The slow-moving figures in Bill Viola’s Surrender express the visual signs of grief: their faces contort in grimaces of pain and sorrow, breaking into tears before gradually lowering their faces to the waterline at waist level. As small waves ripple out on the surface of the water, the reflections of their features become distorted, intensifying the drama of this contemporary devotional diptych. Like many of the artists featured in Fragile Figures: Beings and Time, Viola illuminates the range and complexity of human emotions, revealing intersections between vulnerability and power—social, cultural, and political—in contemporary portraiture. Individual and group identity, and the forces that shape how we see self and other, are approached through direct references to noted works from art history, connecting past events to current issues. From Miguel Ángel Rojas’s photographs of a young, maimed Colombian soldier posing as Michelangelo’s David (1501-04 CE), to Ori Gersht’s restaging of Jean-Bapiste-Siméon Chardin’s 18th-century still-life as a video painting, to Marc Fromm’s transformation of a 15th-century portrait by Petrus Christus into a life-size sculpture, these artists quote from the canon of art history to examine the contemporary human condition. The works suggest a cyclical, rather than linear perspective on the most powerful of forces, the passage of time.
As one of the oldest art historical genres, portraiture has always been political: the faces of the wealthy and powerful are enshrined in art museums and textbooks. Large-scale, highly detailed, and dramatically lit, Pierre Gonnord creates evocative portraits of people from ethnically, economically, or socially marginalized communities, creating visions of unexpected beauty and dignity. In their larger-than-life self-portrait, Kwanele, Parktown from the series Somnyama Ngonyama (“Hail the dark lioness”) Zanele Muholi explores multiple elements of their personality as a black, queer person, while undoing the psychological damage of growing up in a society that devalued their appearance and identity. “When I was young, I was told that I was ugly, and I had to grow up with that sense of ugliness and shame,” Muholi describes themself as a visual activist rather than an artist, and their photography a personal expression of resistance. Nandipha Mntambo used a cast of her own body to create the two torsos that comprise Duality, which echo in form and color the classical Winged Victory of Samothrace (200-190 BCE), transforming the Hellenistic figure of heroism into a contemporary vision of female strength, formed with cowhide rather than sculpted in stone.
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s triple portrait captures her own reflection alongside that of fellow artist Abigail DeVille within a view of the Mojave Desert landscape where pioneering artist Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) lived and worked. “Abigail and I wanted to make a pilgrimage and pay homage to someone who is clearly an ancestor and a predecessor for each of us. We wanted to witness our history in Purifoy’s work in the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum,” Frazier says. “I couldn’t believe how incredibly hot it was in the Mojave—I was hoping I wouldn’t faint. It felt as if I were going through this spiritual cleansing and detox. This has been a rough few years in thinking about racial equality.” The photograph poignantly captures an art historical legacy of three artists who sought or are currently seeking creative solutions to racial injustice.
The afro that crowns Simone Leigh’s bust, Meridian, consists of hand-sculpted blue porcelain rosettes, arranged in tight formations in reference to African art, hairstyles, and the iconic photography of Nigerian artist J.D. Okhai Ojeikere. Weaving personal and collective memories, histories of colonialism and slavery, ethnography, and philosophy, Leigh creates objects that investigate her personal history and identity as well as collective cultural memories from the wider African diaspora. The artist notes, “I am charting a history of change and adaptation through objects and gestures and the unstoppable forward movement of black women.”
Alfred Conteh’s painting, Aaron, is part of his ongoing visual exploration of how African diasporic societies are fighting social, economic, educational, and psychological conflict both internally and externally. Using acrylic paint, soil, and atomized steel, Conteh paints people in everyday environments, utilizing this unexpected combination of materials to highlight his subjects’ simultaneous heroism and vulnerability. Conteh writes, “The honest and false narratives of history embodied in this series are primarily personified in patinated colossuses that commemorate the people, culture, and battles that the populations they tower over have fought and continue to fight. We are at war on two fronts.”
