A.B. Miner’s work has always been devoted to representative portraits of people in his life. Until recently, however, the artist had constantly refused to paint the most obvious subject, himself.
“Even in art school, I dodged it, I cheated,” says the 29-year-old U Street NW resident of his fear of attempting a self-portrait. “In undergrad once we had to do, whatever, huge self-drawings in charcoal, big and involved—I remember doing it wearing a hooded sweatshirt so you couldn’t see my face.” An upcoming group show at the Gallery at Flashpoint features the artist’s sparing self-portraits, all created within the past two years, during which the artist has been undergoing female-to-male transition.
In his paintings, Miner pairs close-cropped perspective with tiny canvases—none larger than 12 inches by 12 inches—to depict an immediacy that’s more awkward than intimate. Miner’s faces seem scrunched up, as if he’s actually pressing against his subject with the canvas. “Previously I’d been using models who were very personally close, to basically serve as stand-ins for my own emotional state or conflict,” Miner says. “I just couldn’t quite look at my own face.”
That changed in late 2004, when Miner painted himself for the first time—and also took the first step toward life as a man: breast reduction. “No matter how hard I tried, I could not approach that physical image of not having breasts at all. You try to strap down 40-DDD boobs—it doesn’t matter what you use.”
At the time, Miner hadn’t committed to identifying 100 percent male, earning him the nickname “Tranny a la Carte.” If the show at Flashpoint reveals anything, it’s that capriciousness in Miner’s personal and artistic development. Though the paintings on display at Flashpoint were conceived as parts of several other painting series, the artist considers them to portray a biographical arc. “For me it became more of a documentation process,” Miner says, “but also to just freeze a moment in time, whether it be physically speaking or emotionally speaking.”
As a transgender artist, Miner doesn’t feel a burden or a calling to represent a community. He speaks disparagingly of “late-’90s identity art,” preferring work that’s less didactic but still useful. “[With painting,] you can then show other people what you’re going through without having to wear a T-shirt proclaiming it or verbalizing it.”
If others were to extrapolate instructive advice from Miner’s experience, they might have a hard time making it out of his paintings. Going…1, for example, is a painting made from a photograph of the artist taken pre-reduction and pre-“T” (for testosterone). In the painting, Miner hugs his massive breasts to his face. The painting was done long after the reduction; he intends to follow it with a Going…2 and Going…3. The former will depict the artist as he looks now. The latter will be made some time after January 2007, when the artist undergoes a full-bilateral subcutaneous mastectomy with male chest reconstruction, or “top surgery.”
Miner can’t say for sure when he’ll be finished with his transition. He’s already given up on testosterone once, backsliding to some degree in terms of secondary sex characteristics such as sideburns. When he resumed the testosterone program, he not only regained the chops but also developed a fuller beard. He intends to catalog these developments in his paintings.
For now, Miner’s sole permanent gender change is his name. “To make paintings for years under ‘Alison B. Miner’ and then to not necessarily be that person presents a huge challenge. I didn’t want gender to be associated with these works—though you don’t want to cut off the past. You don’t want to burn any bridges. I’m trying to cover all bases with my big, huge initials.” —Kriston Capps