Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Excavations: Harding Meyer's Archaeology of the Face

Untitled (08-2015) by Harding Meyer. (Oil on Canvas, 89 x 109 cm, 2015)

"I’ve never stopped questioning the very nature of portraiture because it deals exclusively with appearances. I’ve never believed people are what they look like and I think it’s impossible to really know what people are.”
Duane Michaels
Art that stares back at you. How often does that happen? Well, two of the greatest portraits in history, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Warhol’s Marilyn, have been staring at us for five hundred and eleven years and fifty-four years respectively, though each in drastically different ways was able to capture the essence of a woman’s face, as well as the potential meanings hidden behind that face. And now Harding Meyer’s latest mysterious portraits on linen (collected under the title Archaeology of the Face at Toronto's Odon Wagner Contemporary Gallery last fall) invite us to once again revisit the facial theatre and view the human masks we all wear in a new and fresh manner. Perhaps an ideal example of his accomplishment might be Untitled (#8-2015), which at almost 6-by-8 feet in scale seems to present us with a face that almost approaches the dimensions of a whole body. A face nearly the size of the body that usually supports it is an intriguing proposition, one that invites a unique kind of aesthetic contemplation.

This physicality alone is not only arresting but also mesmerizing, since it provides a confrontation with the spirit of the face which parallels what in the aesthetics of landscape is called genius loci, the spirit of place. In ancient Roman mythology this term also denoted a protective spirit holding the attributes of a place in a numinous way, suggesting a magical power residing in that location. That’s also what a great portrait is and does. I was instantly struck by the haunting similarities between these Meyers and the enigmatic fresco faces preserved by ash after the volcanic eruptions at Pompeii in the year 79 CE. At first seemingly equally expressionless, like the Meyer portraits they harbour secret layers of feeling beneath apparently sedate surfaces, and like them, Meyer’s weathered layers suggest a process of preservation and excavation.

Each of the other faces portrayed in this image-cycle is similarly a protective spirit both concealing and revealing the inner attributes of the person who wears it as a mask of sorts. Both #4 and #44 for instance, are so close up that the beauty of the faces, almost approaching that of idealized anime figures, becomes ultra-confrontational, while the use of numerals to identify the “sitter” only serves to further amplify the sensation that they are archaeological specimens and renders them ironically distant.

Untitled (20-2015) by Harding Meyer. (Oil on Canvas, 109 x 109 cm, 2015)

I refer to this group of paintings as an image-cycle because it reminds me so materially of an ancient song-cycle, or a classical poem-cycle, in the sense of it literally being a circle without a starting or finishing line, surrounding us in a serial way that suggests the ongoing ebb and flow and repeated cycles and patterns of time. Portraits #9 and #26 therefore also feel as if they may be excised members of a movie montage, apprehended as individual frames of film in a documentary study of the human face.In addition to being an archaeologist of the face, Meyer also appears to be a cartographer of facial expressions while deftly unearthing the emotions below their surfaces. Therefore it follows that each of these portraits is also a map of the face of a person, real or imagined, which if followed carefully can lead us directly to the heart of their character.

One can indeed call these marvelous portraits numinous, insofar as they seem to embody spirits, the Roman origin of the word being numen, or nod, as in a divinity nodding in recognition towards us. In the end, maybe a painter can convey something more physical and spiritual through his or her interpretive skills than a photographer could never hope to trap with a mere lens. The lens available to a painter such as Harding Meyer for instance, as evidenced in his entrancing large scale facescapes, is still a superior tool for transmitting the basically surreal nature of our faces, since that unique lens is a marriage of his eye and his hand. I tend to enjoy the concept of facescapes not only because it references the human landscape but also because as a neologism it provides a pleasant and poetic pun: the same way a fire escape saves us from a burning building, these face escapes also save us from the mythical accuracy of photography.

Some artists have discovered that the human face is also a landscape and they treat it accordingly, as a spatial zone which can be explored, mapped and mined for seemingly endless meanings. Harding Meyer is at the forefront of an as yet unnamed movement of artists, especially painters, who choose to focus almost exclusively on a new kind of portraiture in their work, one that embraces the facial landscape in a way that captures our attention while freeing our gaze at the same time. Simply put, the landscape of the painted face is something so captivating that no amount of photography can ever endanger its immediacy or efficacy.

Untitled (44-2015) by Harding Meyer. (Oil on Canvas, 150 x 191 cm, 2015)

Meaning is skillfully being maneuvered here. At the very core of the visual art experience, and especially at the heart of the art of portraiture of course, is the human gaze. The act of being spectators who share the marvel of facial images in a gallery together with perfect strangers is inherently about the human gaze. This is especially true when the paintings in question are designed to look back at us while we look at them. This exhibition therefore also celebrates what is known as the visual aura, a unique aesthetic situation which occurs when the image seems to return our gaze. Sometimes veracity is beyond mere realism, as when the stylized gazes of portraits #30 or #31 are refined to a nearly hentai degree of lushness but still seem authentic, or as in the cases of #32 and #33, where the weathered collision between high fashion and secretive surrealism is accentuated to a mystifying level transcending both visual sources.

One of the hallmarks of the notion of the aura is also that of emotional distance, the mysterious fact that no matter how close we get to certain images the distance of their aura remains immense and far away. They are not forbidding our access to their interior but rather declaring to us that the interior is located on the surface itself, that the exterior world is a somewhat illusory mirror image of inner depths, and that we can arrive at our destination only by returning their gaze. #20 and #22 are especially persistent in their ability to focus our feelings, perhaps because #20 is a partial face, even closer up, while #22 strikes me as being the most Pompeii-like of all in its visage, even more coated in preservative ash and with scraped skin indistinguishable from the weathered wall behind the sitter. The large scale archaeological and serial face paintings of Harding Meyer, by their very nature, having been executed in a methodically rotating manner in recurring sequences of face after face, are also inherently temporal, especially expressed through the eyes of the portrait subject, and especially as activated by the eye of the beholder. The eye of the beholder is always in motion, and the face of the beheld is always a reflection of that movement.

And perhaps most importantly, his faces seem to know us, they confront us directly and invite us to participate in an elegant but enigmatic excavation of their surfaces, to penetrate the layers of skin and discover what lies underneath all of our personal private envelopes: the skin of the spirit itself.

A version of this essay was published in association with the exhibition Archaeology of the Face: Harding Meyer, at Toronto's Odon Wagner Contemporary Gallery, which ran Oct 1-Oct 24, 2015.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the forthcoming book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016) available in November. In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008.

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