Across the globe, political power and its abuse begets civil strife and violence whose victims share a common humanity. The Spanish collective Democracia draws attention to the media’s embrace of the spectacle of police brutality by appropriating the visual language of advertising, superimposing images of riot police with excerpts from the writings of ex-military officer Luis Navarro. The artists assert that there are no passive observers: as one text reads “It’s Either Us or Chaos.” Armed with only flowers, a sweater, or a helmet, Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s photographs of Ukrainian men and women are both portraits and evidence of a political moment that claimed the lives of over one hundred protesters in early 2014: the individuals of the resistance look deeply and resolutely out at the viewer. Tragically, the experience of state-sponsored violence unites many people across the globe. Miguel Ángel Rojas’s video Caquetá and his series of photographs, David 5, 6, and 12, present victims of war, young men maimed by violence. Rojas considers his artwork a form of justice: by chronicling this moment in history, he illuminates the costs and casualties of drugs and violence in his native Colombia. Using self-portraiture to explore the political, economic, psychological, and spiritual violence he experienced as a black man in post-apartheid South Africa, Mohau Modisakeng poses with a rifle and white dove, symbols of violence and peace; the dove’s moving wings throw a white powder in the air—a dusting of hope, a moment of magic or revelation. This series titled Ditaola, references the Setswana name for the spiritual divination practice of throwing bones to reveal the unknown, a ritual often associated with healing.
South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky’s Sunday Church Service, Beaufort West Prison transports viewers to a prison literally and figuratively in no-man’s land: Beaufort West Prison sits in the middle of the highway between Johannesburg and Cape Town; the lanes run on either side of the prison. The legacy of apartheid continues to impact the country, as reflected in the disproportionate incarceration of black men. This discrimination also exists in the United States, and is alluded to in the work of Titus Kaphar, an artist whose practice interrogates history, often drawing attention to historical and contemporary institutionalized racism. The Jerome Project (Asphalt and Chalk) XXV and Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, are both composite portraits of African-American men and boys who were either incarcerated or killed by police or vigilante violence. The layering causes a visual blurring; the contours and features of one person bleed into the next; multiple people become indistinguishable. This dizzying effect alludes to the high numbers of black men and youth who have been subject to a discriminatory, at times brutal, justice system. Kaphar’s decision to use chalk on asphalt bears another connotation: a body outline drawn on the street. The portraits of these men and boys record their histories, assert their presence, and draw parallels between the identities and experiences of those who inspired this body of Kaphar’s work.
For Anthony Goicolea, Christian Schoeler, and Germán Gómez, portraiture remains a platform for exploring human vulnerability, the construction of identity, as well as the internal and external forces that shape and shift notions of self and other. Goicolea often uses the human figure to explore group behavior, and what he calls the “in between states” of human and natural evolution. While the artist is best known for his complex, composite images featuring himself as multiple young boys on the threshold of adolescence, this recent series of paintings, entitled Anonymous Self-Portraits, depicts an ambiguous, interior struggle of self-transformation. Christian Schoeler’s self-portrait and paintings of friends and acquaintances accentuate human vulnerability by capturing the essence of a person in moments of introspection. “It’s definitely not about representing a specific person through their individual properties,” he said. “I am interested in the surface of the model, in the faint, incorporeal mist which escapes from their bodies, in the film which envelops them.”
Germán Gómez deconstructs and reconstructs photographs of friends and family members to create composite studies of masculinity, the body, and desire. “I cannot conceive of photography that is not autobiographical. I photograph as if I was writing in a diary, the language has always been portraiture,” he notes. “This both interests me and intimidates me, especially the profundity of the eyes. I focus on the gaze and this is and has been the connection, the string that connects my photography and my life.”
