Our greatest desire is to be fully known and fully accepted. Deep down we want someone to see us for who we are- the beautiful with the ugly- and neither balk in disgust nor mistake us for something we are not, something better with fewer blemishes and flaws. And yet, we fear the fulfillment of the very thing we desire. Our greatest fear is to be known, found out, rejected. Out of this fear we build up defenses like walls, hiding our weakness, preventing anyone from really knowing us at all. We are like shopkeepers that put mannequins in the window, clean projections of the person we would rather people see (confident, attractive, sociable, interesting, etc), all the while keeping the shop door locked tight, carefully keeping the ugly reality of our imperfect lives out of sight.
As a portrait artist, the goal of my paintings is to subvert this practice of building defenses, and instead create a conversation with the viewer that is open and honest. You look at the person on the canvas and they look right back at you. Hopefully there is intimacy in that moment of examination. Maybe it is because the person in the canvas never looks away. You can look and look, critiquing every wrinkle and zit, but the subject has no shame.
I recently had a show that consisted of a bunch of portraits of folks I know from around Charlottesville. At one point I stood up and made a brief artist’s statement, which pretty much began like the first paragraph above, talking about lowering our guard and allowing ourselves to be known. I talked about how the bright colors were meant to represent each subject’s character and affirm their dignity as image-bearers of God. A question came from the back of the room, “Why don’t you have any self-portraits up, and if you did, what colors would they be?”
I half jokingly replied that putting a self-portrait on the wall for the entire world to examine would demand that I unlock the “shop door” and let people in. But seriously. It is much easier to talk about not being so guarded than to take an honest look at oneself and stop pretending. I will hang up a portrait of a friend and subject them to public scrutiny long before I will subject myself. Why? Because even if you tell me you won’t reject me, my mind says, “you don’t know what I know.”
So what’s the solution- how do we get over the fear of exposure? The answer is certainly not try harder. Rather, I think the answer has to do with resting, resting in the promises of the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” This is the gospel: that God walks into a gallery, sees your face on the wall- knows every bit from the surface right on through to the core- and is utterly mesmerized by the beauty. He may as well be looking into a mirror. We are utterly known and profoundly accepted.