Sunday, August 5, 2:30 pm
Facing Facts: Panel Discussion
Mary Craig Auditorium
Free for SBMA Members/Regular admission for Non-Members
Facing Facts features an eclectic mix of panelists; including artist, Tony De Los Reyes; writer and USC School of Cinematic Art adjuct faculty, Nevin Schreiner; UCSB professor of Asian-American Studies, Sammer Pandya; and UCSB professor of Critical Theory and Integrative Studies (and this blog post’s writer), Colin Gardener:
The Facing Facts program, organized as part of the Museum’s Portrayal/Betrayal exhibition, led me to thinking about the ever-changing discourse surrounding the art of portraiture since the beginning of the 20th century.
Almost twenty years ago, artist Buzz Spector and I collaborated on a small artist’s book entitled The Position of the Author in which we explored the nature of literary portraits―the kind you see on the dust jackets of hard cover books ―and were struck by their almost monotonous similarity in composition and staging.
Inspired by Michael Fried’s groundbreaking book, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, it became clear that in almost every case the subject was portrayed staring towards the heavens, head tilted away from the viewer so as to deny any possible eye contact (deemed “theatrical” by Fried). Although this pose is more than familiar to contemporary audiences―witness Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama/Hope poster, where the future president gazes with Utopian longing into some unforeseeable (presumably Republican-free) future―much of this formal dogma dates back to Enlightenment theories of portraiture. These were largely concerned with overcoming one singular problem: how to capture the subject’s concealed, inner being―i.e. his/her soul―through the established pictorial tropes of external representation?
Diderot’s answer was simple: through the self-absorbed gaze of the subject themselves. By depicting a subject oblivious to a beholder―i.e. lost in reverie or sleep―the artist is able to negate the viewer’s presence in such a way as to arrest the spectator into a similar state of timeless daydream. Thus Diderot’s favorite portrait of himself was Garand’s 1760 rendition: “I am portrayed bareheaded; wearing a dressing-gown; seated in an armchair; my right arm supporting my left arm, and the latter propping up my head; with my collar untidy, and gazing into the distance, like one who meditates. I am, in fact, meditating in this canvas. I am living in it, I am breathing in it, I am alive in it; thought is visible on my brow.”
In this way, both painter and viewer effectively absent themselves from the painting so that the authentic subject can appear in timeless isolation, allowing the beholder to “re-enter” the painting and access the soul directly: “A painting with which one reasons in this way, which puts you in the scene, and from which the soul receives a delicious sensation, is never a bad painting,” notes the philosopher.
Of course, like any aesthetic discourse, Diderot’s dictum is forever open to historical change, particularly in the wake of new technologies (it’s difficult, for example, to image such a self-abnegating, non-theatrical posture on YouTube). For example, Allan Pinkerton’s invention of the mug shot forever changed the nature of portraiture, establishing the full frontal and sideways headshot as both an objective index of criminal identity and the broader development of a historical criminal archive. This was taken a step further by Francis Galton’s late 19th-century criminological experiments, whereby mug shots of known felons were superimposed on each other to create a form of facial typology whereby each type represented a specific category of crime (a technique later expanded in the digital era by artist Nancy Burson in relationship to racial stereotypes). Thus was created the first direct relationship between character and appearance.
Far more interesting―because it is deterritorializingly metonymic rather than restrictively (because it reinforces doxa) metaphoric―is the intersection of portraiture and semiotics that came to the fore in the early 1960s, particularly in the realm of conceptual art and photography. This may explain why one of my favorite portraits in the Portrayal/Betrayal exhibition is Dennis Hopper’s 1964 portrait of artist Ed Ruscha.
As if in defiance of Diderot’s dictates, Hopper sets up a deliberately self-reflexive, theatrical relationship between Ruscha and the beholder by having him stare directly into the camera. Far from trying to access the artist’s soul or, in more post-Freudian terms, draw out the inner psychology of Ruscha as an individual, Hopper displaces our reading by framing his subject against a shop window. We are as much aware―distracted even―by the framing function of the large neon “TV Radio Service” sign behind Ruscha’s head, as well as the reverse reflection of the store front across the street with its prominent “Pacific Saw & Supply Co.” sign as we are of the picture’s ostensible subject. Much like the young bartender in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies Bergère, Hopper has equalized his subject as a metonymic sign among a multiplicity of signs, a commercial signifier that acts as a linguistic shifter designed to link up with other parts of a broader signifying chain. In other words, we read Ruscha less as a figure that as a text, which is in turn part of a larger inter-textual braid.
This is wholly appropriate given Ruscha’s use of linguistic slippage and puns in his own works―e.g. I Don’t Want No Retrospective―but it also creates a semiotic link between Hopper and Ruscha that leads us outside the literal frame of the image to the broader ramifications of their respective oeuvres as themselves displaced portraits. Thus, one of Hopper’s most famous photographs is Double Standard, a 1961 long-distance shot of the Standard gas station at the Y-shaped intersection of Doheny Drive with Santa Monica Blvd. and Melrose Avenue. Shot through a car windshield and with the rear view mirror prominently placed to reflect a pair of cars behind the camera, the image acts as a self-reflexive homage to Rodchenko’s The Chauffeur, while also alluding to Ken Noland’s famous series of chevron paintings. The title also evokes the idea of an artistic “double standard,” as if fine art photography―perhaps inspired by Robert Frank―was forced to break new ground in order to use the icons of pop and car culture as “acceptable” subject matter in the first place.
More importantly, the work also links metonymically to Ruscha’s own series of Standard gas station works, most notably his 1966 color screen print whose over-determined use of single-point perspective ties it to similar draftsman-like renditions (e.g. the 20th-Century Fox logo), as well as his series of photographs―Twenty-Six Gas Stations―taken on an extended road trip on Route 66 between Oklahoma and Los Angeles. It is through such metonymic skidding that the singular portrait effectively deterritorializes itself and links up with that mainstay of Conceptual Art practice―the photographic-based series―leading us eventually to Gerhard Richter (48 Portraits), Bernd and Hilla Becher (Industrial Artifacts and Water Towers), and Hannah Wilke (S.O.S. Scarification Series). In each case, the portrait is stripped of its conventional binary identity―Self/Other―and instead becomes a true multiplicity.
In short, it harnesses its own displaced difference as pure becoming.