Riva Lehrer

Riva Lehrer is a painter, teacher and writer who focuses on issues of physical identity and the socially challenged body. She was born with spina bifida, a congenital birth defect.

From the Chicago Humanities Festival website: “For her entire life, Chicago artist Riva Lehrer has been confronted with descriptions of her body as stunted, twisted, or deformed. These encounters have pushed her to question how to depict the human form, both as a portraitist and as a lecturer in anatomy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.”

In a talk entitled Self Portrait in Formaldehyde, Lehrer speaks of being confronted in a museum with jars containing embryos that had spina bifida and the realisation that she was collectible, and could possibly (had she been born a few years earlier) have ended up in a jar herself and exhibited as a teaching aid. “I’m not interested in shutting down these museum displays,” she said in her talk. “I’m interested in pulling people into as deep an understanding of body variance as possible.” Rather than simply get rid of the museum collection, to engage with it in a performative way and somehow overcome these multiple layers of glass that remove the visitor from the collection, and move beyond the authoritative labelling to encourage multiple readings and as such a deeper, more meaningful relationship between the visitor and the exhibit can be generated. This is something that I have seen in other contemporary art performances, in particular those decolonising practices curated by Clémentine Deliss, who encourages performative engagement with ethnographic collections in museums for much the same reasons: “…instead of obfuscating access to these important exhibits under an ideology of conservation, one attempts to reactivate and remediate them in a meaningful way. This is important because it helps establish new ways of defining collections, breaking down the earlier hierarchies…”

Lehrer speaks of the medical myth of constructing disability as something that happened in the past, or that will cease to exist in the future (through genetics). “When others think that our bodies only represent pain, that pain is the only truth,” Lehrer said. A new kind of representation could find a place in the structure of these museums, and in anatomy classes at other art institutions. “Keeping biography with the body matters. It matters to doctors deciding what to do. It matters when a genetics counselor talks to prospective parents. It matters when a politician makes a law. Above all, it matters to that disabled person, standing in front of a glass case full of jars.” (From article Repatriation Through Portraiture)

Her own depictions of the human form tend to take the shape of portraits of herself and other disabled artists:

From her personal website: “Self portraits have been a way for me to explore my evolving relationship with my own body. These works also allow aspects of formal experimentation that do not have an impact on anyone else’s self-image. When I work with a portrait subject I am acutely aware of the extent to which I hold their ego in my hands. In working with my own body, I can go in directions that would be difficult to ask of another person.” This is something that I think all portraitists should take into consideration, and one thing that I am personally also acutely aware of, especially in this project, since the way one is portrayed is extremely important to one’s understanding and formation of ideas of identity. I do not want my subjects to feel in any way oppressed by my representation of them, which is why there is a lot of discussion over what will be shown and how.

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