Just this side of prostitution
When I set out to make a series of portraits of men I met online, I didn’t expect to be called a whore.
Certainly, one of the most rewarding aspects of exhibiting work is getting a strong reaction from the audience. Since Mutually Beneficial was more personal for me than any of the work I’d made up to that point, in a way, it made sense that the response to the work was more personally directed too.
I started my subject-search for Mutually Beneficial in the spring of 2005. At the time, I came up with all kinds of reasons for why I was doing the series.
Sometimes I told myself that open-minded people online were ideal subjects, for their availability if nothing else. For the previous three or four shows, I had invited prominent characters about town or chased down people in obscure professions (a funeral director willing to sit for a portrait is harder to find than you might think!). With Mutually Beneficial, it was almost as though the subjects were coming to me. There were always more people looking for connection via the Internet, no matter how many men rejected my proposal to sit for a portrait.
At other times I convinced myself that Mutually Beneficial was about proving how much of a sell-out I could be. Certain players on the art scene had labeled me “commercial” and dismissed me, despite what I viewed as the advantages of making a living with my work. I felt judged by the boring-job-by-day artists-by-night who thought that making one’s income from selling one’s art compromised the work somehow. I wanted to show them I could make uncompromising work even in the most compromising of situations.
While there is some truth to these motives, with the distance of a few years, I can also admit that my primary goal in creating Mutually Beneficial was quite simply to get over my fear of men.
Earlier that year, I’d broken the heart of a friend whom I’d tried to make my boyfriend. The whole experiment lasted two months, and prior to that I hadn’t been near another person in over four years. Clearly, I had a problem, and it involved boys. That doesn’t immediately translate into throwing oneself into a version of online dating—I know! But I was fed up with being afraid of the world, and extreme measures seemed like the only way to pull myself out of my predicament.
I met the subjects of Mutually Beneficial by responding to their online personal ads on Craig’s List. I chose the personal ads by one very specific criterion (even though I was sorely tempted to respond to a few quirky ads that did not meet this requirement). I focused on men who specified their worth in terms of money, either by offering to support a female companion financially or by confirming their employed status with some alacrity. I approached them with the following email.
From: Gwenn Seemel
Date: May 16, 2005 6:09 PM
Subject: A portrait.
I am a conceptual portrait artist and I would like to paint your portrait for a series of Craig’s List personals posters. If you choose to participate, sometime next year a portrait of you will appear in a Portland gallery along with a copy of your post—your name will not be associated with the painting, only your post. All that I would require of you is an hour’s conversation while I photograph you. I would then paint your portrait from those photographs.
I have attached my resume along with a few images of my work to give you an idea of my work, and, for more images and information, please visit my website at gwennseemel.com. If you would prefer to meet me before you decide whether or not you would like to participate in my series, I would be happy to do so. Thank you for your time and consideration.
I sent out my invitation about thirty times and ended up with five sitters.
I felt good about meeting them. For once, I felt like I was interacting with men on my terms, as an artist who would paint their portraits instead of as just a woman. It gave me the remove (and the confidence) I needed in order to actually meet strangers in an admittedly flirtatious situation.
There are power dynamics at play in this series, as there are in a lot of my work, whether it’s professor-student, dealer-artist, or boy-girl. In some small way, I was challenging the traditional heterosexual financial power structure with the artist-subject relationship. Some of the sitters remained oblivious to this even though I gave them many indications. I had them sign model release forms, I showed them my resume, and, still, they thought I was just some feckless “artist chick.” Some of the subjects would not (or could not) believe that I would actually be putting up a show, much less getting press for it.
Mutually Beneficial was everything I wanted it to be. The portraits tell the story of what an artist needs to do in order to survive, what this particular artist won’t do in order to make ends meet, and what I found when I least expected it. Both the hate of our culture’s pervasive misogyny (from women as well as men), and also the love of an equal and a partner.
In the course of my opening up to the world, I met the man of my dreams, and three years later I love him more than ever.