Making Faces

By Michael Amy

Published in ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum: Face to Face exhibition catalogue
Mar. 2, 2012


Let us begin by stating the obvious. One of the first things we see upon entering this world is the face of the person who takes care of us. If we are lucky, this face will reappear again and again, and bring us comfort and communicate with us via a wide range of expressions. Both this face and the voice that emerges from its mouth are among the first things that imprint themselves upon our memory. This face divided into equal halves by the nose, and with the eyes placed at equal distance from it provides us with our first notions of symmetry, and consequently of harmony and balance.

The body of our caregiver is symmetrical as well, but it is his or her face that we see over and over again in close-up and on a scale that appears to us newborns to be colossal. The face impresses more than the body, for it has an expressive range that exceeds that of the body. Additionally, the face is always laid bare, unlike the body that regularly shifts in appearance as a result of the clothing that is put on top of it. The face offers us constancy. If we are loved, we find solace both in it and in the voice tied to it, and find the variety of its features held in check by symmetry soothing. The face communicates a sense of order.

As we grow older, however, we learn that the face is a formidable vehicle for conveying feelings ranging from adulation to deep hatred, from exhilaration to great sorrow, from extreme confidence to boundless doubt or agonizing fear. The list goes on. Heads and the expressions, voices, sentiments and opinions they bring forth play an extremely important role in the work of Tony Oursler, whose oeuvre evokes states that are anything but harmonious. Oursler is the master of asymmetries.

The Romans were willing to reduce the entire individual by way of the portrait bust to not much more than a head and face. This extreme form of truncation makes a great deal of sense as facial features differ from one person to the next, thereby enabling us to oftentimes establish identity both accurately and rapidly, while bodies, which we generally see covered with changing sets of clothing, seem so much more anonymous.

Additionally, our heads provide us with all five senses, and all but the sense of touch, exclusively. (Significantly, the infant uses its mouth to identify objects it can insert inside of it, to complement the information gleaned through the hands and eyes). We take in the world through all of our senses. The data we thereby obtain is processed by our brain, which is situated behind and above our eyes and ears, through which two senses we absorb increasingly more information about what lies outside of us, as we mature. The data we take in and sift through enables us to build our identity. The features that help others recognize us when they see us are the very ones that hold the senses that help us establish our identity. No wonder the Romans concluded that the head could stand in for the whole individual - a view that holds for so much later portraiture, in sculpture, painting, drawing, print and more recently photography and film. Tony Oursler has drawn heavily upon the medium of television since the inception of his career. In the evening, when seated in front of the tube, we get our news from one or more 'talking heads.'

In Roman Republican times, the heads of the men deemed worth portraying were shown as they appeared to the eye of the beholder - in other words, without alteration. Oursler likewise bypasses idealization. When a body was needed, the Roman Republican portrait sculptor was capable of placing the veristic head of a man in his old age on top of the body of a youthful athlete in a state of complete or near nudity, as the body was -in this instance - of secondary importance, serving merely as a support for the head. In a number of works by Oursler, the body is limp, a lifeless dummy, almost a burden, while the face projected upon the oval signifying the head above it twitches and tweaks and simply will not shut up.

Tony Oursler does not produce portraits of more or less singular individuals. Instead, through his talking heads, he conveys content touching upon all the subjects he is willing to conjure. By means of light and sound, he makes inanimate things come alive, a goal the artists of antiquity were already dreaming of. Ancient stories of moving and speaking paintings and statues have come down to us, and of certain images that were lacking in these magical powers, it was stated that they were nevertheless so lifelike that they only missed the breath of life. Although Oursler's subjects rattle on and on, this artist does not aim to trick his viewers into believing that they are seeing a real person. Instead, Oursler always exposes the artificiality of his undertaking, its man-made quality - or, to put it differently, the art that went into the creation. The projected face and accompanying voice are the crucial surface finish; a mere flick of the switch suffices to make these disappear. Light and sound provide only an approximation of life.

In classical culture, man is the measure of all things. The Greeks imagined their gods in their own image and the proportions of their temples are governed by the proportions of the human body, in Polykleitos' 5th century BCE canon, the body is eight heads tall, and in that established by Lysippos over a century later the body, nine heads tall, appears attenuated - though not as much as in the hands of certain 16th century Mannerist artists offering riffs on the Lysippian model. Oursler's highly expressive work is, on the other hand, anti-classical. It seeks out what is irrational. Within the arena of its inquiries, Western ideals of beauty and accepted standards of decorum do not obtain. Indeed, when heads are attached to bodies in Oursler's work, the bodies are often far too small, thereby bringing several centuries of caricature to mind, including work by Honore Daumier and David Levine. Oursler cross-pollinates what is supposedly high with what is allegedly low; a strategy that upsets some and delights others. Tod Browning's counterculture cult masterpiece Freaks is also elliptically evoked, the ongoing perorations of Oursler's heads serving to reinforce the connection. With bodies like these, no wonder Oursler's subjects have issues. Or, seen the other way around, the psychological turmoil Oursler's actors are confronted with is so debilitating that their heads grow out of proportion and are on the verge of exploding under the accumulating pressures. Or, the bodies are reduced to useless stumps, or disappear in light of the ongoing rush of horrors assaulting the mind.

