“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”
– Anaïs Nin, 1971
Suspended in movement and rendered in tones of black and white that extend beyond the flat plane of paper, meticulously excavated with a scalpel, the figures Nate Lewis sculpts illuminate empathy, highlighting humanistic ideas of connection and intimacy. Trained as a critical care nurse, Lewis’s practice is informed by the biology and aesthetics of the human body. Says the artist, “I am interested in the unseen. By altering photographs, I aim to challenge people’s perspectives on race and history through distortion and illusion. Treating the paper like an organism itself, I sculpt patterns akin to cellular tissue and anatomical elements, allowing hidden histories and patterns to be uncovered from the photographs.”
From the micro systems at work in the human body, to the macro — social, cultural, and political—that shape how we see self and other, the artworks featured in Fragile Figures: Beings and Time illuminate the complexity of identity, revealing intersections between vulnerability and power in portraiture. Individual and group identity are approached through direct references to noted works from art history, connecting past events to current issues. From Ori Gersht’s restaging of Jean-Bapiste-Siméon Chardin’s 18th-century still-life as a video painting, to Nicolas V. Sanchez’s evocation of John Singer Sargent’s paintings of flamenco dancers in his La Mariposa en Jalisco, to Ana Teresa Fernández’s reference to René Magritte’s The Lovers in her video referencing the separation of people by geopolitical borders, these artists quote from the canon of art history to examine the contemporary human condition. Suggesting a cyclical, rather than linear perspective on the most powerful of forces, the passage of time, these works reflect the evolution of portraiture as a platform for capturing how we construct and project our identities within the rapidly changing and precarious analog and digital worlds we inhabit.
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. In Self-Portrait with Goya, Albano Afonso layered his own self-portrait behind a reproduction of Goya’s painting, perforating the reproduction so that part of his figure appears through the centuries-old image: the screen-like pattern creates an interface between past and present projections of identity. One of a series of 30 works in which Afonso combines his likeness with an iconic historical portrait, certain elements of the image gain intense clarity– significantly, the artist’s eyes appear directly behind the eyes of the patron who commissioned the original work. Goya occupies the bottom left of the frame; his form, like those of the other figures seen here, is punctured with dots, a practice Afonso uses to both destabilize identity and interrogate history and art history.
In their larger-than-life self-portrait, Ntozabantu VI, 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.
Racial discrimination and its costs are also illuminated 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.
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.”
Paul Anthony Smith creates work that explores his autobiography as well as issues of identity within the African diaspora, referencing W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of double-consciousness and the effects of colonialism, alluding to African rituals, and likening his artmaking techniques to scarification. The figure in Paul Anthony Smith’s Port Antonio Market #2 is disguised with a shimmering mask created by small incisions, a French technique known as picotage. Removed from the original context from which the photograph was taken, the title references the artist’s hometown in Jamaica before he and his family relocated to the U.S. Hiding rather than revealing, Smith sees the act of disguising identity as a way to connect with a hidden nature; “You get this spirit, nobody knows who you are, it comes with this sort of power,” Smith says.
Costume and character are linked in the works of Hassan Hajjaj and Simone Leigh, both of whom reference 20th -century African studio portraiture. 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. 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.”
History and memory, both personal and collective, inform the work of Alex Hernández, Valérie Belin, Letitia Quesenberry, and Stephen Irwin, who obscure their figures to reveal deeper, cultural truths. Appropriating the idealized faces of 1950s and 1960s celebrity, Hernández overlays his “models” with geometric lines and shapes measuring the symmetry of the subjects’ features, alluding to how one nation or society visualizes the identity of another as a stereotype—in this case, how American culture was imagined, exploited, and emptied of meaning in Cuba in the mid-20th century. These portraits combine references to social aspirations now obsolete, with a critique of the systems of surveillance and control under which everyday subjects become “witnesses” to potential abuses of power. Belin’s double-exposure portraits weave flesh and flowers together, highlighting the artifice of the woman’s polished mask and upending the stereotypes of women as decoration.
For Quesenberry and Irwin, the obscured and fragmented images of the human form provide a platform for capturing emotion, embracing nostalgia, and revealing vulnerability and desire. Quesenberry charts the evolution of her psyche and her art practice in peeled, a series of images derived from daily Polaroids taken over the course of a summer long past—a project undertaken in the midst of a difficult breakup. When Kodak terminated the production of Polaroid film, Quesenberry retrieved the photos, pulled them apart and printed the hazy, interior images on aluminum, affixing and aligning memory and media. Irwin’s untitled portraits are images of isolated body parts from pornographic magazines, removing the absence of sexual imagery, hinting at the difficulty of preserving memory, pleasure, and desire.
