PRINT April 1977

James Collins’ Double Portraits

JAMES COLLINS’ NEW WORKS return us via the individual image, and especially the romantic double portrait of male-female encounter, to history and culture. After nearly a decade of Conceptual homage to the “head,” with an art of zero sensuality that insisted on intellect as the justification for art, Collins poses, in striking opposition, a romantic respect for the heart. Like an 18th-century philosophe of feeling and intuition, he marries such older ideas to the latest technological developments in large-format color photography, allying certain values of traditional painting with sign-systems that may now commonly operate between people. Halfway through the 1970s, in the midst of a pluralism of styles led by the new hot-potato “political art” (which Collins disparagingly rejects as “a polite art for polite gallery walls, hopefully to be bought by polite people”) this artist goes full blast in the other direction, opting for a more directly human art that is essentially nonideological in character, yet public by intention.

Collins’ technique may remind one casually of chic photojournalism or fashion photography, when he places 30 by 40-inch color stills from movies into horizontal and vertical panels; his theme nevertheless is human beings (himself and others) in an everyday social context. While using photographic images derived from films rather than paint on canvas, he has, oddly enough, given up none of the traditional values of comparable painting. It is the human elements chosen and then reduced and refined by Collins that put the human face as “portrait” back into a human psychological and social context. Even the ostensible “slickness” of Collins’ technique serves to lend the men and women in his works something approaching the condition of cultural icons in a society where most presentations of reality (particularly the reality of romance) happen to be glossy. The women sitters vary, while all the male images are self-portraits of Collins, recalling traditional romantic notions of The Artist’s Life.

Collins has had about 15 one-man exhibitions in the last two years, all using color photography and concentrating on male/female images. He has varied his “Space Between” series in a number of gallery exhibitions. To mention only a few: the Renzo Spagnoli Gallery, Florence, November 1976; York University Gallery, Toronto, November 1976; Folker Skulima Gallery, Berlin, May 1976; A Space Gallery, Toronto, February 1977; University of California Gallery, Santa Barbara, January 1977; Ginevra Grigolo Gallery, Bologna, February 1977.

The portraits in the “Space Between” series, within the fundamental category of the human dialogue as double portrait, explore the following ideas: 1) the spontaneous and everyday in the contemporary human situation—for example, a man watching a woman in the street or in the park; 2) romantic dialogue in a particular setting—like a train compartment or room where the situation is inalterable; 3) the moment of action or inaction where the inner person is “revealed”—for example, when a girl laughs, flirts, or when man and woman make decisive contact as a couple; 4) the potential for characterization in natural elements—even very ordinary phenomena such as wind on clothes, wind in the hair, sunlight, grass, the sea—when Collins gives them a mythic dimension that is not unlike Truffaut; 5) space and distance as psychological proximity, as when a vacant piece of seascape in many works both separates the figures and makes the encounter more erotic; 6) both natural and inanimate objects as emphasizing inner character—for example, the clothes and jewelry in interior shots.

But Collins fuses these concepts into an idiom that needs no conceptual justification. Despite their glossy and glamorous first look, his portraits are inward characterizations, with a mysterious and ambiguous quality. In Watching Lauralee by the New York Waterfront (1976, three vertical panels), Watching Lauralee by the Sea (1976, three horizontal panels), and Watching Shirine by the Sea (1976, five horizontal panels) the water gives the romantic encounter a mythic or archetypal dimension. In Watching Suzanne in the Grass (1976, three horizontal panels), the grass in the center panel serves to depersonalize and generalize the erotic tension in the figures. As Collins himself says, “People reveal themselves even when they are being theatrical.” And in clearly set-up interior works such as Watching Joyce Collins selects the clothes and background objects so that they create an interpersonal social context and carry emotional truth. In Watching Joyce the quality of light also creates atmosphere, while what appears to be part of a wooden stretcher focuses attention on a girl’s tense and fragile expression; at the same time, skin color and texture suggest vulnerability.

Ironically, Collins’ use of inanimate objects and natural elements in a quasi-mythic way also subtly depersonalizes the male and female figures, making these people not just erotic but cultural archetypes. For just as certain cultural products become norms, certain visual situations become norms. Increasingly now, when one sees a man watching a woman, one is to think of Collins’ images. True, the freedom of Lauralee’s and Suzanne’s particular responses and dress definitely suggests an American milieu, but in the kinds of emotion exchanged even these particular women are universal.