In classical culture, we find depictions of dwarfs with oversized heads - or penises, which have their own heads - serving as subjects for ribaldry or empathy, and as a critique of the overbearing canon. When, in Oursler's work, the heads are too large, they may become too heavy for the bodies to bear and fall like anchors, onto their sides, locking the actors into place. The figures' helplessness may be underscored by placing the leg of an armchair, or a mattress on top of the heads, locking them in place by pinning them down as in Guilty, 1995 (page 46-47). Horror and humor go arm in arm. These figures dwarfed by their surroundings are literally under a great deal of pressure, and much of their angst can be traced back to their deep-seated sexual frustrations. There is no way out. Theatrum absurdum - the world on its head.

On other occasions, the heads appear in singular isolation in Oursler's work, thereby making us hunger for the humanity of the portrait bust of lore, which offered us at least a neck, the top of a torso and perhaps some shoulders thrown in for good measure, to support and balance the head. Without the neck holding it upright, the head is more or less abandoned to its lot. It may be placed in a glass tank filled with water and be forced to hold in its breath or drown - like a laboratory sample, placed in formaldehyde, that has suddenly come alive as in Underwater (Blue/Green), 1996. The grotesque and the abject are hereby placed front and center, as they so often are in the work of Oursler, thereby reminding us of passages in medieval painting and sculpture, as well as Brueghel - I am thinking, among other subjects, of depictions of the Mouth of Hell, which brings us to the visionary, Mannerist, Monster's Grove at Bomarzo with its Screaming Face. On the American continent, colossal Olmec sculpture provides an intriguing precedent for the head placed directly on the ground, as in Oursler's Ello or Rubio (page 34-35, 130-131), both surreal works of horror from 2003.

Oursler's infractions of the laws of good taste do not stop with blowing up heads to unnatural proportions or detaching them from their trunks, as you may already have guessed - even if we limit ourselves to what we see, by excluding the ongoing loop of outrages we hear. Not content with turning Western canons of proportion inside out or discarding those parts of the body that lie beneath the chin, Oursler oftentimes records facial features that make a mockery of classicizing ideals: eyes seem swollen and too large, noses bulbous, mouths sickly - traits grimacing helps to accentuate. The fact that the ears and hairline are covered with a white cloth when the actor or actress is filmed in the studio, and that only those parts of the face that remain uncovered are projected onto the ovoid support accentuates the less than graceful features, as the skin all around these seems far too tautly stretched and to reach too far back on all sides, Additionally, skin colors can be outright gruesome, and the textures of the epidermis horrifying. As the models have protruding brows, cheekbones, jaws and chins, and as the perfectly smooth, endlessly curving surfaces Oursler projects their faces onto do not, strange tensions obtain.

The illusion is most compelling when we stand opposite the face when looking at it. When we stand to the left or right of it, the continuous arc we see in place of the projecting nose and chin is unsettling. There and not there. It sounds Beckettian. Or, to coin it in Gertrude Stein's words: "There is no there there". Seeing the head in profile without the nose is, however, not much more disturbing than seeing it en face without the ears jutting out from the sides of the head. Egghead. Though Oursler's models seem around middle age, the endless forehead suggests the infant and the elder, and thus the cycle of life. Other works, such as those involving monumental skulls or bouquets of flowers, indicate an interest in the theme of the memento mori.

A face is a near sacred thing. Christians adore the vera icon, the perfectly flat and symmetrical image of Jesus' face miraculously imprinted upon a cloth after Veronica wiped Christ's brow as He ascended Golgotha, the Mount of the Skull. The face-skull opposition is one that interests Oursler (Mutation Skull, 1998; Hole, 1998), who comes from a religious background, and whose embrace of themes of dysfunction and countercultural subject matter may be seen as a response to his conservative roots. God has made us in His likeness.

Masks, which are highly stylized faces with fixed expressions worn on top of the actual face, have been used since antiquity in religious ceremonies. The person wearing the mask reverses the strategy deployed by Oursler in some of his most cherished work, in that in the case of the mask-wearer, the facial features are frozen in place while the body is in motion and thus changing before our eyes. In Africa and Oceania, masks may be used in the context of ceremonies whose purpose is to communicate with spirits and ancestors. Spiritism is of great interest to Oursler as well.

