New York

John Coplans

By turning his attention from his body to his hands in his “Hands: Self Portraits” series, 1986–88, John Coplans shifts the emphasis of his photographs away from the documentary and toward the symbolic. In an earlier series, “A Body of Work,” 1984–87, Coplans relied on the theatrical meanings of poses, but it was the physical facts of his body that made those photographs so striking—the wrinkled, hairy skin, worked by time like a palimpsest; the sagging torso, comically contrasted with the heroic poses Coplans would strike. In narrowing his focus to his hands, he has given up the autobiographical quality that the motif of the body allows. In general, hands are more toollike, less personal, than torsos; as a result, it’s harder for a viewer to experience the sort of vicarious identification with these recent pictures that he or she might have felt with the earlier self-portraits. Instead, the hands become a kind of miniature theater, with every feature—fingers, thumb, nails, knuckles—taking on a role in the ensuing performance, whether as props or as characters.

Tightly framed against a bare ground, presented in large black and white prints, the hands take on a sculptural presence. This effect is magnified by the fact that in most of the pictures, the hand thrusts up into the frame from the bottom, with the wrist serving as a kind of pedestal. In one image Coplans has pressed the tips of his fingers and thumb together, producing a pearshaped form that suggests a cave or grotto. In others he forms a kind of open fist, folding his fingers down in a row and pushing his thumb up between or over them, emphasizing the rhythmic thrusts and counterthrusts of the slab-like digits.

As they become more abstract, less readable as hands, these images open themselves up to other readings—whether geologic, as stressed strata and layers (recalling Paul Strand’s rock faces from the ’20s), or organic, as pollarded tree boles and roots. In many of the large photographs, which predominated in this show, the hands remained too clearly hands, however dramatically posed and cropped they were. In one group of small prints, though, made on an office copy machine, the hands become especially abstracted, and more readily take on other readings, symbolic and dramatic. Because of the limited depth of focus on such machines, and because of the charcoal-drawing quality of the prints, the images of Coplans’ photographs of his hands begin to take on an otherworldly strangeness. The proportions of the limbs are distorted, accentuating the ambiguities of the poses Coplans places his hands in. This is especially true when he uses both hands; in these the intertwined fingers can come to resemble the tangled tentacles of some awful sea creature.

These photographs bring to mind Aaron Siskind’s gigantic close-ups of toes from the ’60s and the overtly Surrealist images of Jacques-Andre Boiffard from the ’30s. The toes in both Siskind’s and Boiffard’s photographs are more immediately strange, disconnected from the fabric of everyday functionality, than are Coplans’ hands——toes are weirder, more sexy than fingers. Many of these pictures don’t readily allow the sort of transformative leap of imagination by which the hands could be read both as themselves and as suggestive metaphoric objects. But Coplans has undertaken a difficult challenge, and when he succeeds, he makes clear the surrealist reach for the uncanny that has been an important current throughout his work.

Charles Hagen