January 2011, Lucas Samaras @ The Pace Gallery


Lucas Samaras, left to right: Pose 0035, Pose 0053, Pose 0060, 2009
Pure pigment on paper, 32" x 18" (81.3 cm x 45.7 cm)
Copyright Lucas Samaras, courtesy The Pace Gallery

 

Lucas Samaras: Poses / Born Actors
The Pace Gallery
534 West 25th Street New York
Tuesday, November 9th through Friday December 24th, 2010

Ever since I have been engaged with any type of critical discourse, there is one derisive phrase used among my colleagues and friends, with regards to the object of discussion, which shuts down dialogue, and blocks intellectual curiosity from establishing any roots in the work at hand. It isn’t simply the phrase in itself, but it’s also the dismissive and often snide tone inflected in it. “I don’t get it.” The phrase tends to omit a lot; more so, perhaps, about the person delivering it than the work it is referencing. It’s not simply a matter of “not getting” the work, but it is implied that we can’t even be bothered to try. “I don’t get it” is the verbal equivalent of the dismissive wave of the hand. While it can be satisfying for a moment to dismiss a work, or body of work with the “I don’t get it”, it is also lazy. It’s not a valid criticism. Ever since I can remember looking at and thinking about art, whenever I’ve stumbled on the work of Lucas Samaras -particularly the extensive body of work in which he uses his portrait or entire body as subject matter, I have responded in the same way, either internally or vocally “I don’t get it.” (Full of snide inflection).

On an unsatisfying, chilly November Chelsea afternoon, walking east on 25th street, I saw LUCAS SAMARAS in vinyl on the windows of the Pace Gallery. I thought, “no” and I walked a bit more to the door and thought, “well, why not?” It might be funny to see this guy staring intensely into the camera with his beard, teeth, and weird prisms of color on his face again. Although I don’t believe he’s intended it, I have, at times, found a type of humor in the work when I was not assuming a totally dismissive attitude towards it. Walking through the door, I was prepared with a vivid mental picture of his bearded face, with all of its weird expressions and contortions. I’ve always found his preoccupation with his own image to be particularly annoying. There is something adolescent, narcissistic and masturbatory about his unwavering focus on his own image. His insistence of using his own image has always appeared to take itself far too seriously with very little apparent trace of humor, with the exception of amusement he seems to provide himself. Lucas Samaras has mastered the role of artist as clichéd, isolated,weirdo through the ongoing performance that plays out through his work. Walking into Pace, I was expecting more of the same, but I got something which appeared, if only for a moment, different. The characteristically consistent over-built re-configurations of walls for each new exhibition at Pace were covered with fairly large scaled portraits that were not the “eccentric” face of Mr. Samaras.
 


Lucas Samaras, left to right: Pose 0065, Pose 0112, Pose 0158, 2009
Pure pigment on paper, 32" x 18" (81.3 cm x 45.7 cm)
Copyright Lucas Samaras, courtesy The Pace Gallery

At the very first glance, it is immediately refreshing not to be confronted again with Samaras’ intense, bearded gaze, multiplied again and again, only at different angles,with his wide eyes, and the image of beams of light shooting out of his mouth or nostrils or whatever. The digital photographs in this context of the exhibition title Poses/Born Actors resemble, to a degree, large-scaled headshots used by actors to promote themselves. However, these people are not actors in the professional sense; they are not thespians. It appears, they are for the most part, artworld insiders -collectors, dealers, curators, and other artists. They are insiders from a particular faction of the artworld. Could they be, perhaps, “born actors” on the stage of Samaras’ “unrepentant ego”?* Spending just a little time with the work, recognizing generations of Glimchers, other Pace dealers such as Douglas Baxter, Peter Boris, David Goerk; and Pace artists such as Chuck Close and Alex Katz, one might get the impression that this exhibition of portraits by Lucas Samaras might have something to do with flattering, or passively insulting, those who have supported and promoted his career. While the exhibition does not immediately read as another exhibition of self-portraits of Lucas Samaras, could it be possible that this is an exhibition of portraits of those who made significant portions of Samaras’ career possible? Could these portraits of sitters who are not Samaras be ascribed somehow with Samaras’ trademark narcissism? To draw such conclusions it is worthwhile to have a look closer at the subjects of more of the portraits than a few of the immediately recognizable ones. And it’s worth exploring how these portraits are produced and presented as well.

