Lee Godie, Untitled (self-portrait with paint box), n.d., gelatin silver print, 4 7/8 × 3 7/8".

Lee Godie, Untitled (self-portrait with paint box), n.d., gelatin silver print, 4 7/8 × 3 7/8".

Lee Godie

Lee Godie, Untitled (self-portrait with paint box), n.d., gelatin silver print, 4 7/8 × 3 7/8".

Departing from previous painting-dense retrospectives of Chicago-based artist Lee Godie’s work, Intuit’s recent exhibition—though it did include several strong canvases—focused instead on some fifty of the several hundred self-portraits that Godie took in public photo booths during the 1970s and ’80s. Godie, who was homeless and sold her work directly on the streets, brilliantly mobilized the city’s photo booths as artist’s studio. These public interiors functioned as sites via which she staged multiple forms of belonging—to her home city and equally to multiple movements within art history. Although this show, organized by Karen Patterson under the aegis of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, didn’t put Godie’s work directly in conversation with that of such iconic self-portraitists as Cindy Sherman or Jack Smith, it effectively highlighted Godie’s self-aware challenge to the notion of “outsider” that has limited past understandings of her practice.

As the exhibition demonstrated, Godie embraced contrasting conceptions of photography—as filmic document and as a mode of drawing. She “hand-processed” many of her black-and-white photos, adding marks and fragments of text to their surfaces. Deploying a technique similar to the hand-tinting of early photography and cinema, she sometimes outlined the contours and planes of bodily features in various hues (Untitled [self portrait with a red background], n.d.) and reportedly applied iced-tea mix to her skin to darken it before shoots. In Untitled (self-portrait with paint box), n.d, the artist applied red pigment to her photographed lips. But her image holds an array of paints, cross-circuiting makeup and artist’s palette as two interchangeable tools of transformation.

Godie’s work circulated widely throughout the city, from public spaces such as the walls of the beloved Chicago queer bar Big Chicks to the private homes of collectors. However, pressures on the notion of Godie’s work as “outsider” (and implicitly naive) can be seen most poignantly in the self-reflexivity of the works themselves. In multiple photographs, Godie poses with wads of cash or art supplies—or, sometimes, with her own painted canvases. The show also featured several paintings on unstretched canvas onto which Godie stitched photographic self-portraits, often of herself holding the very painting in which they appeared. Reportedly, Godie charged extra for paintings to which she’d affixed photographs, as if the reproductions were precious. Hauntingly, many photos in the exhibition have holes along the edges, suggesting that they were once attached to paintings.

While the artist courted an affinity to older movements (as demonstrated by her wont to sign her photographs FRENCH IMPRESSION-IST), her work was rooted in a robust dialogue with postwar portraiture. Take Lee in a Camera, undated, which comprises four black-and-white photos formatted in a grid. In two of the frames, Godie stepped away from the lens and captured the interior of the photo booth, then wrote on the photographic surface, LEE IN A CAMERA and ARTIST LEE BROWN WHITE SWEATER. The act of posing inside the machine suggests in Godie’s case a personal, fantasy-infused vision—one that positions the figure of the artist in dialogue with the apparatus. Photographs signed CHICAGO’S MURIELIST [sic] align Godie’s representational strategies to those of Chicago’s mural movement, which took off at the height of the civil rights movement and similarly employed portraits within portraits.

The show maintained a distance from popular characterizations of Godie as a “selfie pioneer.” Certainly, in the mediated intimacy of their portraiture, she and her contemporaries predicted this model. But Patterson chose to consider the artist’s unique procedures of inserting herself into images, by which she created alternative systems of social and aesthetic value, on their own terms. To view Godie’s self-portraits as proto-selfies risks positioning the entire history of postwar artistic experimentation with portraiture—spanning moving and still formats, vernacular and “high” culture—as an arc that culminated in a particular social-media trend, when in fact it has yet to fully play out.

Solveig Nelson