Saturday, November 3, 2012

Here I am, talk in hand.
The text of my talk about Strangers at Gallery Kayafas on October 25, 2012. 

First, I want to thank Arlette Kayafas not only for doing this show, but for encouraging me to exhibit this particular work. Thanks to the Corporation of Yaddo for providing the perfect place do this work. And thanks to Margaret, my wife, for all her help. I’m very pleased to be showing with Caleb, and I hope our talks —and the shows themselves—will help you see if and where our turf overlaps.

I’m going to talk about I got some of the ideas, the artists who influenced me, how this work relates to my past work, and  what it all might mean. In fact, I have no idea. But I’m going to give you my best guess.

With that said, this series got started as an experiment in essentialism. It was just curiosity. I wanted to see how much I could change a face before I lost the essence of the person. I wondered if the face would come untethered. But, since I’m a photographer and photographers pledge allegiance to the facts, I felt like I had to stop just short of that. I didn’t want the work to slip entirely into the monstrous or grotesque. I wanted a to keep a feeling of realism so the uncanny would be more believable.

So the pictures look like portraits--they’re vertical, the face predominates, they have certain feeling or mood. But I don’t mean to suggest a personality or a psychology or a story. I want to present faces composed of nothing but themselves, that become something more, or perhaps, less.  I think of these pictures as non-portraits. That’s why the show is called Strangers.

Some facts. The people who posed for these pictures are artists, musicians, writers, and family members. Many thanks to them, since, whatever other virtues these photographs have, they are basically unflattering. Luckily, they don’t look much like the people who posed for them. As they say in the front of books, any likeness to real people, living or dead, is unintentional. Still, the people ARE recognizable some of the time.

How do I do them? My method is to take dozens of extreme close up pictures of a face, then blend them together to make a new version—employing both the methods of Humpty Dumpty and those of Mr. Potato Head. I hold the camera just inches from the sitter’s face, recording the parts of the face in isolation. Everything—distance, angle, lighting—is in flux as I move around. The fragments can’t possibly match when I put them back together. Distortions of focus, scale, anatomy, time, and perspective creep in. At the same time, there is a lot of detail because the picture is made up of many exposures.

It’s amazing that a quarter of an inch here, a quarter of an inch there can change a face so much. At first glance, the faces seem normal enough, then it dawns on you that something is off. I want it to be just wrong enough. This dawning surprise is important to me, one of the sensations I value most in art.

Somehow, these pictures have an almost messy or painterly feeling that doesn’t look explicitly handmade, although, in a sense, they are. I blend each layer on the computer, by hand, so to speak. It’s a little like fitting the contents of your house into a moving van. You try it this way and that until it fits. Nothing is automated.
Photography is too quick for me. Somehow, my temperament is such that I like to make things. So I’ll often do projects that take a lot of work. In the past I’ve made objects to be photographed in the studio and done collage-like photographs. I’ve used the real world as collage material in a series that was kind of like a still version of a time-lapse film. In
this new series, I want to pack in a lot of extra information about a single face, while keeping the look of a pure photograph.

So Strangers grew partly out of my own work and interests, but it’s also worth mentioning a couple of biographical details. I guess I’m more comfortable in the studio, so both Selected People (the time-lapse work) and Strangers are part of a conscious effort to get out of the house more. I like to do different things in every series, and the new work looks very different from my older work. I wanted to do something “powerful” and maybe kind of ugly, since I usually go in the other direction.

So enough about me. Let’s talk about how a few artists have influenced me, in particular, regarding the face.

For example, David Hockney and his photocollages. He had the idea that the more photos go into a finished piece, the more the result resembles the experience of looking, which is a continuous, active process, richer, he argues, than a single still photograph.

Other influences include the big staring portraits of Thomas Ruff, Reinekie Dykstra, Chuck Close, Martin Scholler, and the famous deadpan intensity. I think my work makes fun of them a bit even though they are a real influence. What I like is that it’s a game of chicken. They stare at you, you stare at them.

A special influence is Tim Hawkinson’s wall sculpture Emote--something that is so much on my wavelength that I really wish I did it myself. He made a contraption in which cutouts of facial features are moved by hydraulic pumps mounted on the surface of a large photo. When a switch is thrown, the arms move the features of the face, and you see a see a bunch of random emotions. And in my work, too, sometimes you see opposing emotions on a single face.

In fact, my work is all about this kind of contradiction.

The faces are enormous, the detail tiny. Big and small flip back and forth, like the forest and the trees. A particular photograph seems to capture a single moment, but many moments and feelings are actually represented. One eye flashes in anger, the other is downcast in a single face. They are portraits without specific persons, but they are not generic. These are images estranged from themselves, photographs that are not OF what they depict.

This teetering feeling is what I’m after.

I suppose another word for all this is irony, being two things at once: Hiding and revealing, accommodating contradictions.

You might think I’m alienated from people, or that I believe people are alienated from themselves, or that I’m alienated from myself, or that appearances deceive or that I yearn to connect with people. You might think photographs are unreliable, or that skin tells the truth. You might think I’m a warm person or a cool one. You might think these Humpty Dumpty pictures are about the broken or the fixed. You might think I’ve learned something about the nature of the photographic portrait. You might think I’ve removed the person from the persona. You might think I’ve shocked you out of your bourgeoisie complacency. I might even be problematizing representation!


You might be right.

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