Tag Archives: self-portrait

A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 6)

In 1995, Andrews’ implication in the unfolding of the HIV/AIDS pandemic yielded a suite of drawings rendered in oil and pencil and exhibited under the title Album.  The works in this series cross a calendar with a commonplace book, manually reproducing snapshots, letters, sympathy notes and greeting-card images that amount to an inventory of dreams both fulfilled and betrayed, conducted at some distance from the youthful optimism often associated with the promise of the future.  The unframed parchment paper that serves as the drawings’ material support evokes skin, and hence the body that eventually encounters what Seneca, in “De brevitate vitae,” calls “death’s final constraint.”  In the following year, Andrews literalized the allusion to the body readable in Album‘s fragile parchment, resorting to pliant pig intestine as the receptive surface on which he silkscreened familiar, even clichéd images of meteorological phenomena in a series entitled The Weather.  The sunset, tornado, lightning-bolt and wind-tossed waves offer themselves to a cursory glance as givens.  In fact, their complexity resides not in what they represent, but in an interplay of image, medium and material whose effects are not only unpredictable, but incalculable.  These brief landscapes begin by skewing the terms of our received understanding of the figure-ground relationship, cunningly enlisting the body as the surface on which they unfold.  Nothing is more mundane than the weather; yet the artist’s treatment, both conceptually and materially, makes a fresh demand for reflection on what we are perhaps too prone to take for granted.

The diptych “Parenthesis (no gold),” for example, presents both ends of a rainbow, their symmetrical placement adumbrating the invisible arc whose antecedents are inextricably natural and cultural.  For it is virtually impossible to register such an image independently of its palimpsestic overlay, whether the reference point is Jesse Jackson’s coalition, the gay activist banner, or – perhaps most inevitably – The Wizard of Oz.  Thus the stakes of a potentially banal depiction are raised in a way that the work’s title itself confirms:  For what we encounter here is not so much the representation of a rainbow as the figuring of a dubious promise, in the fabled pot of gold.

Read in the context of the new generation of antiretroviral therapies that became selectively available in 1996, the promise figured here takes on a certain specificity.  If in Facsimile‘s commemorative portraits the promise in question was that of the survivor to the dead, emphatically pledging not to forget, “Parenthesis (no gold)” articulates a promise of a different order:  that of longer survival, and with it the prospect of yet more effective treatments, perhaps a vaccine and eventually a cure.  It staked its first claim to our attention at a time when combination therapies including protease inhibitors held out the possibility (predicated of course on access) of a future radically other than the one presumed to that point by the HIV-infected, including Andrews himself.  The Weather, then, administers to its viewers a Wordsworthian “shock of mild surprise,” for the putative landscapes become legible as portraits, and indeed self-portraits.

As Andrews notes in the artist’s statement that accompanied the exhibition of the series in New York in 1997, “New drugs have afforded a ray of hope.  Hope is a fantasy of a future that might continue to unfold before us.  Who can predict?”  The cliché enlisted here takes the specific form of a catachresis:  a “ray” of hope.  As it does so often (so often that we may fail to notice), the language of affect borrows from other realms – the weather, for example – to figure an experience that resists formulation and formalization.  This reliance on the resources of language is evident in another component of the same exhibition:  a series of cyanotypes of a handwritten alphabetical list of names (Arthur, Berta, Cesar….) by which the season’s hurricanes – the unpredictable tempests of 1996 – were anthropomorphized, their force linguistically domesticated.  Tacitly, then, another allusion to The Wizard of Oz emerges, especially if we recall that the film’s storied heroine also has a telling surname:  Gale.  Taken together, these works attest that the black-and-white of the past (which was all along multiple shades of grey) has been sucked up and dashed to pieces by a vortex that has transplanted the very horizon, depriving us of our bearings.  We find ourselves catapulted to unmapped terrain – if not over the rainbow (“no gold”), then at some other point beneath its arc of promise.  Like the artist’s earlier efforts, The Weather thus combines a certain skepticism about the durability of the work itself with an abiding optimism about what is to come.  If biodegradability dictates in advance that this corpus, with its fragile material support, is destined soon enough to return to dust, the force of its attestation, which is irreducible to sense, may prove more resistant to the ravages of time.

