Constance Thalken

Constance Thalken at Whitespace Gallery, Atlanta

Originally published at on February 4, 2013.

Talk about art is full of mushy tributes that have a way of ending conversation. There are the savorless compliments “interesting” and “unique,” and the mawkish endorsements “genuine” and “authentic.” And there is “personal.” What does it mean to say that art is “personal,” anyway? Is there a more cloying expression of praise?

Constance Thalken’s “Self-portrait #1″

I have a peeve about the word “personal” when it comes to art. What bothers me is not that it raises questions about how works of art are particular to their creators, or how they sometimes reveal the interiority of an artist, or afford direct engagement. Rather what bothers me is the ethos of the word, the auratic haze surrounding it. More than an informational or analytic term, “personal” tends to be an honorific label that imbues whatever is confidential to the artist with a certain intrinsic fascinatingness or prepossessing value. A mystique about the artist, in this logic, underwrites the work of art as its deepest and most enduring subject.

Among many problems with this way of thinking, it raises basic questions of genre. Why should we presume works of art to be non-fictive rather than fictive, or to be one to the exclusion of the other, as if they did not very often emulsify the distinction? And there is the related problem of an imputed correspondence between artwork and the person of the artist, as if one were a reliable guide for the other. Ultimately, there seems to me to be a bait-and-switch lurking in the label “personal,” in which speaking about work — studying, analyzing, praising, criticizing — becomes an exercise in flattering and judging the artist “behind” or “within” the work. I would argue, on the contrary, that the primary freedom an artist exercises in making work entails, at the least, a freedom from having to become a surrogate for that work. I would argue further that an artist’s creative freedom occasions a corollary freedom in a viewer, namely to evaluate the work on its own terms.

One of the many successes of “1.2 cm,” Constance Thalken’s show on view at Whitespace gallery through February 16, is its nuanced handling of “the personal” in relation to the artist’s intensely personal subject, her own battle with breast cancer. Far from self-indulgent and distinctly reticent about emotional confession, Thalken offers a matrix for thinking about cancer in several registers simultaneously: archival, computational, procedural, medical-historical and symbolic. She also offers a startling self-reckoning, and a deep account of the psychological mettle that surviving cancer requires.


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Photo credit:  Jason Francisco