EVERY WORK OF ART is a surrogate for something in reality. Figurative art—the subject of this exhibit—is an especially powerful surrogate because it re-presents us to ourselves in what might be called a mirror with an attitude.
Surrogate: The Figure in
Contemporary Sculpture and Photography
Henry Art Gallery
ends February 7
The first room of the Henry's new exhibit testifies to our dependence, in the media age, on the picture. Even when unnamed, the faces of Abraham Lincoln, James Joyce, Connie Chung, and Andy Warhol are instantly recognizable and evocative. The gallery plays on conventions of photography with self-portraits and mock self-portraits.
There's more going on in the gallery than first meets the eye, though. The sequence of the photos foreshadows the intention of the full exhibit; as you move clockwise around the display, you see people first in groups, then couples, then individuals, then as disembodied parts—hands, torsos, busts, and profiles. The entropic pattern is repeated throughout the exhibit: groups followed by figures followed by body parts.
The trend toward fragmentation in the exhibit suggests that the translated human figure calls in a voice we cannot ignore even when it's broken, distorted, and bizarre. Each of the works is visually or sensually compelling, and directly addresses the question of surrogacy. Anne Chu, for example, paints, in delicate, clay-like colors, small wooden statues that are surrogates of surrogates. Based on ceramic figures of Tang Dynasty courtiers who accompanied the dead on their journey, her statues, with their blurred features, are like photocopies of photocopies. Gerhard Richter's haunting Ema—a life-sized colored photograph of his wife—is a visual poem about a naked woman stepping lightly down a staircase, a dream walking through mist and hazy colors. Yet the photograph is not of Ema, but is of Richter's 1966 painting of her, which in turn was based on a snapshot. Richter is addressing the complexity of the surrogate relationship—does Ema stand for his wife, the original snapshot, the painting, or Richter's memory of all of these? Richter himself says that he "cannot describe anything more clearly about reality than my relation to reality. And this has always to do with haziness, insecurity, inconsistency, [and] fragmentary performance."
Richter's work stands alone in one room, creating a powerful feeling of silence around it. Regarding it, you feel like you're alone in a chapel. Tony Oursler's disturbing and fascinating sculpture Energy depicts a body, limbless and clad in a drab flour sack, lying across three battered waiting-room chairs. A video camera projects contorted features onto a blank fabric head on which large red lips writhe and the eyes roll frantically. The facial features belong to Tracy Leipold, a performance artist, and you hear her voice as well, chanting transcripts from sessions with multiple-personality patients.
Like real human beings, Oursler's surrogates do not come wrapped in a neat Christmas package with a bow on top. They're Frankenstein monsters—human beings reconstituted out of sculpture, video, and audio. Like many of the "Surrogate" artists, Oursler is concerned with the simultaneous attraction and repulsion exerted by distorted human figures. He has called his pieces "experiments in . . . viewer empathy." Where Oursler's surrogates entangle viewers in mental illnesses, Mariko Mori's spectacular Red Light implicates them in the diseases of society. Her work focuses on the confining social expectations within which women must act. In Red Light, Mori has dressed herself as a space-age prostitute photographed against the sleazy backdrop of Tokyo's red light district.
Thus disguised as a sex worker, Mori plays a surrogate of a surrogate of a real woman. In garish Fujicolor, she rubs the viewer's nose in all the lurid details of Love Street—tawdry signs plugging peep shows, shadowy, prowling men, a McDonald's restaurant. . . . The photo's gigantic size—15 feet by 12 feet—creates a deliberate distancing effect, allowing the viewer to step into the belittling role that real women must play.
The eight other artists on exhibit here are all similarly bemusing, challenging, unsettling, and thought-provoking. Their surrogates are expansions, contractions, and fragmentations of the human figure. Unwittingly, we find ourselves, as viewers, resolving the distortions and reconstructing the figures—our likenesses—in our minds. As you come to terms with that exercise, you stop by that first photo gallery again on your way out, and you discover that in each picture, you are the subject; and in each picture, you are the artist.