This combination of the mythic, conceptual, and the realistic in Collins’ dual portraits is unusual and, at this point in art, significant. Why has Collins chosen to do portraits at all? He seems to be involved with animating art with humanity, and the portrait is par excellence a celebration of the human being as individual. Similarly, Collins’ portraits relate not only to the human image as part of society, but also to the portrait as a historic category of art. While the figures’ clothes do attach them to contemporary society, the sea, sky and grass—and the basic human attitudes revealed—relate them to a timeless context. Collins uses clothes as everyday “cultural” reality rather than as artistic props; water or grass as mythic, as well as artistic, material. There is also a relation here to field painting: what could be a more continuous “field” than the open sea?

From Roman busts on through the varied interpretations given to it in the 19th century, portraiture has perhaps flourished most when society and its values were fixed. Now, in a society so manifestly unsure of values, whether esthetic, moral or political, Collins’ conveyance of inward emotion and character is a move in a new direction. Recent portraiture has been debased into cheap photojournalism or stylized and arty gallery portraits, but Collins raises portraiture to a new level. He does this not only by his own human involvement and his concept of the dialogue-as-portrait, but, further, by a concern with more analytic modes of investigation into the structure of appearances—modes that are not so different from those of sociology or anthropology.

Distance is an important element which Collins uses throughout with poetic subtlety and intelligence, particularly where the works have psychological and romantic intensity. In these works the space is bracketed in from three to five photographic units. This separates the figures physically as well as psychologically and emphasizes individual gesture. But this distancing is ambiguous, since the gap both separates and unites. In Watching Shirine by the Sea the intervening units of space make the figures, while engaged in a romantic-erotic dialogue, look as if in different environments—irrevocably separated by the changing wave pattern in each photographic panel between them. These panels of sea, especially for their sensuous movement of light and color, are a poetic and esthetic equivalent of the seductive rapport of the figures that is otherwise suggested by gazes and slight physical gestures. As such, the sea’s “distance” serves to intensify the viewer’s sense of a man and woman’s romantic proximity. At the same time it operates simply as distance and expanse, in a way not unlike the tactic of deliberately leaving huge expanses of raw canvas open to visual reverie in certain abstract painting. Collins opens his expanse of color and form to the many associations we all bring to two fundamentals, the erotic encounter and the sea itself. In the recent 10-panel Watching Shirine shown at the A Space Gallery, Toronto, the actual distance between the man and woman is over 33 feet, which means that we ourselves seem encouraged to walk the very distance between them.

The different physical attitudes Collins gives to the figures also contribute to the sense both of isolation and intimacy in the “Space Between” series. As in Renaissance portraiture, hands and neck movements bear expressive force. The man in Watching Shirine by the Sea, an ironic expression in his eyes, hand raised to his lips, is in a more static pose than the woman. His gesture expresses both erotic reverie and admiration. The woman there has a more dynamic pose. Her hair blows in the wind; her head is turned. She laughs a laugh that is partly shy, partly abandoned. Each pose is choreographed in terms of the other individual. In Watching Suzanne in the Grass, the man is again more static, the woman more active. In both works the moment depicted is both shared and individualized, while in another sense it is depersonalized.

Although Collins uses up to five photographic panels in one work, the images in them are not sequential, as are, for example, the photographic units of Jan Dibbets’ pieces. Despite subtle effects of distancing achieved by the “spatial” bracketing, the separate panels esthetically and humanly unite into a single image; even the distance separating people’s faces is part of their human meaning. Through his own personal involvement and his penetration of the individual character of another, Collins revitalizes traditional portrait values—even, as Collins himself has stated, a gestalt “that is static and square on the wall, a gestalt you are absolutely responsible for.” The dialogue between male and female in Collins’ “Space Between” series is individualized, while at the same time the artist makes a particular woman and man’s rapport evocative of cultural myth or archetype. Not by chance does Collins admire those contemporary mythmakers the billboard advertisers (in his favorites, the Marlboro ads, often the same image is repeated endlessly in different, but categorically similar, contexts).

In the recent works the landscape setting is American, but ironically the man’s gestures seem more typically European. Collins was himself born in England and has lived in America since 1970. Noting of these works that the treatment is American, he wrote in Flash Art (June/July, 1975):

Without flogging the European/American dichotomy, and ignoring the shrill cries of cultural imperialism from those on the wrong side of the fence, America’s openness made my art possible. What I’m doing is European in origin, about European fixations, but I could only make it here in the most culturally . . . [heterogeneous] of cities, New York.

A fastidiously European attention to detail comes out in Collins’ choice of the moment in which to “freeze” each individual. The turn of the head, a smile that both flirts and hesitates, the poise of a man’s hand on his chin—all give specific emotional authenticity to the image.

