New York

Nancy Burson

Grey Art Gallery

Nancy Burson has devoted the past two decades to the human face, not so much to learn from it as to learn what it cannot tell us. This midcareer survey, “Seeing and Believing: The Art of Nancy Burson” (co-organized with the Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston), includes more than one hundred photographs as well as drawings and interactive computer stations (at which you can see various modified versions of yourself—merged with another face, as a different race or age, or with various physical anomalies). The show opened with a selection of the early-’80s composite photographs for which she is best known. The technique was developed in the late 1870s by Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, who superimposed multiple portraits of individuals representing what he deemed a “natural kind” (the criminal, for instance) onto a single photographic plate in order to reveal what the “ideal” of that type would look like. Burson’s adaptation of Galton’s method points up the absurdity of seeking to illustrate a “kind” through chosen faces: In Warhead I, 1982, she digitally superimposed images of Reagan, Brezhnev, Thatcher, Mitterand, and Deng, weighting the intensity of each likeness in proportion to the size of each country’s nuclear arsenal. In the two-image work First and Second Beauty Composites, 1982, she layered images of movie starlets to create ideal portraits of beauty that instead look like the disastrous results of Hollywood inbreeding. These composites put a face on contemporary warfare and physical perfection, respectively, but they are primarily ironic projects that lampoon the very notion of idealized types.

In a dramatic shift away from irony, Burson’s recent works are more earnest explorations into the biases and misunderstandings we as a society bear toward those who don’t fit into our normative standards. In the “Special Faces” series, Burson created sumptuous, richly toned portraits of children and adults born with such craniofacial conditions as progenia (accelerated aging) and Apert syndrome (bone malformation). Burson not only treats her subjects with the dignity usually reserved for those whose appearance adheres to our criteria for beauty but also shows them alongside family members and friends, whose expressions of joy and affection are a powerful rebuke to our own initial shock, fear, and fascination.

In her latest, ongoing series, “Healing,” Burson continues her investigation of what lies beyond appearance, focusing on the gestures of faith healers working on patients. In some of these pictures spears of colored light emanate from the healer’s hands or appear near the subject’s body; Burson insists the photographs are not manipulated, that these effects are records of energy fields. Videos also document the sessions (one of these works, Touch Without Touching, 2002, debuted at Southfirst, in Brooklyn, concurrently with this survey). Again we are confronted with our own biases—in this case, those that prioritize science and positivism over faith. In her expansive oeuvre, Burson defies the notion of truth as visible and verifiable. As witnesses, we discover that we can learn plenty about character from a person’s face—that is, plenty about the character of the viewer.

Kirby Gookin