The earliest depictions of the human form, in painting and in sculpture, present us with beings individuated or becoming individuated from animals. On the one hand ithyphallic lower halves of men extend from the torsos of bison or from the head of a bird; sculptures of women are large-breasted and steatopygous. On the other hand these appear as singular beings, neither a flock or a herd nor a social circle or a crowd but figures standing alone. Yet only much later does this individuation articulate itself as identification: heads were typically those of animals or featureless faces of smoothed stone. By the time names could be matched to human figures it appeared principally in two sovereign realms, the “high” power of commonly known gods and kings depicted upon relatively public surfaces (architectural structures, ceremonial vases, coinage, etc.) and the “low” power of privately imagined identities bestowed by children upon their dolls. Given this broad backdrop, the eventual emergence of portraiture as such, situated generally amongst the most socially and economically privileged, appears as so much vanity. Large works acted as a means of preserving a particular family lineage or individual legacy in the form of an image impressed upon history, while miniatures acted in the service of a more immediate memory, souvenirs that bring a distant friend near. In either case, a kind of expectation of the image to exceed the subject seems implicit in the resources expended upon such works—even amongst those for whom money is no object, the arduous task of the sitter as a living being in time protects against a feeling of outright frivolousness. Exceptions to this rule, such as the Fayum portraits, only hasten to prove the point. Indeed, no image reminds us of the fate that awaits us quite as that of the human face: every portrait is a memento mori.
With the advent of photography in the first half of the nineteenth century, the social contract that had implicitly regulated the use of portraiture was fundamentally upended. Obsolete are the miniatures, replaced by photographs small enough for a wallet or locket. Obsolete is the necessity of a model posing for interminable lengths of time, since a painter can now work from a photographic original rather than the one of flesh-and-blood. The notions of “legacy” and “memory” were altered by a newfound ability to reproduce an image mechanically ad infinitum. Moreover, the ability to disseminate the photographic image in a relatively efficient manner continues to sometimes cause the portrait to be confused for a document, even by those who produce them. To be sure, there is no shortage of denial both in word and in deed from those working in the realm of photography—either directly as a photographer or as a painter working from photographs—that they are after all effectively producing portraits.
Today it often seems as though the photographer and the camera must overcome the perverse embarrassment that has been made of the human form, from its gaze to its gestures, frozen in a plasticized time. Perhaps it is simply too easy for us today to let death slouch by, with a kind of opposing but equally perverse heroism being demanded of would-be portraitists. The camera has become a component of the telephone in every pocket, a judge of traffic violators at the intersection, a measure of security in the home and in the office. The photograph is now no longer a mere physical object but the proliferation of a social tool capable of being reproduced virtually at the speed of light. The photograph has certainly become a casual document that casts the portrait as a non- or even anti-social product. The tragic element of this, however, is that the conception of techne as “technology” has been tacitly accepted at the expense of its definition as “art.” To be perfectly clear, we now have more than a few artists taking the side of the institutional “social” function of the camera, making objects of individuated and identified human beings, and subsequently asserting this dehumanizing process as documentation of the very structure it affirms and reifies.
Consider Kelly Kristin Jones' current exhibition, “The Sorority Girl Project,” on view in Lamar Dodd's first-floor gallery. What are we to do with these images of corners, chairs and curtains? There are women, too, but this appears as a formality: faciality acts as the extension of bodies bound up in a terrain of posturing. This is not simply a way of describing these pairs of hands insistently poised in a manner any Olan Mills customer would find exemplary, although this impression is as good a signpost as any—the posturing occurs on Jones' behalf as much, if not more so, as the women's. Is there any truly interested party involved in “The Sorority Girl Project?” Not even the camera cares.
Such a pronouncement might seem cruel, but only if one agrees that the camera is in the first place capable of taking interest or providing care. And if one does acknowledge such a capacity, the second admission must be made that the camera might also be apathetic or even harmful. In an interview with Andre Gallant of the Athens Banner-Herald, Jones expresses anxiety over the possible result of this latter exertion of the camera's power, saying, “I'm not trying to pass judgment on them. I'm sure someone will feel uncomfortable about the show, but I've tried not to be exploitative.” To be sure, she has not exploited the women in her photographs, but only because she has failed to photograph them.
“Ceci n'est pas une portrait,” because. . .
The confluence of Jones' awareness of the power to exploit and a wish to also avoid performing critique resulted in obfuscation by way of timidity. It is unfortunate that as an artist she did not see critique as a way of opening up a space for discourse, but instead stolidly believed a myth she created for herself and so chose to remain as risk-averse as possible. The fact is that there was never any “well-guarded myth” of these women's “perfection.” The mythologizing lies in continuing to present members of a particular social stratum as isolated from the rest of society. People do brush against one another, however, and not infrequently within the individual herself. One needn't reach for a copy of A Thousand Plateaus to get a sense of this. To an interviewer surprised that Tavi Gevinson isn't too avant-garde to enjoy Taylor Swift, the 16-year-old Rookie editor explained that “sometimes you feel like a cheerleader and sometimes you feel like an art kid.” And sometimes, we might add, you are both of these—and much more—simultaneously. The individual is a multitude.
Instead, in a space where we might meet innumerable human beings, we are met with organized bodies. We can't be sure of whether Jones' models inhabit this sort of territory of their own accord, but it is clear they granted her permission to arrange them as such. Regardless, Jones as much as says this is her intent. “More than being a critique or investigation of the Southern college sorority girl,” reads a Public Affairs release for the show, “the project is really about the gaze and their performance for the camera.” We ought to be wary when someone informs us they are concerned with the gaze but not with critique, as though looking does not involve the faculty of judgment—as though surveillance is merely recording, the voyeur is only glancing, and Orpheus' turning back didn't land Eurydice in Hell for eternity. We do not decide whether or not we judge, we only decide the degree of care we invest in our judgment. Critique is one of countless ways to practice this care; desiring a “performance for the camera” or wishing to “reveal the cracks in the facade” I am not so sure of.
