San Francisco

Karim Hamid

Terrain Gallery

At first glance, both the titles and the compositions of the paintings in this show suggest that these works are meant to be seen as portraits. Each of six large canvases depicts a full figure, either seated or standing; four smaller ones show close-ups of single faces. In none is there more than a hint offered of the space the figure occupies—never more, say, than a patterned floor meeting a featureless wall.

On closer examination, however, these paintings begin to foil the expectations we have of portraiture. Photography may have radically changed our assumptions about art’s job (to represent the appearance of things), but the conventions of certain genres lead us to believe that what we are viewing is really a particular person captured at a particular moment. When, for example, a clothed figure dominates the composition, and the background appears to serve primarily as a frame, a time-honored tradition is inevitably invoked. In Hamid’s canvases, though, this tradition is apparently meant to be understood as a point of reference and of departure. Hamid’s deviations from conventional portraiture, like those of Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter, include distortion and erasure. In otherwise conventionally constructed paintings, Hamid introduces startling disjunctions of both perspective and proportion. In the larger canvases, the line where floor and wall meet dips and bends alarmingly, and figures sometimes appear to be composed of parts taken from different bodies. (These alterations are partly a result of Hamid’s practice of painting from a photographic composite—a collage of multiple snapshots of the same person.) More significantly, though, these “works” are virtually unrecognizable as portraits. Without exception, the faces of the subjects are not just blurred or simplified, but almost completely erased. Unnerving details remain—an eye or, more often, a mouthful of meticulously rendered teeth—but, overall, it is as if the artist had literally effaced his subject. The softly scraped surfaces that remain suggest the kind of forgetting that occurs when the subject of our gaze, however adored (or detested), is no longer before us. In place of surface physiognomic detail, Hamid invokes a different, more physical sort of memory: the way someone sits, or laughs, or smells. With astonishing bravado, he seems to suggest that his images have the power to tell us these things and more, even when the faces (or bodies) are those of complete strangers.

It’s easy to give oneself up to the painterly qualities of these works. Thick, glistening passages of almost hallucinatory color, alternately knifed and brushed, are juxtaposed with areas scraped so sharply that the teeth of the knife have left a raked trail though the pigment’s faint traces. In the end, though, it isn’t merely Hamid’s skillful manipulation of paint that sustains our interest. It’s the shiver of sympathy we share with the painter, a melancholic longing for the power to reveal what no camera—or naked eye—can readily see.

Maria Porges