All of the around-a-hundred digital c-prints (The Pace gallery list the materials as being “pure pigment on paper”) are framed and measure 32x18” each. They are quite a bit larger than life-size. Many of the subject’s faces are tightly cropped and take up most of the frame, while the neck and shoulders appear in others. Many of the portraits are shot at a low angle with lighting that exaggerates the effects of wrinkles, eyeglasses and the shadows they cast on and around the face. The lighting gives the effect of holding a flashlight to one’s chin at a campfire to make the spooky story being told just a little bit more spooky. All of the sitters are rendered somewhat grotesque to very nuanced degrees, but mostly in a lukewarm sort of way. In addition to the close shot and low angle of the camera and unflattering lighting, there is also an apparent good amount of Adobe Photoshop manipulation going on with these images. Shades of color are added to sections of the face. Glasses are tinted. The shadows cast by the figures are often colored. There is a bit of color added to the eyes, perhaps to give some effect of intensity we are familiar with in Samaras’ portraits of himself. Some of the sitters are rendered a metallic-grey. If there is any manipulation of the shapes of the faces, it’s slight. The use of (what seems to be) Photoshop here seems mostly arbitrary, apart from an attempt at giving the effect of a type of uncanniness, not unlike that of low budget horror films. None of the effects appear to be more than the pre-packaged selection of tools available with the software; and it does not appear to be anymore of a virtuosic use of the software than anybody who had been in school since the mid-90s would have a grasp of. It reveals the kind of reliance on technology for effect only that most freshmen in art school are sternly warned against. There is a sense in these portraits that their maker probably received some degree of pleasure making them, finding the canned effects in the software to be “cool”. While these portraits reveal nowhere near the amount of labor and manipulation his Polaroids do, they appear not unlike more recent portraits Samaras made of himself. They reveal a sort of signature Samaras style of appearance. While I am no fan of his self-portrait “photo-transformations” on Polaroid film, those works reveal a technological innovation that the manufacturers of the film surely did not intend. These images, which share some stylistic appearance with his older work, shows no evidence of any sort of innovation that was not intended by the designers and engineers of Adobe Photoshop.
 


Lucas Samaras, left to right: Pose 0182, Pose 0188, Pose 0214, 2009
Pure pigment on paper, 32" x 18" (81.3 cm x 45.7 cm)
Copyright Lucas Samaras, courtesy The Pace Gallery

So, these images are made in such a way as to appear grotesque and/or creepy. Fine. But what about the subjects? Who are the sitters? Is it too easy to read these portraits of “born actors” to be a stand-in for Samaras himself, a portrait of those who supported and promoted his career? Could this entire exhibition be a nod to his friends, a type of extended self-portraiture to envelop those in his immediate circle? It seemed a bit too easy to come to this conclusion judging from the portraits of those immediately associated with the Pace Gallery. Some of the more recognizable faces, Jasper Johns or Cindy Sherman, do not have a direct public relationship to the gallery. Is it possible these two have traded works over the years with Samaras? There is, as I alluded to earlier, a portrait of Chuck Close. Close, of course, painted Samaras’ portrait in the 80s. A portrait of David Byrne hangs in this show. His picture is often taken at openings at The Pace Gallery. Is it possible he collects Samaras’ work? There are other faces that do not convey quite as much celebrity status. The critic Kim Levin has her likeness hanging on the wall. Kim Levin authored a monograph on Lucas Samaras in 1975. It was one of the first, if not the very first dedicated solely to Samaras’ work. Daniel Kunitz, editor of Modern Painters magazine, has his portrait hanging in the show. He’s also written about Samaras’ work. A portrait of Matthew Higgs was made too. Higgs curated Samaras’ work in the exhibition PARAXENA at The Greek Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Is there a pattern here? There is a portrait of Marla Prather. Who is Marla Prather? Marla Prather is a curator who was the head of the 20th Century Art Department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., as well as the curator of Post War Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She also happens to have organized the exhibition “Unrepentant Ego: The Self Portraits of Lucas Samaras,” and written a catalogue essay for it in late 2003. There is a portrait of Agnes Gund in this exhibition. I wonder if she has ever had any connection to the promotion of Lucas Samaras’ work? Chrissie Ilse has had her portrait done. She curated Part I: Thirty Performative Actions in the Off The Wall exhibition at the Whitney Museum last summer. This exhibition included the work of Lucas Samaras. Adam Weinberg’s portrait is featured in this exhibition. Hmm, I wonder if the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art has ever had any thing to do with the promotion and support of Lucas Samaras’ work.

So, instead of asking his audience (apparently who have their portraits hanging in this show) to consume his image, he’s now asking them to consume the images of those who support or have supported his career. There’s no conspiracy in this. There’s nothing outrageous going on here. Artists have, in an act of symbiotic onanism with their patrons, produced portraits of them for 500 years. It’s just not very interesting here in the form of digital photographs, which seem to rely on canned Adobe Photoshop effects. There is something trite about these portraits. I am undecided as to whether or not they are meant, as I’d noted before, to flatter or insult. To me, this not very interesting question is the most interesting question the exhibition brings to mind. When I look at these portraits, I can almost imagine the sitters at the exhibition opening, having a good time and having a laugh posing in front of them, with an energy not unlike that of a masquerade; joking around and congratulating each other for having been a sitter, for looking so “freaky,” weird, and Samaras-like. This exhibition doesn’t say, “look at me, just look at me”, it seems to say, “look at these people who have supported me, just look at them -and think about me.” Whether or not they were actually born for this, these Born Actors are, in this exhibition, like a cast of understudies for the solipsistic arc of Lucas Samaras’ project. I think I do actually get it. I just can’t seem to locate any appreciation for it.

 

*Unrepentant Ego was the title of a Lucas Samaras exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art
from November 2003 to February 2004 (check), which consisted largely of Lucas Samaras himself, as
the primary subject of the work.

 

Chris Kasper is an artist/teacher/writer living in New York City. 
He holds an MFA from the School of Art at Yale University and completed the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2006.

ckasper13@yahoo.com

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