Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Visual Arts


Dr. Joy James


In recent years, human skin has been explored as a medium, metaphor, and milieu. Images of and objects made from skin flesh out the critical role it plays in experiences of embodiment such as reflexivity, empathy, and relationality, expanding conceptions of difference. This project problematizes the correlation between the appearance of the epidermis and a person’s identity. By depicting the subject as magnified, fragmented, anatomized patches of skin, “skin portraiture”—a sub-genre of portraiture I have coined—questions what a portrait is and what it can achieve in contemporary art. By circumnavigating and obfuscating the subject’s face, skin portraiture perforates the boundaries and collapses the distance between bodies. Feminist, this project pays attention to skin portraits made by women.

To better understand skin, each chapter is focused on a particular skin metaphor. In the preface, a consideration of skin and its representation leads into an investigation of the skin-as-self metaphor in the introduction (chapter one). Framing the skin as an organ we dwell in, the skin-as-home metaphor (chapter two) explores touch and its role in experiences of empathy. Turning to the idea that skin is a garment, the skin-as-clothing metaphor (chapter three) fleshes out relationality and a queering of skin. Tackling race and skin colour, the skin-as-screen metaphor (chapter four) investigates the embodied experiences of mixed-raced, multicultural women. Addressing a loss of difference at the level of skin within bioengineering, the skin-as-technology metaphor (chapter five) considers the collapse of differences between bodies and species within bio-art.