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 5)

Ah!  Wherefore with infection should he live,

And with his presence grace impiety,

That sin by him advantage should achieve,

And lace itself with his society?

Why should false painting imitate his cheek,

And steal dead seeing from his living hue?

Why should poor beauty indirectly seek

Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?

Still readable under the artist’s painstaking whitewash, these lines from the sixty-seventh of Shakespeare’s sonnets afford a point of entry into a body of work that borrows them, with respect, for purposes of its own.  Their consecutive rhetorical questions begin insistently to develop – like a photograph, perhaps – some of the whys and wherefores of the work that inscribes them:  matters of invention and imitation, truth and falsehood, blindness and insight, life and death.  Not reducible to themes, these concerns operate rather as the pivotal topoi around which each component of Andrews’ Sonnets, positioned in a complex constellation with the others, turns.  Each work in this series, while retaining a singular and idiomatic status, offers itself to the viewer as exemplary:  irreplaceable in its form and effects, but addressing (as Shakespeare’s sonnets address, even as they are addressed) broader concerns of a theoretical as well as a practical order.

For brevity’s sake, then, one image (if it is one) may serve as example:  the 1994 diptych that Andrews calls “Picture This,” a composite gouache portrait layered over partially whitewashed photocopies of sonnets forty-eight through sixty-nine.  For the viewer who is of necessity also the reader of this characteristically palimpsestic text, the title’s imperative translates as a pressing question that is not rhetorical:  Picture what?  For the digitalization of the photographic “original” that preceded its systematic manual reduplication in a subtle palette of greys and yellows renders the question of what appears – the who, what, when and where of reference – indeterminate.  In fact, what we see (or think we see, for even at first glance one’s perception of this work depends to an extraordinary extent on one’s relative proximity to or distance from it, fostering a distinct skepsis or doubt) is an effect of the artist’s superimposition of two images, an act that collapses space as well as time in the diptych’s two dimensions.  A photograph of director Jonathan Demme on the set of the 1993 AIDS-themed film Philadelphia, reproduced in the New York Times, is projected, as in a dream or a hallucination, onto a Polaroid portrait of Andrews’ late lover and muse that was staged in the artist’s studio.  The hands, then, do not properly belong to the head, or with it.  They do not reach out in advance of the unseeing eyes, feeling their way forward through space, anticipating some possible contact to come.  [I am indebted here to Derrida’s analysis in Memoirs of the Blind of the function of the hand in a range of drawings of the blind:  “These blind men explore – and seek to foresee there where they do not see, no longer see, or do not yet see.  The space of the blind always conjugates these tenses and times of memory – but simultaneously” (5-6).]  Rather, they frame the gaze of an absent other.  What may first appear as a portrait that, however mediated and manipulated, retains a mimetic relation to its model, emerges instead as an invented tableau.

Most notoriously and explicitly debated in the second preface to Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, the relation between portrait and tableau has generally been presumed, in the western aesthetic tradition at least, to be antithetical, mutually exclusive.  According to this conventional wisdom, an image or a text may imitate a particular referent – a person, place, object or event – and so constitute itself as a portrait of sorts.  The tableau, on the other hand, can lay claim to no specific extra-textual referent and hence is fictive, primarily self-signifying.  Underlying the terms of the distinction is the largely uninterrogated faith of the reader in the possibility of determining the referential status of the work at hand.  When we read an image or a written text, seek to understand it, we assume knowledge of and control over its referential and rhetorical modes (as we do when we read the question in Shakespeare’s sixty-seventh sonnet as rhetorical, rather than as real, and possibly urgent).  As Paul de Man argues in his analysis of the prefatory debate over whether Rousseau’s novel is a portrait or a tableau,

The innumerable writings [and images – Ed.] that dominate our lives are made intelligible by a preordained agreement as to their referential authority; this agreement is merely contractual, never constitutive.  It can be broken at all times and every piece of writing [and every image – Ed.] can be questioned as to its rhetorical mode.  Whenever this happens, what originally appeared to be a document or instrument becomes a text and, as a consequence, its readability is put in question.  The questioning points back to earlier texts and engenders, in its turn, other texts which claim (and fail) to close off the textual field.   [Allegories of Reading, 204]. 

