Social Amnesia: Strangers, curated by Emma Frank
Strangers, curated by Emma Frank, at Castor Gallery
Featuring work by Jesse Draxler, Anthony Goicolea, Mercedes Helnwein, Juan Miguel Palacios, and Krista Louise Smith
August 3 to 19, 2017
254 Broome Street, between Orchard and Ludlow streets
New York City, castorgallery.com
Upon meeting for the first time, even before greetings are exchanged, strangers form conscious or subconscious impressions of each other. Accurate or not, these momentary decision based on visual cues color further interactions. Castor Gallery’s aptly-named summer exhibition, Strangers, curated by Emma Frank, presents a room full of faces and figures where none of the engagement of traditional portraiture has been allowed. The viewer is obstructed and frustrated by a variety of visual devices that prevent the depicted subjects from returning their gaze.
Jesse Draxler uses a traditional portrait format — showing the sitter’s head and shoulders — but his “portraits” are non-functional beyond this formal coincidence. All of his subjects have their heads turned from the viewer: Some barely shift from a profile view, and others almost totally face away. All of the heads are presented in silhouette, painted black and lacking any obvious markers of sex, ethnicity, or personality. The subject’s head in Consciousness Antenna III (2017), turned away and looking down, appears to be covered by a skintight hood; a black line runs from the base of the skull down the figure’s spine. The left-hand figure in Living with a Ghost (2017) has the same stripe, but the nearly identical figure to its right — its doppelgänger — is painted completely black, a shadow standing in the foreground.
In her large-scale painting Tell Me You Love Me (2017), Krista Louise Smith likewise presents a double “portrait” with a disruptive twist. An exquisitely-painted nude, rendered in oils from groin to neck, embraces a second woman tentatively carved out of negative space. The leftmost figure’s breasts and depilated vulva are presented in detail, yet her head lies teasingly outside of the frame in an inversion of traditional portraiture and its focus on the face’s expressiveness. The ghostly figure serves as an opposite: She is shorter, has pubic hair, her face is in the frame, and she stands in profile rather than facing the viewer. The edge of a painted hand is wrapped around her belly, a loose embrace that prevents her from slipping out of reach.
The figure in Smith’s painting appears ghostly, but two other artists use literal translucency in their work: Anthony Goicolea’s Anonymous Self Portrait (2016) depicts the artist removing (or possibly putting on) an opaque shirt on an otherwise see-through resin panel. The shadows painted on the panel mingle with the literal shadows cast by the light passing through it. Juan Miguel Palacios also uses translucency in his work, but his panels are layered on top of damaged sheets of drywall. His Wound series of paintings show the figures’ heads floating on layers of vinyl atop a literally wounded ground in a tense fusion of the spectral and the material.
Mercedes Helnwein’s oil pastel works on paper present a different variety of ghostliness than the aforementioned paintings: She draws from vintage photographs and plays up the nostalgic sensations found within, yet subverts their narrative qualities with brightly-colored interventions. Queen of the Underground (2015) plays up the contrast between an illuminated figure and the shadowy background that surrounds her. The only substantial color to be found is a pink smear across her face, a mask that shows her eyes yet prevents the viewer from interpreting any expression she may have. Tiffany (2017) exhibits a similar tension: Helnwein has again layered a brightly-colored mass on top of the subject’s face. The vibrant orange scotoma hovering in front of her face doesn’t completely obscure her expression, but her glassy-eyed stare raises the question of whether she sees it, as well.
Even after spending ample time with these paintings, the figures depicted continue to resist recognition and remain strangers.. In this respect, the work in Strangers provides an amnesiac version of the experience of meeting someone for the first time, with its attendant anxieties and excitement, allowing the viewer to introduce themselves again and again.