. . . “la femme n'existe pas.”
It is as though our photographer has left the world of people behind and sees only structures. It is true enough that an institutional construct is being documented here, but not the one Jones believed she saw. An institution isn't a facade but an entire, internalized structure—a language that in this case the artist doesn't speak but is “fascinated” by, which is the true nature of her gaze. Where exactly does the performative operation take place in these photographs? And between viewer and photograph? We have woman after woman looking not out at us through the camera but up to the surface of a constricted interior they are each sealed within, because it is after all Jones who has built the facade and who has revealed to us her own institutionalized body.
It is perhaps at this point worthwhile to turn to another Dodd-affiliated artist whose work raises a number of related concerns. Like Kelly Jones with “The Sorority Girl Project,” Jeremy Hughes acts as the collector of a type. Unlike Jones, however, Hughes isn’t shy about the violence producing images is capable of achieving: he just doesn’t care enough to think very much about it. He paints principally from photographs—some of which he even takes himself—of relatively fashionable women. Many of these pieces are of his students or local artists, but neither does he mind copying out the likeness of a more famous actress or artist from a film still.
One Heide empties her hide of organs; the other Heide gets all sewn up.
Rather than arrange people as objects-amongst-objects, Hughes chooses the tact of appropriating affects in order to take advantage of their most superficial connotations. It should therefore be understood that here the phrase “relatively fashionable” refers exclusively to the relative position of Hughes’ interest in looking a person in the face to the façon de voir he binds them in. In other words, he is not portraying people so much as the “look” he drapes over them. But what is this drapery made of?
In his paintings Hughes does not recognize affect as an aspect of life integral to one’s being-in-the-world. For him it is but another prop to be put to use: here he utilizes affect like a step-stool to put women up on pedestals of dubious integrity. It seems he wants to impress them with cheap jokes and the sort of “empowering” compliments a man thinks a woman wants to hear. Make fists and you’re a tough girl, spread your legs to be provocative; if your last name is Burns he’ll set you on fire (he "avoid[s] metaphor"), and maybe you’ll giggle. No, Hughes doesn’t turn women into objects; he demeans them by turning everything around them into what he superficially believes a woman to be—and then he binds them up in it.
Hughes' work functions in manner opposite Jones', but the result is essentially the same: all intensities are made uniform, assigned a function and normalized. No variations of speeds or sensations exist. It is probably someone's idea of Utopia, and it is bored.
For the sake of brevity, let’s limit our discourse to two interrelated issues. First, that one wishes for Hughes to understand the possibility of fashion as an extension of the multiplicities of the body, rather than normatively as a structural device which things simply pass through. Secondly, that he sees photography as something to be posed for, and then he in turn demands the photograph pose for him. All of which seems to demonstrate a fundamental lack of interest on Hughes’ part toward his tools of expression.
To the first issue, it is easy enough to again cite Rookie as an example par excellence of a space where fashion is leveled as critique, and photography is not a means to an end but an exertion of agency. Where Hughes would have us believe he is being playful with, for example, a biographical statement that reads so much like a text from the Arty Bollocks Generator I can only assume it to be a joke, the women involved with and inspired by Rookie—like Jigsaw and other countless zines before it—demonstrate that being at play is in fact an exertion of interest and care in those we encounter.
To the second issue, Hughes’ way of working fundamentally ignores the nature of photography and its longstanding relation to painting. It’s thoroughly banal to have to point out that, however you feel about him, when Chuck Close works from a photograph he uses the old painter's trick of overlaying a grid, but transparently incorporates the once-invisible technique as a means of translating the zone of intensities of a face. Such an event can, of course, transpire in countless ways, but this? Copying photographs, copying affectations, copying women—why, this isn't portraiture, it's bureaucracy!
The respective works of Kelly Jones and Jeremy Hughes call to mind Modigliani's declaration that, “If a woman poses for you, she gives herself to you.” Fortunately, Modigliani possessed some capacity for confronting the ineffable terrain of the human face. He was apparently able to do more than take from his sitters, more than reduce an individual to a degree of one; he was able to contribute and collaborate with their being. But Jones and Hughes—and this is undoubtedly what personally frustrates me most in these situations—are no more the institutionalized structures they make of their models and audience. They are their first victims, yes, but this in no way makes their subsequent harm to others permissible. The portrait is a critical assertion, not a façade or a duplicate. Even less is it an institution or a fantasy.
On December 5, 1829 Nicéphore Niépce wrote to Daguerre a note on his new discovery. “In the process of composing and decomposing, light acts chemically on bodies. It is absorbed, it combines with them and communicates new properties to them. In so doing it enhances the natural consistency of some bodies, even going as far as solidifying them, making them more or less insoluble depending on how long or intense its action is. This, in a nutshell, is the principle of the discovery.” Thus the birth of photography reads like a description of Schreber’s body being attacked by the rays of God, a body perpetually at risk that must be navigated with care. The camera is acting as a schizophrenia-instrument, producing catatonia. The models before us are masochist-bodies, “strung up to stop the organs from working; flayed, as if the organs clung to the skin; sodomized, smothered, to make sure everything is sealed tight,” as Deleuze and Guattari put it. I guess we see what this makes our photographers and painters! And what of the audience? Shall we speak of it or not? But perhaps some desire was met after all. Perhaps we’ve gotten out precisely what we put in.