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Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Who, Me? James Esber and the Megolomania of the Group Portrait

James Esber, This is not a portrait, 2008-10.  Portrait drawn by Fiorenzo Borghi.  Ink on paper, 21.5 x 18 inches. Courtesy James Esber and Pierogi.

James Esber, This is not a portrait, 2008-10. Portrait drawn by Fiorenzo Borghi. Ink on paper, 21.5 x 18 inches. Courtesy James Esber and Pierogi.

For his fourth show at Pierogi, James Esber invited around a hundred friends to retrace —  crosshatch-by-crosshatch — one  of his masterfully Byzantine convolutions of caricature.  The results, colorfully framed, are hung en masse and interspersed with Esber’s own radiantly garish drawings, paintings, and Plasticene wall pieces, the latter achieving a new bulbous physicality.  In the group project, Esber tests the limits of the art world’s prevailing social contract, since a curmudgeon might see his shackling of others’ hands to his own inimitable rhythms as an enactment of a passive-aggressive fantasy (most participants being working artists – though not all, as if to sweeten the sting).  In this view, Esber salivates over total world domination from his impregnable artistic bunker while making claims to higher purpose – perhaps tellingly, Osama Bin Laden’s grotesquely contorted portrait is Esber’s chosen graphic for slavish replication.

Speaking as a participant, I did find the task irksome; deprived of spontaneity, one could only come off worse than Esber’s freely-stroked prototype, yet how sophomorically predictable – and time consuming! – it was to subvert the draw-by-number rules with some cleverness.  To have refused would have been unsportsmanlike. Perhaps others felt the same sense of coerced duty, yet plenty of participants, pro and amateur alike, acquit themselves nicely: Tom Burckhardt, Phong Bui, Darina Karpov, E.H. Gery, and Fiorenzo Borghi, among other standouts, rise to the occasion with ingenuity, enthusiasm, and a spirit of collaboration.  The effect of the piece as a whole – the collective recitation of the sacred text –comes down optimistically on the side of artistic individualism adapted to communal purpose.  And yet, Esber’s “Who, Me?” megalomania is the fly in the ointment that keeps the group portrait intriguingly corrosive, less about world politics than the art world variety.

James Esber: You, Me & Everyone Else is at Pierogi Gallery, November 14 to December 23, 177 North 9th Street, between Bedford and Driggs avenues, Brooklyn, 718.599.2144.

installation shot of the exhibition under review.  Courtesy of Pierogi.

click to enlarge

  • http://jamesesber.com James Esber

    David’s characterization of the spirit of the project , while meant partly to be satirical, feels inaccurate to me. The largest component of this project was my interaction and relationship with the participants, all of whom were family or friends. I tried very hard to get a full spectrum of people, artists and non-artists, young and old to participate. I included every completed drawing in the show, making a frame and carefully mixing a color which I thought individuated it. For the record, 46 of the 108 participants identified themselves as artists, not the majority. For the most part, I was astounded and encouraged by how willing people were to participate. I did learn in the process that artists were the most likely to be conflicted though, and this makes total sense to me, given that many have identifiable styles of mark-making which might have to be altered or suppressed in the process. I tried to avoid any idea of a “throw down”, telling everyone specifically that the idea was not to copy my drawing , but to draw over the marks in a way that was natural to them. The end result is really a triple portrait, one part the drawing’s creator, one part Bin Laden and one part me. The relationship of each of these parts to the others is the subject of the project, and in each case the relationships are quite different.

    Incidently, in the spirit of egalitarianism, the drawings are grouped in demographically mixed bunches for purchase and the profit is split evenly between the creator, Pierogi and myself. (Sorry, nothing for Bin Laden).

    -James Esber

  • http://www.familymattersny.com Alice Kaltman

    As a non-artist, and not very close friend of James’, I was totally stoked when asked to participate in this project. My husband Daniel Wiener, a (mostly) sculptor and I did it side by side, at our kitchen table, he with his Art World ego in check, me with my Art World spouse attitude equally under control. We had a gas, giving over and trying to be Esberian. We listened to an audiobook while cross-hatching and self-deprecating the time away.

    I assumed (in a positive way) that part of James’ intention was to play with our egos, and end up with a cool finished product, all while we painstakingly drew a portrait of possibly the most terrifying egoist of our times. Having been on the periphery of the Art World for over two decades, I found this to be a very funny and ultimately ego-deflating experience, and I mean that in the most positive way.

    All in all, a long-winded way of saying: Bring it on. I’ll do more!

    -Alice Kaltman, LCSW (Yes. that means I’m a shrink)


  • Alice Henty

    I know nothing about the art world and haven’t used a brush and ink since I was at school. I was surprised and honored to be asked to participate in this project. I thoroughly enjoyed spending a couple of hours sitting alone and in silence at my kitchen table tracing the lines of James’ picture. For once in my life everything stopped. I approached it with a sense of obligation and put it off for a week or so after I was given the task. James had warned me that it was going to take a while so I guess I was mentally preparing myself for the ordeal. But once I started I got really, really into it. At first I tried to replicate as accurately as possible the lines I was going over and then at some point I started making my own creative decisions and for me that’s when the experience took off. It only took me about an hour and in the end I thought mine actually looked better than his. If I was a smart artist I probably would have taken something away from the experience and continued to create but I went right back to spending the next night, and the night after that cleaning up after the kids and watching inappropriate reality TV. But now that you’ve made me think about it again I did enjoy that quiet silence with a brush in my hand.

  • http://supanickblog.blogspot.com/ Jim Supanick

    David, if spontaneity was what you were after, this was probably not the best place to find it. And speaking as a participant myself, I felt no coercion whatsoever- the challenge was welcome, and through doing it I encountered a great deal I didn’t expect–with the overall conceit, with the original drawing, and within myself (you can read my account of it at:

    http://supanickblog.blogspot.com/2010_11_01_archive.html )

    Lastly, what is this ‘”Who, Me?” megalomania’ you speak of?

  • Jenny Dubnau

    I think James’ project functions both in a collaborative and sweet-spirited way, and as an exercise in control. When I sat down to make the drawing, I was flattered that my “take” on James’ mark making mattered in any way, and at the same time, had to admit to feeling hemmed in and irritated by having to trace his every mark. I ended up sort of ruefully chuckling my way through the making of the drawing. I ended up feeling that the project is an essentially humorous one: there is an absurdity to the image (airplane-like marks in Osama’s rather silly-looking face?!), and while attempting to trace another artist’s marks is a humbling process, the process makes you see the marks themselves as somewhat absurd. It’s a nicely complex project!

  • http://adamsimonart.com Adam Simon

    For me the most interesting part of this assignment was the idea that it could be done without asserting one’s own style, personality or ability to prefer one mark over another. I almost think that I managed to avoid anything resembling an esthetic decision! At the opening however, my vanity reasserted itself and I kept thinking, there’s mine! Only it never was.