Art of the selfie: John D. Monteith’s “Free Word”

Published 10:00pm Wednesday, June 11, 2014

We live in a world in which an estimated 750 million people upload and share about 100 million photos on their Facebook pages daily.  In 2008 South Carolina painter John D. Monteith began assembling a collection of “found” or vernacular photography that now includes 16,000 web images.  Exhibited along with the collected “found” Polaroids of Oliver Wasow in 2011, it has been compared to the 1955 Edward Steichen “The Family of Man” MOMA exhibit which traveled to 37 countries and reached 10 million people.  Monteith’s exhibit, at Tryon’s Upstairs Artspace from May 9 through June 20, represents its own variation on “The Family of Man,” one that speaks volumes about life today in a world of public exhibitionism and its accompanying disintegration of privacy.
“These images were never intended as art,” says Upstairs exhibits chair Margaret Curtis.  “They were anonymous photographs living eternally on the web, but John saw them as a transient glimpse in to a life desirous of communication, connection, expression, and some degree of control, a singular pictorial record of a transitional moment in both image culture and social history.”
According to a February 14 New York Magazine Jerry Saltz article, selfies, are “a fast self-portrait immediately distributed and inscribed into a network as an instant visual communication of where we are, what we’re doing, who we think we are and who we think is watching.”  Felliniesque in nature, the thirty iPhone monitors that dominate Monteith’s exhibit flash continuous loop images of would-be seductresses, muscle-flexing men and women, children, places, events and pets, a seemingly endless changing montage of us desperately seeking a social connection. At the same time, they remind us in split second intervals of the increasingly ADD-addled nature of web browsing, our brains barely capturing one image before distractedly surfing to another.
“The exhibit challenges us to encounter a world where we are bombarded by so much imagery it’s almost impossible to keep track of much less make sense of it,” says Curtis,  “and reflects an emerging genre in contemporary visual culture where we are the artists. The exhibit also recognizes that art is increasingly migrating from the confines of the studio to the image-rich landscape of the Internet.  It is one of the most exciting exhibits we’ve been fortunate to bring to the Upstairs and the region.”
Eight of Monteith’s small-scale Dura-lar matte paintings are also on display.
“The Free World” is at The Upstairs Artspace, located at 49 South Trade St., Tryon, May 9 through June 20.
Deborah Fitzgerald, PhD, will present a free guided talk on the Monteith exhibit, 6 p.m. on June 19. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.  For more information, call 828-859-2828 or go to

– article submitted
by Clare O’Sheel

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