Sally Sheinman’s Who’s Who?

Definitions of personal identity have been a central concern of art over the last five hundred years or so. In modern times the recognizable individuality of the artist’s touch has become an essential ingredient of any art that really works. The fact that we can recognize the intensely convoluted brushwork of a Vincent Van Gogh painting or the painfully sensitive tactility of a Eva Hesse sculpture, and recognize them even before we recognize the subject matter, is taken as a mark of such renowned artists’ creative authenticity. Problems of individual self-definition in society at large have also become a cultural concern over the last century or so as art has increasingly been wielded in the resistance against the stereotyping pressures of the mass media powers-that-be.

It is against this daunting historical backdrop that Sally Sheinman has engaged in her most recent series, attempting, as she herself puts it, with intrepid ambition “a new kind of portraiture.” Brief written answers to the question What Makes You, You? were sent to the artist through social media and the artist responded in turn with individual ‘portraits’, each hand-drawn with the brushes app on an iPad, with one image completed each day over a period of six months. Thus the interactive project added up to an intriguing mixture of personal confession and imaginative improvisation. The primal phenomena of social contact is met with the digital distancing of the internet.

Of course portraits as they are redefined here are much more a matter of inner make-up than of outer facial appearance, with the artist taking her cue from correspondents who were variously embarrassed, surprised, proud and moved to be the focus of her sensitive attention. There are answers that verge on confessional revelation: “Dealing with all the shit that I have gone through.” There are ones that amusingly swagger: “I stole smiles of women.” Others are quite obviously poetic: “Magnolias, the sound of the night.” Still other poignantly philosophical: “Playing with the boundaries of the ‘not I’.” In response Sheinman (“taking a line for a walk” as the artist Paul Klee put it) constructed an elaborate community of semi-abstract personalities through compositions that variously suggest maps, mazes, diagrammatic puzzles, board-game designs, electrical wirings, aerial perspectives, amoebic growths, microscopic webs, anatomical details, complex networks of social connections and disconnections. Within the bounds of a necessarily limited social field and the manneristic inclinations of one artist’s sensibility, it maybe constitutes the beginnings of an eccentric psycho-anthropology.

For most of us most of the time, the pictures we associate with ourselves, or with the unique self of a loved one, tend to be woefully inadequate and clichéd: stiffly posed holiday snaps, official wedding photographs, indulgences in mobile phone narcissism. When we remember a lost loved one, such images far from accurately resemble our treasured memories. Memory tends towards more precisely intimate and evocative perspectives. The scent someone habitually wore, the way they walked, the rhythm of their laugh: these are the things that are capable of bringing a loved one back in memory with a force capable of inspiring tears.

Fully informed by a convincingly spirited empathy, always lyrical even when somewhat illustrative, at times fanciful, wistful and understandably tentative, and at other times appropriately obscure, oblique and enigmatic, Sally Sheinman’s portraits are attempts to picture something like such touching familiarities, the peculiarities that make us who we are. Yet she has been working all along from a digitized distance. We after all live at a time when social interaction is more and more electronically mediated. Sheinman’s computer screen has effectively become her crystal ball.

Robert Clark