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FASHION NOW ART FOREVER

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FASHION NOW ART FOREVER

Deface Book Some modern artists are so obsessed with the human face that they can’t stop messing with it, imposing big dots, scrubbing out eyes, or sawing it off altogether. Is this art’s stand against facial identity? Text: Amy Binding Last year the Dutch artist Willem Popelier made news after what started out as a routine visit to his local computer store turned into something more peculiar. The 29-year-old was in the midst of a long-term project entitled “Showroom”, which involved him collecting webcam photos of strangers he discovered on public computers. Cruising in a well-known computer showcase store, Popelier stumbled across almost a hundred shots and two movies of a pair of teenage girls striking poses, blowing kisses and mugging up for the camera, famous for 15 megabytes, but unaware that their images would ever be made public, let alone exhibited as artworks in a gallery in a big city. In an act that most people would perhaps have thought twice about, Popelier downloaded the photos, took them home, and superimposed large pink circles over the girls’ faces. The new images went on to form a strand of his project entitled “Showroom Girls”, and were exhibited in Amsterdam’s Foam museum in the summer of 2011. On his website, Popelier wrote that the webcam pictures were “made by true Digital Narcissists.” The American gossip website Gawker duly asked whether this “might be the creepiest project ever.” But what, exactly, was Popelier doing? What did he intend by his altered images, and the brutal erasure of the girls’ faces? Was the project some comment on celebrity culture in the social media age, or was it about voyeurism, exhibitionism and the supposed self-obsession of contemporary youth? His spotty girls are only the latest and most eyecatching examplars of what happens when artists choose to create new images from the faces of unsuspecting subjects, real or imagined, current or historical, alive or dead. “Obliterism” you could call it: the act of altering, masking or just annihilating the face of a subject within the image, and as a consequence, the identity originally attached to it. Popelier’s most obvious antecedent – the godfather of the face-spotting – is John Baldessari. The American conceptual artist is often labelled as the pioneer of creating new identities and personas using found imagery and anonymous, 112

unowned works, stripping them of their previous stories, and creating an entirely new image, often with only the use of a dot placed over the face. Baldessari believed that covering the faces with a sticker “took the power away from them in some way, they became more generic.” Baldessari’s method of applying candy-coloured dots was radically simple, and so is Scottish artist and 1996 Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon’s. He applies a process of accelerated deterioration to his work (the effective opposite of Baldessari’s approach), in a sense extracting the subject’s identity through the face, rather than masking it. The burning, scratching and ripping of iconic images of superstars gives the celebrities in question a new identity; when you look at Gordon’s image of James Dean, you’re no longer able to think of James Dean, and see instead Gordon’s own intervention in the image: the obliteration itself becomes the focus of the work. Masking, superimposing, erasing, removing and in every sense actually “de-facing” the face, that primary focus of human identity – there are further echoes of all that in the work of British artist Julie Cockburn and the Italian Maurizio Anzeri, who also use found imagery as a base to reconstruct new images. Sewing yarn onto vintage portrait photos and adding extra, origami-like folded photos without the aid of Adobe software, Cockburn’s images assume a new life with an entirely new personality. Her embellished works have a warm, comic tone to them, suggesting a time, not so long ago, when manipulation could be applied to a photo without the help of a software programme. Maurizio Anzeri’s celluloid raw materials share the same found-image provenance as Cockburn’s, but the final results have a much more macabre, nightmarish tone than the former’s family-album images. Anzeri first began to collect vintage photo portraits after realising he had an obsession with faces, an urge that led to his creating what he terms “photo sculptures”. Using intricate stitching on a woman’s face to reveal her “muscles”, monochrome thread on a man’s face to infer an Edvard Munch-like scream, or other techniques to mask and then reveal a psychedelic, entirely unreadable, face, Anzeri’s hand-

worked creations transform the original vintage photographs of everyday people into cameos from some ghoulish fairy tale. Where fine art leads, popular art surely follows. In 2011, the street artist Banksy released “Cardinal Sin”, a defaced, Eighteenth-Century bust of a Catholic priest with its face sawn off and a threedimensional plate of pixelation fastened in its place. While the intention of the artists above may have been ambiguous, Banksy’s pixelated face was a direct commentary on the Catholic church’s child abuse scandal and its attempted cover-up. The urge to alter or vandalise – or improve, if you see it that way – works of art has probably been around for as long as art itself, and rarely fails to surprise in its ingenuity or immediacy (in January this year, for instance, a woman called Carmen Tisch from Denver, Colorado, drunkenly rubbed her buttocks on a Clyfford Still painting valued at US$40m). So too is it among the most actually “popular” of the popular art practices (let’s face it, there’s plenty of fun to be had in taking to glossy mags with a Sharpie and adding black teeth and monobrows to airbrushed celebs). But the recent focus on the face? It could be seen as somewhat savage, all this defacing, but it’s nevertheless nuanced: Julie Cockburn and Maurizio Anzeri create new identities on existing faces, Douglas Gordon drains them of personality, while Banksy hijacks them to make a political comment. As for Willem Popelier, the simplest reading of his provocative “Showroom Girls” might be that, in a era when the face itself is ubiquitous, perfected and exalted in the mass media (consider, for instance, the fuss over Julia Roberts’ unnaturally airbrushed image last year), it inevitably becomes an irresistible site for alteration, erasure, superimposition and even brutal desecration. On the face of it, that’s what these artworks are all about.

JOHN BALDESSARI, Stonehenge (With Two Persons) Blue, 2005. Relief print on handmade paper, 73.7 x 81.3 cm. Edition of 60. Signed by the ar tist. © John Baldessari, 2012. Image cour tesy of Meyerovich Galler y, San Francisco.

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FASHION NOW ART FOREVER

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FASHION NOW ART FOREVER

Left: JULIE COCKBURN, The Astronaut, 2011. Embroider y on found photograph 25.2 x 20.3cm. Private collection. This page, clockwise from above: JULIE COCKBURN, Hero 1, 2011. Collaged found photograph, 25.3cm x 20.3cm. Private collection. Boy, 2011. Plastic game par ts on found photograph, 25.2cm x 20.3cm. Gum Bubble 3, 2011. Plasticine on found photograph mounted on wood, 17.8cm x 12.7cm.

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FASHION NOW ART FOREVER

DOUGL AS GORDON, Self Por trait of You + Me and Me + You + You + Me + Me + You (03), 2011. Prints and burned print, smoke and mirror, 117.5 x 100.5cm each. Cour tesy lost but found, Yvon Lamber t.

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Left: Douglas Gordon, Self Por trait of You + Me (Marilyn 5 ), 2008. Burned Print, Smoke and Mirror. 102 x 63.5 x 8 cm. Cour tesy lost but found, Yvon Lamber t. Above: MAURIZIO ANZERI, Ghisella, 2011. Embroider y on photography, 23 x 17.5 cm. Cour tesy of the ar tist.

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FASHION NOW ART FOREVER

Above: MAURIZIO ANZERI, Boo, 2011. Embroider y on photograph, 24 x 18 cm. Right: Arianna, 2011. Embroider y on photograph, 45 x 35cm. Cour tesy of the ar tist.

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Deface Book