Primary colors

Paintings of politicians.

In September 1996, Michael Fajans

attended a political rally at Pike Place Market. Bill Clinton, Mayor Norm Rice, Gov. Gary Locke, and US Rep. Norm Dicks were all in attendance, watched by thousands of people. From far up Virginia Street, Fajans aimed his camera at the tiny figures.

Michael Fajans

Davidson Galleries, 624-7684

ends November 4

He took his shots through rain and bulletproof glass. When he first saw the prints, they were so blurred he almost threw them out. A closer look convinced him he was on to something real.

Fajans made life-size photographic prints of the politicians. Then, working over the prints again and again, he used fine metal mesh and stencils to airbrush in the flesh and clothing. The result of his technique is a hybrid reality where paintings and photos overlap.

"People think that photographs 'really' happen—that for 1/1000th of a second, the camera captured something real. We have different expectations about painting; even if a portrait captures some defining characteristic, we don't think of it as real in the same way. By painting over the photos, I was emphasizing how susceptible photography is to manipulation."

These are not portraits; Fajans counters the compulsive familiarity of the faces with distorted, childlike ears and hands, small and out of scale. Though the subjects are recognizable, the paintings' titles—President, Representative, Governor, Mayor—identify the office, not the officeholder. It's tempting to see these as political satire, but Fajans' goal is subtler: to make us think critically about how we perceive politicians.

Zero Sum Game shows all four men as prismatic blurs dressed in ceremonial clothes. At the painting's vital center, the hands of Locke and Rice clap in a hypnotic rhythm. You recognize the public image, but Fajans' iridescent, pixelated surface—like a fly wing under a microscope—competes with that image for your attention. The face is where the meaning hides, where figure and field merge.

There's a deeper familiarity about Zero Sum Game. You know this scene, not from the details but from the distance. It's the distance between you and the everyday blur of the front page and the evening news. The glossy polish of these symbols is mirrored in Fajans' impenetrable, shimmering surfaces. As we focus on those surfaces, our distance from the real men behind the image becomes apparent.

Fajans has worked in theater before, and this exhibit is a classic exercise in Brechtian confrontation. Traditional theater conceals its artifice like a magician; Brechtian theater turns this inside out, making the artifice obvious and teaching the audience to question the mechanics behind the magic.

Fajans translates Brecht's method into his paintings. Even the way the paintings are hung— separating the double images of each man onto different walls—contributes to this deliberately theatrical atmosphere. "I want people to think about the images," he says. "To compare two pictures of the same man, they have to hold the first image in their head and physically walk to the second image."

As a Pioneer Square resident, Fajans has been actively participating in public discussions about the new stadiums. His experience in that area informs his belief that we are disconnected from our political representatives. "Realistically, I know they're human beings and they work hard. But I don't feel that a real discourse with them simply is possible. So metaphorically, I see them as illusions, and I paint them as blurred and insubstantial images."

Ephemeral images, but compelling. So why aren't there more pictures of politicians in art galleries? "I don't know," he admits. "Maybe it's too close for comfort. I don't think people really want to know what politicians are all about. They want to keep their distance."

Fajans is trying to shorten that distance. In President (before), Clinton is suffused with an alien light. President (after) masks his face in darkness, and his features have a heavy, sinister look. The distortions of photographic reproduction give Representative (after) the sculpted hair and thick lips of a TV evangelist.

Gary Locke's face is especially disturbing, and would make any potential political candidate think about an alternative career. Locke looks grim and weary beyond sleep: a celebrity waiting backstage for his cue. Behind the bulletproof glass, his eyes stare blankly into the darkness of the crowd.

These are not the men we voted for, although at the opening I heard several people exclaim: "Now that's the Norm Rice I know!" By distancing ourselves from the reality behind public images, we are complicit in sustaining that image. We pay by getting the politicians we deserve.

A September 29 New York Times op-ed describes Bill Clinton as the "Relativist-in-Chief": "He had smoked but hadn't inhaled. He had stayed on the surface, the skin of the experience, touching clothing, bantering on the telephone, seldom reaching 'completion.' By his lights, what is true is what works. He had sex without having sex. He became a Republican without ceasing to be a Democrat. . . . He is a man of many masks. Why should he not be an emblem of uncertainty and inconsistency? The focus groups he lives by decree his relativism."

In a fluid society, these ambiguities are not Clinton's alone. Recent polls show high satisfaction with the president's performance, and perhaps as relativist-in-chief, he leads us well. We are uncertain about our public life and the figures that inhabit it. The cracks and flaws in Fajans' images suggest the tension between who these politicians are and who we want them to be. If these blurred and conflicted images reveal how we see them, the equally important question is: How do they see us?

 
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