“Picture This,” like the other components of the Sonnets sequence as well as the portraits in Facsimile, unsettles not only the question of its own referential status (in a way that does not allow for the closure of a final reading), but the very logic of mutual exclusion, the either/or that has long governed our understanding of the distinction between portrait and tableau.  No less than Rousseau’s novel, “Such a work can be read as the ‘portrait’ of its own negative gesture.  It follows that, if the work indeed represents objects qui ne sont point, then it is the ‘portrait’ of the subject’s initiation to this knowledge…the portrait of an impossible tableau”  (de Man, Allegories of Reading, 199).

It may be that Andrews’ own initiation to this knowledge is legible in the allegorical self-portrait incorporated in the series under the title “W.”, the cryptic initial that serves as his self-inscription and signature.  It is allegorical in that it “portrays” a certain blindness on the part of the artist to the predicament figured in the work.  Like the beloved in “Picture This,” the bereaved lover depicted here is unseeing, whether wittingly or not.  In this instance, it is a question of neither the “dead seeing” nor the “false painting” cited in Shakespeare’s verses.  Rather, the work is rigorously true to the terms of The Draughtsman’s Contract, enunciated by the draughtsman himself in a memorable speech that draws upon the “ambiguous evidence of an obscure allegory” in Peter Greenaway’s film to situate the figure for the artist “in the space between knowing and seeing.”  It is a contract that proves binding for the viewer as well:  “Painting,” like drawing, “requires a certain blindness…. Perhaps you have taken a great deal on trust”  (London, BFI, 1982).

 

 

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 3)

If at the time of the portraits’ rendering the models were absent from the artist’s field of vision, they were vividly “present” to his memory.  Indeed, Facsimile makes a compelling case, by and for example, for locating the origin of drawing as such in memory rather than in perception – or more precisely in a perception that partakes, from the first, of memory, “an intense effort of memory that evokes and calls back to life – a memory that says to everything ‘Arise, Lazarus'”  (Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind:  The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, 1993, 48).  Baudelaire agrues the same case in “L’art mnemonique”:  “tous les bons et vrais dessinateurs dessinent d’apres l’image ecrit dans leur cerveau, et non d’apres la nature” [“all good and true draughtsmen draw from the image written in their brain, and not from nature”].  The conceptual figuring of memories, including those of past perceptions, as images inscribed in the mind leaves little room for nostalgia and its attendant pathos, and Andrews’ portraits are remarkably free of both.

A number of further mediations involved here, to which the series’ title likewise recalls us, remain to be reckoned with.  Prior to undertaking the first part of Facsimile, the artist was absent from Toronto, away from home and his habitual locus of production, and he first received the source images via transatlantic fax.  The painstaking sgraffito portraits are thus copies (the drawings) of copies (the faxed images) of copies (the photocopies), of copies (the newsprint) of copies (the half-tones) of copies (the snapshots) of an ever-receding original, and indeed their deliberate visual recitation of already degraded images conveys to the viewer an unmistakable sense of the wearing-away of what they nonetheless powerfully evoke, and with it a reminder of the inevitable lapses that compromise the work of memory.  As critic and curator Annette Hurtig observes,

The likenesses thus produced repeat the inadequacies of the faxed images.  Their imperfections protest memory’s failures.  Andrews’ loving, meditative replications, with their varying degrees of image degeneration, make Facsimile a figure for the unreliability of memory, as well [as] a metaphor for and an enactment of grieving.  A visual elegy for friends, loved-ones and a beloved lost to AIDS, Facsimile laments the way the limitations of memory leave us doubly bereft.

“Facsimile,” then, also designates the technology of reproduction and transmission that inhabits the portraits, both in their resemblance, especially from a distance, to the fleeting registrations of a laser printer, and more fundamentally as a condition of their very possibility.  Andrews’ series thus inscribes a long history of thinking technology as prosthesis, on the model of an extension of the human body, a supplement to its physical limitations, as well as the ambivalence that has shadowed this history.  The technology that extends the body’s force, provisionally compensating for its frailties and shortcomings, of course also confirms these failings, recalling them to reluctant and fallible memory.  The ultimate vulnerability of the body is death, that limit with which technology has always been intimately linked.

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