Faces, which bear the recognizable and verifiable signs of the identity of an individual, are profoundly tied to who we are. If one wants to insult someone, one may opt to slap him or her across the face, or spit in his or her face, and if one wants the offense to remain both visible and long lasting, one slashes the cheek, leaving it permanently scarred. Scarface. The face has been defaced. A level of importance attaches itself to the face that transcends all other parts of the body, with the possible exception of the genitalia - the surrealists so dear to Oursler would occasionally conflate the two: witness Rene Magritte's Le Viol (The Rope, 1934), in which the vvv of a female torso stands in for the mouth of a woman and the breasts for the eyes. With their frequent allusions to their sexual urges and frustrations. Oursler's heads invite us to see their mouths and eyes as places for erotic gratification, and, since these subjects suffer so much, as gaping and fleshy wounds. Oursler's anti-heroes are scarred for life.

Picasso understood that one way of making a big statement would be to violate the integrity of the body, including the face, in ways that were, as far as the Western tradition is concerned, without precedent. His exposure to the tribal sculpture of small-scale societies helped him achieve this in his breakthrough painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), in which the face of the woman sitting in the bottom right of the composition is geometrized, the powerful nose and small mouth are pulled to one side, and the eyes are arranged asymmetrically. The Spanish master drew considerable mileage from this type of play with forms, which he used to convey psychological as well as physiological states - the broken features of the prostitute in the Demoiselles alluding to the physical ravages caused by syphilis, a disease Picasso feared greatly; the large picture of 1907 reportedly serving to exorcise his dread of contracting venereal disease. Disease, exorcism and magic are other subjects that fascinate Tony Oursler. In fact, the nose twisted to one side and into the plane in the Demoiselles, and the eyes and mouth arranged asymmetrically in relation to it and to each other, will become hallmarks of modernist practice in popular culture, as conspicuous as the squares and rectangles of Malevich and the drips of Pollock in signifying avant-garde practice. In fact Oursler stylizes the pour -which reaches from Lynda Benglis through Morris Louis and Jackson Pollock to Joan Miro - with as much humor and precision as Uchtenstein had mustered in freezing de Kooning's brushstroke. TBC (2010) and Untitled (Purple) (2010) feature respectively an eye and a face on an LCD video screen that is surrounded by a floating abstract biomorphic monochrome field of seemingly spilled and now congealed color.

Playing with the face in the way initiated by Picasso, and further explored by the Dadaists and the surrealists, is something Oursler engages with in a psychedelic series of heads of abstract biomorphic shape, with roots in surrealist practice seeking to reveal the workings of the subconscious. Unlike Picasso, however, Oursler has the nerve to give us faces without noses, and thus, lacking the point of gravity around which the other facial features are arranged. Oursler's nose-less faces are highly disturbing - evoking, at times, disease, accident, mutilation, altered states (including noses melted off by too much heroin or cocaine intake), and aliens (Ello and Rubio, both from 2003). Unlike Picasso, Picabia - grandmaster of revoltingly bad taste - was willing to provide more than one set of eyes for a face. Oursler really goes over the top when he provides three pairs of eyes and three mouths for the same green, polygonal form, or, in another example, eight eyes surrounding a single mouth in a grey field with the contours of a playful flower (Star, 2005), The many eyes of this head gone terribly awry make us think of multiple-personality disorder, genetic manipulation and irradiation, subjects with seemingly inexhaustible artistic potential, the first of which Oursler has explored in depth. Works like Star also makes us ponder what is a face - which subject is among the things we cherish most and know most intimately - and what constitutes a likeness. These goofy sculptural forms upon which collages of moving facial features are projected, are produced according to the artist's specifications.

Other works include ready-made forms - such as a treetop, a cloud of smoke, or the underside of a bridge - upon which a gigantic face is projected (Influence Machine, 2000). These objects give texture to the face, and cause it to break apart where there is insufficient density (such as in the foliage of the tree), or dissolve and reappear (when projected on top of smoke). Spirits inhabit these things fashioned by man or nature.

Monumental flickering eyes projected upon spheres may be made to float in mid air, or rest upon the floor, suggesting eyeballs removed from their crania, though without the gore. Facial fragments. The eye is the attribute of both the artist and the viewer. Leonardo, master of light and darkness, considered it the most important among our senses, for through it one observes the world at large. With its heavy lids with blown up lashes, the eye resembles a vagina, which takes us back to George Bataille's Story of the Eye (Histoire de I'Oeil, 1928), a classic of erotic literature. However, the eye presented in singular isolation also stands for the all-seeing eye of God.

A face may be the last thing one sees before exiting this world.