Costume and character are linked in the works of both Elena Dorfman and Hassan Hajjaj. Dorfman’s photographs of cosplayers capture young adults and teens dressed as characters from video games, animated films, and Japanese graphic novels. These formally classical photos capture not only the gender ambiguity and sexual fluidity inherent in cosplay, but also the vulnerability and pride of teenagers and young adults incorporating fantasy into their reality. Hajjaj’s vibrant tableaus juxtapose highly saturated, brightly-colored images of musicians, cultural icons, and people he meets on the streets, with common brands of soda, food, and brightly patterned textiles normally found in the markets of Marrakesh. The images evoke the traditional studio photography of important Malian photographers Malick Sidibé (1936-2016) and Seydou Keïta (1921-2001), while celebrating fluid sexuality, the camp culture of the contemporary dandy, and a global economy that allows the artist to sample, like a disc jockey, from a wide range of sources. Self-possessed and idiosyncratically styled, Hajjaj’s subjects become regal figures, presented as secular altarpieces.
Mortality is the defining theme of the centuries-old still life and vanitas traditions alluded to in works by Ori Gersht and Marco Veronese. Gersht’s Falling Bird replicates the composition of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s A Mallard Drake Hanging on a Wall and a Seville Orange (1728-1730 CE). The sharpness and slow motion of the film at times approximates an oil painting, though when the action begins and the rope holding the bird aloft is cut, Gersht’s vision expands beyond the frame of art-historical precedence to address a host of contemporary issues. Born and raised in Israel, Gersht grew up acutely aware of the threat of violence; his deceptively alluring still life invokes destruction and loss. The human skull tattooed with a world map in Marco Veronese’s S.O.S. WORLD, suggests impending global peril and sounds the alarm for the future of the planet. A member of Cracking Art—creators of 21c’s hallmark penguins—Veronese is an environmental activist who makes art that draws attention to how the harvesting and use of natural resources affects all life forms, potentially requiring an emergency “S.O.S.” call to save the world from environmental disaster. For Veronese, however, the skull is not just a symbol of warning or a reminder of mortality, but also a reflection of our common humanity: at the skeletal level, differences in gender, race, ethnicity, all disappear. A passionate devotee of Renaissance-era art and of the idea of renaissance (rebirth), Veronese’s works affirm the cycle of creation and destruction, and emphasize the interdependence of all life forms.
The cycles of life are visible in Guerra de la Paz’s multi-generational family sculpture portrait, The Family. Formed from layers of salvaged clothing pulled from the waste bins of second-hand clothing stores, the eight figures (two grandparents, a mother and father, a teen daughter, twin sons, and a baby girl) hold the stories not only of the family pictured, but of the many people who once wore the individual items of clothing. Often passed down between family and friends, clothing can hold and mark experience, tradition, family lineage, love, and connections. The search for familial connection shaped Anthony Goicolea‘s first trip to Cuba, where he documented his relatives’ former homes, schools, and churches—any evidence of his family’s past life. In Night Sitting, Goicolea constructs an imagined group portrait of four generations from both sides of his family. Each person is rendered in their most idealized state, before the ravages of time and history: his great grandmother, aunt, and mother appear to be the same age. The artist’s nostalgia for a world he never directly experienced animates this ghostly image of a party that never was and could never be, memorializing a family history transformed through the fantasy of longing and the passage of time.
Time itself is the subject of works by Humans Since 1982 and Gabriel Lester; and, as a portrait subject, time doesn’t sit still. One of a series of electronic sculptures made by the group Humans Since 1982, The Clock-Clock is a moving ballet of twenty-four analog clocks that spin every minute; the hands that mark minutes and hours align to communicate the time as a digital display. In effect, information is transformed into an abstraction, an ever-changing pattern made by choreographed clocks. Lester’s dreamlike narrative-in-motion, The Future Chasing Past the Present, is powered by an industrial conveyor belt filled with a landscape of hand-carved foam buildings and figures, and trees sculpted from branches. In this kinetic installation, the scenes slide before a series of bright lights projecting the moving shadows on the walls of the gallery, creating a shadow theater where land and cityscapes rise and fall, fall and rise. This scene turns again and again, infinitely passing in front of the bright lights just as planet Earth circles the sun. The forms and shadows of buildings, flora, and figures, enact the progression of time as a continuous narrative, denying distinctions between past, present, and future, and illustrating the fragility of all beings in time.
Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director, Chief Curator
Amethyst Rey Beaver, Assistant Curator