John Brooks pays homage to the intersection of memory and desire in narrative portraits inspired by the people, places, and works of art that sustain him and his practice. Titled after a song by gay musician Rostam Batmanglij, Bike Dream, the artist explains, “is part of a body of work begun in 2021 entitled We All Come and Go Unknown in which I combined images from various sources — film, literature, art history, my own personal life – to create new, complex, compositions that both hint at narratives but feel ultimately unknowable and just out of reach. The figure on the bike is a friend of mine named Ryson. He is an avid cyclist and has been in several drawings and paintings over the last few years. The figure on the left is borrowed from a 1931 August Sander photograph entitled Secretary at West German Radio, Cologne. Germany–particularly Berlin–between WWI and WWII is a source of great interest for me as an artist and for reasons related to my family. As a Queer person, that time and place is also fascinating because there was real Queer life and real Queer freedom prior to the Nazis taking over.” An interest in depicting the history and complexity of male intimacy also animates Ain Cocke’s The Secret of the Garden, one of a number of works in which the artist appropriates historical portraits of World War I and II-era soldiers, transforming their likeness into romantic figures in lush, colorful landscapes.
Brooks’s portrait of his partner, Erik, To Surrender Dreams — This May Be Madness, borrows its title from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which Erik was reading while the two were vacationing in Spain. While Erik is not a frequent subject of the artist’s work, Brooks says, “Everyone I’ve drawn, with very rare exceptions, are people of some importance to me, people with whom I connect, people whom I claim. I have come to see the drawings are reverent records of connection and love and desire and existence.”
Time, like love and memory, is fleeting and often undefinable. Figurative works by Anthony Goicolea and Sebastiaan Bremer obscure chronological order and question the primacy of memory. 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. Goicolea’s Bed Ridden, a time-lapse image of a young man confined to his bed, is purposely ambiguous: the hatch marks on the headboard may signify pain or pleasure, tallying the passage of time during his illness or providing a record of romantic encounters. The boy’s figure appears in multiple: limbs intertwining and transparent, at times seeming to melt or morph together. In Ave Maria 3, Sebastiaan Bremer returns to an image of his wife, Andrea, when she was twenty-three years old, enlarging and embellishing it with swirling lines and marks that reference the automatic drawing of the Surrealists, the gaps inherent in memory, and the pixelated, mathematically-derived appearance of some digital media. Bremer applies the same technique to archival images, such as his reimagined portrait by Rembrandt, and Little Leda and the Swan, as well as to his self-portrait, which captures the artist’s youthful identity.
Assembling identity in a global, digital age requires integrating projections and perceptions of self and others across real and virtual platforms, inspiring material and metaphoric transformations that respond to the influence of different media on the creation of our identities. Christoph Draeger’s ghostly onscreen duet is a superimposition of Gus Van Sant’s frame-by-frame, line-by-line re-creation of Psycho (1998) over the original Alfred Hitchcock film (1960). Draeger’s resulting film, Schizo (2004), intensifies Van Sant’s complex identification with Hitchcock’s creative and directorial identities, creating a film that is both haunting and frenetic.
Today, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and other forms of social media extend our cultural fascination with celebrity and perpetuate an illusion of universal connectivity—that everyone is accessible; their lives and identities can be shared with our own. The individual self may easily merge or evolve into fractions of the identities we admire and those we create to project and exchange online, like Slater Bradley and Ed Lachman’s obsessive exploration of the late actor River Phoenix in his final film role as the star of Dark Blood, and in the avatars that Eva and Franco Mattes photographed on Second Life. Launched in 2003, Second Life is an online world built completely by the users/residents, where humans create online personas who can interact with each other, build homes and businesses, and can purchase body parts, hairstyles, facial features, cars, lamps and furniture to amplify or improve the lives of their online personas. “The very act of calling it a virtual world is wrong,” Franco says when explaining Second Life. “It’s synthetic, but it’s an actual world that is no less real than the phone conversation we’re having right now.” The diverse and detailed faces Richard Streitmatter-Tran paints on metal dining plates are anonymous profile portraits posted on Facebook: projected identities selected for social media. In utilizing everyday kitchenware as his canvases, Streitmatter-Tran highlights the quotidian ubiquity of creating and managing multiple identities, in lived and virtual reality.
At a time when innermost thoughts are shared with anyone and everyone on social media, and entirely new lives can be constructed and lived online, Joana Choumali’s mixed media embroidery works are like a “quiet diary.” Influenced by the urban light and environs of her early morning walks, Trapped Soul presents a young person several stories tall, leaning casually against a building as the light from their phone envelopes their entire face. Combining embroidery and collage on a digital photo, Choumali’s work captures the contradictions and the precarity of how we construct our identities and connect with others under current conditions. The figure is hidden within a vast city, and immersed in the endless realm of possibilities within the light of a digital device, seeking, as we all do, to imagine and to forge, human intimacy and understanding.
The search for connection and knowledge is a defining aspect of human experience, unbound by linear time. In Mat Collishaw’s video installation, Leda and the Swan, a marble sculpture of a young woman and a bird rests atop a mirror facing a projection of the moon; dark clouds move across the moon’s surface, foreshadowing the legendary tragedies described in W.B. Yeats’s 1933 poem of the same title:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Far surpassing the history of the Trojan war, and the story of Leda’s rape—which resulted in the birth of Helen of Troy, whose abduction ignited war with the Greeks—this is a haunting meditation on desire, power, and violence, on the nature of human frailty and fragility, projected through past and future time into an eternal present moment.
Alice Gray Stites
Museum Director, Chief Curator