Self-portraiture exhibit centers on the artist behind the lens | Pittsburgh City Paper

Self-portraiture exhibit centers on the artist behind the lens

“I think it’s really important for female artists to assert their presence in their work”

Hannah Altman with her Construct of Viewpoint exhibit
Hannah Altman with her Construct of Viewpoint exhibit

Despite the contributions of female artists throughout history, women artists make up only 3 to 5 percent of major permanent collections in the United States and Europe, according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

It’s yet another glaring example of the gender inequity that permeates our society, and one that Pittsburgh-based artist Hannah Altman is working to address one self-portrait at a time. 

“For so long, women were locked out of painting classes, and this was only like 120 years ago,” says Altman. “Women weren’t given the tools to develop their own sense of self and to develop the tools to portray the ideas they had. Now that we have those tools we have to be using them.”

Altman’s latest exhibit, Construct of Viewpoint, is currently on display at Union Hall in the Strip District, after making its debut in Los Angeles. It’s made up of self-portraits of the artist, printed onto a variety of textiles.

A satin silk robe bearing a close-up of Altman’s face stares out at viewers; the artist’s nose and lips split down the middle by the openings of the fabric. Another work, encased in an embroidery hoop, shows Altman in portrait with seemingly wet hair. And still another zeroes in on Altman’s open mouth, framed by her white nail-polished fingers and an injured thumb tinged red from a cut or bruise. 

The images have been transferred onto fabrics by a dye-sublimation printer. The images are first printed onto heat-transfer paper and then warmed up so quickly that the dye is pressed into the fiber of the textile. The exhibit includes textiles like lace, microfiber and polyester tapestry.

Among the pieces that stand out are those printed on lace. At close range, the self-portraits printed on these textiles get lost, and instead, viewers are left with only color gradients that shift according to their vantage point. But as viewers step back, the self-portraits come into sharper focus.  

The images are printed on domestic-oriented textiles as a commentary on both the traditional role of women in the home and the anonymous nature of the artists who create them — those seamstresses and embroiderers whose work can be found in homes around the globe.

“There are some pieces that are super blunt about that. Blankets are an object that you use to warm yourself, and it’s not necessarily about who made it. But if it’s a blanket with a giant self-portrait on it, it kind of changes that conversation,” says Altman. “There’s sort of a direct line between a self-portrait and who took it and what you’re looking at. There’s a clear sense of identity in the photograph. But with a lot of textile works, they’re often made by embroiderers or seamstresses, and they’re made for a home, but there’s not necessarily a specific identity attached to the work.”

Altman, originally from New Jersey, moved to Pittsburgh to attend Point Park University for her undergraduate degree five years ago. Her most recent exhibit evolved from earlier work sewing and embroidering into photographic prints. 

“I’ve always had an interest in photography,” says Altman. “I’ve always been interested in self-portraiture, so I started sewing them and sewing designs and texts and patterns over my face. Eventually, it became more about the thread, and less about the fact that it was printed on photo paper, so the photo paper started feeling sort of useless. 

“Then I shoved a piece of silk in an ink-jet printer. I started printing on fabric, and I thought, ‘Oh, this makes so much more sense.’”

Altman says her work has been inspired by feminist theorist Linda Nochlin. The late art historian examined the dearth of women in art history in her well-known essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” As a young artist, it struck a chord with Altman, who says she has had to go out of her way to find female heroes to look up to, because they’re not highlighted as often as their male counterparts.

“I’m really interested in an artist presence in work. I think it’s really important for female artists to assert their presence in their work as sort of a nod to the fact that there’s a lot of historical dismissal of female perspectives in work. I’ve always been interested in self-portrait work for that reason,” says Altman. “I’m super interested in harvesting a sense of presence as an artist and not necessarily even about myself. But if other females are looking at that, maybe that encourages them to insert themselves in their work.” 

Altman says that in the academic arena at least, the balance is shifting toward more inclusivity of female artists. In one of her undergraduate art classes, there were nearly 30 students, and only three of them were men. It was something a female teacher of Altman’s took note of, but she says the demographic makeup doesn’t yet reflect the art community beyond university walls.

“She was like, ‘There are lots of women with amazing ideas, and once you get out in the art world, where are all these women going?’” Altman says. “It’s mostly still men in galleries.”

Altman graduated in May 2017 and since then has been working as an artist full time. In the fall, she’ll be moving on to pursue her graduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University.