In some earlier works shown at the John Gibson Gallery in New York last year, Collins did three different things to distance himself from the woman: a) he sat behind her; b) he was out of focus; c) he covered his face partially with his hand. Here he was heightening both shared and unshared moments between people. In the new “Space Between” series, we get similar shared moments, but the bracketing of space gives a sense of Pirandellian “roles” and a social context in place that the meetings in the earlier work did not have. As Robert Pincus-Witten has succinctly pointed out (Arts Magazine, January 1976), modern art has given prominent importance to the voyeur type. Collins picks this up in a new way, and here his approach is crucial: no one is sure that Collins himself is taking the picture of the man to whom the female responds. Yet at the same time he seems to scrutinize her from an angle, perhaps without her even being aware. In this sense the male becomes an oblique voyeur, while the woman is in turn an ironic voyeur of the spectator.

In terms of both hand gesture and gaze, perhaps the most powerful of Collins’ new works are Watching Suzanne on the Grass, Watching Suzanne on the Beach, and Watching Lauralee on the New York Waterfront. In the first of these, Collins chose to show the woman shielding the sun from her questioning and distrustful eyes, with two fingers lightly posed on her forehead. This is a momentary pose and, contrasted with the serenity of the setting, it gives erotic and psychological tension to the rapport between the figures. In Watching Suzanne on the Beach and in Watching Lauralee on the New York Waterfront the poses of the male and female “sitters“ each contrast with and compliment the other: again, Collins chooses momentary poses that suggest action before and after the moment depicted. Collins’ handling of the expressive qualities of moment of action, hand motions and gazes contributes here too to inward characterization. As noted before with regard to Watching Shirine by the Sea, he achieves a paradoxical effect of both intimacy and separation by freezing two different moments of action, and even suggesting two different environments. Men and women become, in Collins’ portraits, protagonists in an enigmatic dialogue, with the sea or grass “between” them functioning ambivalently as a unifying or separating element and, in its own right, as a natural symbol.

Portraits historically and culturally involve an idealizing or romanticizing concretization of thought and feeling. Collins’ portraits, in their exaggerated spacing and highly selective use of elements of everyday life, may even recall Mannerist portraiture. Everyday objects—clothes, emblems, hairstyles, types of hand movement, gestures and gazes, as well as selected types of landscape backgrounds—have been traditionally used to relate the world of things to that of the spirit. In Collins’ work, as in the portraits of Raphael or Bronzino, the sea or grass as well as clothes and other manifestations of the human persona dramatize character and milieu. As in earlier portraits, the human image and the world are inextricably associated. Where Collins differs from the past and from much traditional portraiture, once again, is in choosing to make the image less merely individual, and also more mythic or generalized. In a still more recent series, “The Marriage of People and Things,” Collins turns to everyday objects like tables and shelves for metaphors of pictorial organization: he uses tables for horizontal works and shelves for vertical works in which he can juxtapose his objects to mirror the attitudes of the people represented.

In the sense of the human image in romantic dialogue as cultural archetype, Collins’ portraiture implies a new direction that art at this point might take. We are becoming indifferent to display after display of stylistic individuality without cultural reference. Landscape, for the most part, has ceased to give us a real connection with reality—nor do Buren’s or Kosuth’s conceptual truths. As Collins himself wrote prophetically of Conceptual art in his essay “Things and Theories” (Artforum, May 1973): “Whenever theories attempt to replace things, inevitably they function badly as both things and theories.” Collins’ “Space Between” series extends his concept of the human dialogue as portrait and as a means of connecting people to the real world. So does his new series, “The Marriage of People and Things,” works which evidence Collins’ intention to broaden the scope of his art to include a holistic philosophy of objects and people.

Collins’ male/female images represent a kind of contemporary “Romantic Mannerism.” He does invoke feeling, but he uses different “languages,” in a Mannerist way, for the substructure. Despite the photographic units, Collins’ responsibility as an artist is to his subject—what, traditionally, painting portraits was all about. His responsibility extends toward the audience, also. And Collins’ new work is above all an art in a social context, an art for audiences. Getting away from art for an elite, Collins’ work has the elements of a genuinely social interaction. He’s after public rather than private language, and his hybrid of myth—conceptual and human—is calculated to do just this. Collins transcends the visual weakness of Conceptual art and the impotence of political art, opting, instead, for a new romanticism.

Margaret Sheffield is the New York correspondent for Studio International.