Los Angeles

Nancy Burson

Jan Kesner Gallery

Nancy Burson has been investigating techniques for making computer-assisted photographic images for over fifteen years, participating in the development of programs that have enabled her to pursue her work with increasing sophistication, flexibility, and range.

In Burson’s recent show, viewers found themselves transfixed by the unblinking stares of ten large faces. These composite Polaroid Polacolor ER portraits, realized with the aid of the artist’s faithful computer, fuse aspects that might be thought grotesque with other features that could be considered beautiful.

The photographs in this particular exhibition combine parts of faces disfigured by birth defects and other abnormalities with “normal-looking” features. Face after face emerges from the murky backgrounds in a manner recalling the developing process. As the sensitive paper reacts to the cloudy liquid chemistry it is bathed in, the image manifests itself like an apparition of unknown origin, both familiar and alien. Not surprisingly, the gazes of Burson’s strange, manipulated visages prey on one’s fears about physical transformation in a way that parallels the emotional effects of certain works of science fiction, inciting contradictory urges: to keep gawking, and to turn quickly away.

It could be argued that Burson’s hybrid portraits are really collages, as they are the product of a computer program that scans photographs, enabling the artist to select and combine elements of separate images. But Burson’s pictures are so completely seamless that they convey none of the visual disjunction and fragmentation characteristic of collage; indeed, collage is a conceptual, rather than an overtly visual component of Burson’s work. With collage, part of the viewer’s psychological reaction to the work is an attempt to reassemble or resolve the image, while in Burson’s feats of visual genetic engineering, a viewer might have the opposite urge—namely, to try to disassemble the image in order to trace its multiple, disparate origins. The effort seems similar to the researching of one’s genealogy, which leads to the identification of scores of ancestors, and an individual’s possible sense of him- or herself as the sum of his or her predecessors. Even the designation of these pieces as portraits seems a potential misnomer as they call the portrait into question as a depiction of a particular individual or thing at a given point in time, confronting issues of identity, individuality, heredity, and physical deviance.

Printed in substantially varying degrees of focus, so that some are painfully clear while others are scarily blurred, these photos appear to be black and white, until closer examination reveals brownish, gray, and purplish tones. Burson gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of the whites of the eyes. A work titled E. B. E. , 1990–91, suggests a likeness of a hairless, reptilian being. Another work, Untitled, from 1989, seems to depict a demented, cowled monk sporting a week’s growth of beard. A face obscured by a veil that looks like it is being either spewed from or sucked into the subject’s mouth makes yet another work, Untitled, 1990–91, hearken back to the heyday of spirit photography, in which ectoplasm, often looking suspiciously like sheer fabric, played an important atmospheric role.

The longer one remains among these unsettling photographs, the more self-conscious one feels; here, the viewer is the odd man out. The experience is not unlike that of walking down a hospital corridor, as a lone visitor, where one’s health and civilian clothing make one stick out like a sore thumb.

Amy Gerstler