From Imago to Image: Visual Articulations of Self in ‘Son of a Champion’Friday, July 13th, 2012 Categories: Features, Updates
In psychoanalytic theory, the term “imago” has been addressed and developed in various ways. For the most part, an imago refers to an unconscious idealised mental perception of someone, usually a parent – a perception, which we carry into the adult phase of our lives. The imago can serve as a point of origin for the consciousness of self. Through the prism of the imago, it is possible to see an “I.” The imago manifests in the psyche and can function as a prototype or template for constructing one’s identity. The imago can include physical and emotional details, which can act as building blocks for selfhood. In his latest body of photography, Jamaican artist O’Neil Lawrence confronts the making of a masculine self by shifting between the psychic realm of the imago – specifically a perception of his father – and the conscious sphere of the photographic image.
Lawrence’s first solo exhibition entitled “Son of a Champion” opened at the Mutual Gallery in Jamaica on June 26, 2012. It is a presentation in which Lawrence photographs himself in relation to a picture of his father. Lawrence’s father was a talented sculptor, successful businessman and a competitive bodybuilder who held the title of Mr. Jamaica 1966. According to the artist:
“I strove for a long time to make my own identity. It seemed I was destined to be defined by someone else: my father…. Of course, like most teenagers, and some young adults, I rebelled against his values and that led, at times, to a tumultuous relationship. But as I matured I realised that whether or not I adhered to his values he was always my own personal starting point and it was in finally accepting this that I was able to begin to define myself. Growing up the son of a competitive bodybuilder, I spent time in gyms from a very young age and as such, prevailing concepts of masculinity and the ideal male body were solidified in my mind from early on. The photograph of my father which appears in each of the works…was taken after he won the Mr. Jamaica competition and embodies these ideals of masculinity and male beauty.”
The picture of Lawrence’s father in each photograph symbolises both an imago and an image, that is, it is simultaneously a mental and a physical impression, which resides within the tangible images Lawrence himself constructs. We therefore experience imaging at various levels.
Lawrence strikes a number of different positions in an effort to articulate a self. It is a self that emerges ever in relation to his father as masculine paradigm. His photographs therefore express various relationships to the imago-image. Among them are those of unity, as Lawrence mimics his father’s pose, as well as burden as we see him bent over as if bearing the weight of his father – carrying the ideal man on his back like a load. In one photograph, Lawrence seems to stand as an antithesis of his father. Lawrence wears black trunks and his body is inclined inward – almost submissive – as he positions his hands behind his head, which he bends to his chest. In contrast, his father stands dressed in white trunks with an open and assertive posture. His chin is held high and his hands are positioned proudly beneath the rib cage as he flexes his muscles. In other photographs, Lawrence locates his father’s picture at the site of his own reproductive organ. The imago-image becomes an overt phallic signifier that ties masculinity to ideas of strength, power and a turgid ego, which are reproduced as dominant ways of being for men. In covering Lawrence’s genital organ, the imago-image can be read as an ideal that can mask alternative masculinities.
On the surface, Lawrence’s creative engagement appears to be entirely a somatic one – an engagement at a bodily dimension. Indeed, his exploration does underscore the body and its tie to gendered constructions of self. Each pose in his photographs is an effort at a personal corporeal interpretation; each of his postures is an attempt to consider various embodied possibilities, to activate the multiple potentialities of gender made manifest in the flesh, for as gender theorist Judith Butler observes: “the body is a field of interpretive possibilities, the locus of a dialectical process of interpreting anew a historical set of interpretations which have become imprinted in the flesh. The body becomes a peculiar nexus of culture and choice, and ‘existing’ one’s body becomes a personal way of taking up and reinterpreting received gender norms.”
Yet, with its attention to the body, Lawrence’s work is also very much a psychological exploration in which art – photography in this case – is a key to unlocking the unconscious. He is able to access a subliminal stratum and investigate a personal, lingering imago through the act of image making. O’Neil Lawrence demonstrates how self can be conceived at the intersection of and interaction between the imago and the image.
“Son of a Champion” runs through July 20, 2012.
- Butler, Judith. “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex” Yale French Studies 72 (1986): 35-49.
- “Son of a Champion” exhibition catalogue 2012.