New York

Kerri Scharlin

Dooley Lecappellaine

In her recent exhibition, Kerri Scharlin encircled the gallery with life-size drawings and small, clay figure-studies of herself—portraits produced as part of an elaborate conceptual project. For a period of two months the artist put up flyers in all the New York art schools offering her services as a life model in exchange for the works of art that would result from the sittings.

In inverting the traditional relationship between artist and “muse,” Scharlin sought to examine its social and economic nexus. Scharlin’s work asks one to imagine the differences that would exist in the system of capital surrounding the work of art, and in art-historical discourse, if Manet’s Olympia or Ingres’ Odalisque had controlled the means of production. A generation of criticism has investigated the problematics of the loss of identity on the part of the nameless “muse,” but for Scharlin the question becomes, What does a body without an identity look like and how can it be represented?

From her position as the arbiter of a wealth of material produced by “invisible” artists, Scharlin attempts to fashion an answer. The stilted language of formal training and the institutionalized prejudices of art-historical convention provide an inherent limit on the variety of choices: the demure and rather chaste-looking ingénue, the coquette with coiffed mane concealing/revealing the breasts, the harlot who invitingly meets the viewer’s gaze, or the glaring witch. Scharlin adopts the formal grammar of life drawing to foreground the nature of these constraints on her construction of the figure: no matter how Scharlin positions or juxtaposes them, these stereotyped signifiers are so reified they are unable to speak with any individuality—are transformed into replaceable cogs of equivalent use value.

Like capitalism, life drawing can be said to strive for increasing rationalization and the appearance of objectivity. Scharlin has explored the use of art to represent “objective reality” in two other recent series of work. In one, Scharlin hired a number of police-sketch artists and had 15 acquaintances describe her to them, which produced 15 composite drawings. In the other, courtroom-sketch artists followed Scharlin through her quotidian tasks, depicting the mundanities of her day from getting up to going shopping. Scharlin attempts to locate the specific axiomatic suppositions and prejudices that underlie not only life drawing, composite sketches, and courtroom drawings but any system that gives the appearance of objectivity.

If there is a problem with this installation as a Conceptual art project, it is that while it opens a range of issues from the nature of artistic work to the process of forming systems, the objects on display lack almost any visual interest. The drawings and clay sculptures only serve to illustrate the extraordinary difference in the quality of formal training at the various art schools. At the same time, the whole project is tinged with nostalgia; life studies have now become merely a step in the training of an artist, police-sketch artists are being replaced by computer imaging, and courtroom artists are being supplanted by video cameras.

Andrew Perchuk