewers participate in because it is comparable to the associations I make with the images I choose to represent myself.

To better explain how I want viewers to interpret my self-portraits I will compare them to a contrasting example. Seventeenth century Dutch genre paintings contained symbolic objects that suggest underlying meanings in order for the works to be understood on more than one level. Consider the work 'Allegory of the art of Painting,' by Vermeer. In this work there is a clear depiction of an interior with an artist making a painting. To elevate the meaning of this genre painting, artist carefully picked each element in the composition to clearly refer to the art of painting. On the one hand this tradition of painting is similar to my portraits because both utilize numerous things to describe a particular idea or thing. But this is where the similarities end. In Vermeer's painting the symbolic meaning of each object is meant to be fixed. For example the stone mask resting on a desk refers to painting's imitation of life. The meaning of each depicted object is so specific that it reaches the level of iconography. So much so that books existed with illustrated catalogues of allegorical or symbolic images. This is what distinguishes my work from the kind of work described above because it is not my intention for an element in my work to have a fixed iconographical meaning. Rather, while every image has its basic associations, in many cases the elements I use are meant to be ambiguous so that the viewer can freely associate with the other images next to it. The idea behind the work as a self-portrait is not for images to represent me but also for the viewer to free associate, to interpret and relate to the things I choose to portray myself with. A fixed iconography suggests that identity is finite. I reject the idea of fixed meaning because I believe that I can never fully capture the essence of my identity in one work or in any total amount of works. Because of this there is no limit or hierarchy to what things I choose to render, leaving anything in my consciousness open for exploration as themes in my work.

Throughout this project I have learned that to push my work further I must compliment the formal qualities of art making with the conceptual ones. Because of this much of my image making, borrowing and composing serves to better express the broad scope of my identity. The first and most distinctive formal element present in my work is the exclusive use of black and white. The limited palette helps in the recognition of images even though several of them may be cluttered together. This simplification allows viewers to quickly read all of the elements in the work by jumping back and forth from images next to each other. This is very important because each image is a distinct part of my identity and one is not necessarily more important than the other. The black and white aids this notion because it makes all of the images in the composition equal in the way they were rendered. Another formal concern in my art that would not function in the same way if it were not for the exclusive use of black ink, is composition. Not using color allows for a variety of compositions. It reduces the possibility of having to focus on one particular image and allows me to compose complicated images that are balanced and have several focal points. The bringing together of images in a variety of spaces creates a non-fixed composition that, like a balanced black and white work, rejects explicit or hierarchical relationships in favor of free association. Another element that contributes to a free interpretation of my work is the quotation of different drawing styles. Taking from primitive sources to fine art styles, I render my images with a wide variety of marks. With this broad range of marks I quote an even wider amount of images. With all of these formal elements working together I make compositions that reflect my ideas about a non-fixed and highly diverse identity.

Having discussed the formal and conceptual elements in my work, I will now talk in depth about the mask as major theme and a visual element in my self-portraits. Masks atract me both as objects and as a conceptual idea. The very action of drawing or creating masks is something engrained in my psyche, due to my exposure to hundreds of masks in my childhood. The notion of changing identity through a physical alteration is intriguing. When I depict a mask or a face, it is about the different identities or mask I have worn in my life, an expression of the diverse situations and emotions I have experienced.
Masks not only make reference to my individual identity but also to my sense of cultural identity. The masks I portray are always from specific sources including, Mesoamerican, Indonesian, and African. I use these sources to directly associate myself with these cultures as well as their art tradition. The study of cultures is a strong part of my life because my parents are both anthropologists and my brother is involved in minority mental health. Conceptually I choose images representative of different cultures to juxtapose their art and social life with mine. Through this comparing and contrasting I explore my connection to the rest of the world. It is interesting how Olmec ceramics and Indonesian woodcarvings look so similar to the minimal constructions of African masks. Another use for the depiction of diverse cultures is to present my diverse cultural identity. Having lived in Mexico for ten years before I moved to the United States I can comfortably explore the vast differences between my identity as American or Mexican as well as a combination of the two.

The African mask tradition is of particular interest to me in with respect to the ideas that go into their making. Many African cultures understand the world to be full of energy or vital force, which directs how the world exists. The influence of the force is like a pyramid in which at the top parts are great forces such as gods and powerful humans who have the most influence on other lesser forces such as physical materials. Once this conception of the universe is understood it becomes quite clear why art is such an important aspect of African culture and religion. Art is a significant dimension of the vital force; a force that can be can be actively used to influence another force. Art is the tangible expression of the invisible and transcendental forces that govern the universe. Art, a force in itself, comes in no finer form than in various sculptural renderings.
One of the most interesting aspects of African art is the use of materials in conjunction of symbols to produce a powerful work. What results from this unity is a symbolic work art that is imbued with specific powers due to particular aspects of its form and material qualities. As it is understood in many African philosophies, all things have their place in the hierarchy of power so that each individual material used in the creation of a work of art has its own particular strength. The artist in the process of creating a powerful piece must consider what materials to use in order to get the desired the desired effect. An artist with the intention of gaining physical power through his masks would be careful in choosing wood that is sturdy and renowned for having powerful spirits residing in it.
The concept behind the African mask intrigues me the most out of any other primitive art tradition. It is not just the simplification of form I am interested in but rather the idea that when a mask is utilized the wearer takes on the power of its particular symbol as well as what it is made out of. I feel that this is very close to my ideas of a conglomeration of elements in my life coming together to make one identity or self-portrait. In a way my compositions that are crafted out of many different elements or forces work together as a single identity or mask.

In conclusion I would like to restate that my intentions for making art are to visually communicate and express all aspects of my identity. What this means is that even though my work has a great deal of symbolic and metaphorical meaning the visual experience and the actual making of the work is what is most important to me. The gathering of images in order to simplify and group into a new whole gives me great pleasure. Ultimately, I think that the true value of a finished work it is the visual experience of moving my eyes from one image to another.

SMP Bibliography


Braun, Barbara. Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1993.

Leuzinger, Elsy. Africa: The Art of The Negro Peoples. Crown Publishers, New York, 1960.

Lloyd, Jill. German Expressionism: Primitivism and Modernity. Yale University Press, London, 1991.

Magnin, Andre and Soulillou, Jacques. Contemporary Art of Africa. Harry N, Abrams, Inc., New York, 1996.

Maizels, John. Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond. Phaidon Press, London, 1996.

Martin, Phyllis M. & O'Meara Patrik. Africa. , Indiana University Press, Indianapolis.

Smith, Edward, Lucie. Race, Sex, and Gender. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1994.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. Harry, N Abrams, Inc., New York, 1995.

Stoulling-Marin, Francoise. Art of Africa. Harry, N. Abrams, Inc., New York.

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