New York

Miki Carmi

57 STUX + Haller Gallery

The curious thing about Miki Carmi’s recent portraits of his mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa is their apparent redundancy: each looks more or less the same as the next, confirming that they are members of one close-knit or even inbred family. All have bald, bulblike heads, and eyes that stare fixedly, stubbornly, to the left or right. There are some physical differences—skin tones range from chalk white to a ruddy pink, lips from thin to full, eyebrows from lowered to raised—but these don’t count for much, expressively. The figures seem to have the same mind-set and limited emotional range—there is certainly no testing of the limits of human expressiveness of the kind found in Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s outwardly comparable sculptural self-portraits. Rather, Carmi’s “psychic readymades,” as he calls them, are a kind of modified bust portrait, leveling affect so as to more effectively evoke a primal undifferentiated presentness. They communicate a sense of isolation augmented by a tendency towards grotesque caricature.

Carmi’s heads float against a white void, giving them an intimidatingly iconic presence, and the works’ poster-like monumentality suggests an intrusive Big Brother. Psychoanalysts remind us that the really big people in our lives are our parents; perhaps our grandparents are even bigger. Is Carmi thus paying ironic homage to the people who have influenced him most powerfully by portraying them with all the hard-eyed detachment he can muster? And is the irony compounded by the fact that his portraits are death masks of a sort, each detail exaggerated to produce a macabre lifelikeness, a fatalistic autonomy? If, as psychoanalyst and art historian Ernst Kris writes, masks are apotropaic—Messerschmidt’s masklike grimaces exist to ward off the fear that they express—then one might say that Carmi’s masks ward off his fear of the older generation by disregarding their feelings. He replaces perceptible emotion with painterly absorption in the intricacies of their physical features, making them perhaps more memorable as images than they are as real individuals. Picasso did something similar in his portrait of Gertrude Stein, and Chuck Close does it in his grandiose self-portraits. What makes Carmi’s portraits distinctive is that he seems to do so without mangling his subject’s features, however much they are reduced to quasi-sameness.

If portrait painting is a search for the general in the particular, then Carmi has generalized a particular look into pseudo-universality. Dostoyevsky suggests that the portraitist makes a convincing work only when he or she (unconsciously) recognizes himself or herself in the sitter, and Camri seems in some sense to have achieved this. Portrait painting is unavoidably an act of self-projection—or more subtly the projection of what psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut calls one’s “self-objects.” Carmi pictures betray a lack of empathy, which is perhaps why they appear unfathomable. He emphatically objectifies his subjects’ thick emotional skins but never penetrates them, suggesting that he suffers from the same “strangulated affect,” to use a term Freud and Josef Breuer coined, as they do. Perhaps this is why his family now looms so large—mentally and visually—and why his realism, for all its empirical boldness, lacks a certain emotional charge and magic.

Donald Kuspit