Rick Hards: The Influence of Strangers

at Carl Hammer Gallery, through February 3

Pleasure (Beyond Guilt)

at Artemisia Gallery, through

January 27

By Fred Camper

Old photographic portraits exert a strange fascination. At once corporeal and anonymous, they give us a precise record of a person we don’t know. Antique clothes and hairstyles further distance the figure, and yet the eyes are alive. “Something about the images was really haunting,” Chicago artist Rick Hards told me about the tintypes he’s been collecting for years. Shortly after getting his MFA, in 1989, he began painting over them. In his 19 recent oil-on-tintype works at Carl Hammer he most often paints around the figure in a single color, but in a few works he surrounds the figures with lush, abstracted landscapes that magnify their mystery. A woman in a long dress sits on a painted yellow beach in The Wonder Strand, water and a red sky filled with yellow arcs behind her. The young man in Swing Universe dangles on a swing over an empty landscape; there’s a pink halo around his head, and once again concentric arcs fill the sky.

By placing these figures from another time in suggestive, luminous settings, Hards seems to universalize, even eternalize them. Yet these figures still have particular facial expressions, jarring reminders that each is–or was–also an individual. By leaving the faces alone, Hards opens up a split between his sensuously colored areas of paint and each visage, the marker of a particular identity. But by making the painted arcs in the sky like monumentalized halos–each figure’s aura seems abstract and universal, filling all space–Hards re-creates the contrast between specific and universal in traditional portraits.

Born in Utah, Hards was raised a Mormon, but even as a child he didn’t like the religion: “I was feeling that it was really imposed on me. As I grew older I realized I didn’t believe in the teachings.” At 10 or 11, he “was immersed–baptized–about 80 times” in one day, “a very surreal memory”; in accordance with Mormon belief, he was serving as a proxy for the baptism into the church of people already dead. Perhaps the Mormon interest in ancestors–genealogical research is done to incorporate them in the church–helped spark Hards’s later interest in old photos.

When the paint that surrounds the figures is a pale monochrome, Hards typically covers most of the original photograph, including part of the figure. The paint’s outline often forms a bizarre shape suggestive of a bird, insect, or animal whose image Hards has found in a book, but he doesn’t look at the book while painting. Instead he tries to create shapes that “respond to the figure.” The Aviary is a grid of nine figures: people of all ages shaped like birds. In most, a rounded, natural-looking bird belly is created near the person’s waist, but the detail of the outlines also gives each a powerful presence. Like the animal-human figures of some non-Western art, these bird and human forms seem perfectly if improbably balanced, each element shaping the other, neither dominating–newborn creatures, beings not seen before.

The strangest works are the nine “Living Organisms.” In each, the figure is outlined with cyan paint in an odd, often buglike shape. The woman’s head in Living Organisms B is cut off at the forehead, and six tentacles where her hair might be point upward. Just below a woman’s high collar in Living Organisms D, five curved strips like octopus tentacles remain free of paint; four of them, pointing upward, also evoke a human’s raised arms. By linking some of his animal shapes to human anatomy, effectively marrying his animal and human forms, Hards makes old photographs “come to life” in a surprising way; yet by remaking humans into bugs and birds, he also suggests the inevitable distance between the anonymous, long-ago subjects and ourselves. Though one can see where the dark dress ends and the lighter gray of the photograph’s background begins in the tentacles of Living Organisms D, what’s odd is how little that seems to matter: the tentacles have a life of their own that re-forms the photograph. The same might be said of four similar protrusions from a baby’s head in Living Organisms I, which I took as metaphors for a baby’s first reachings into the world.

When he started coloring tintypes, Hards was unaware of a late-19th-century folk-art tradition of hand-coloring photographs, the faces flesh tinted, the clothing and backgrounds in diverse but gentle tones (several interesting examples of such works are also on view at Carl Hammer). But Hards works to opposite ends. Whereas flesh coloring the faces enhances their humanness, Hards’s juxtaposition of photographed faces and lush paint almost removes the figures from our species.

In another sense, though, Hards is working within a well-established tradition of photography and painting: like every photographer and realist painter, he draws a frame around reality, and in that process of selection begins the transformation of raw vision into a controlled, delimited work of art. If his paint is the analogue of a photographer’s framing choices, then at least Hards acknowledges his own manipulation more than the average “documentary” photographer does–the paint is a clear sign of the artist’s hand.

Hards’s painted fields almost always concentrate one’s eyes on a face: keyholelike masks, they also inject an element of voyeurism. The viewer becomes aware of separations–between subject and object, artist’s vision and raw reality. Hards’s sensuous, sinuous biomorphic shapes give pleasure but remain separate from the viewer. A very different concept of visual pleasure is evident in the 41 works by 39 mostly women artists in Artemisia’s show “Pleasure (Beyond Guilt).” Many of these artists rigorously reject, though in different ways, the “artist’s mission” to produce an object the viewer can gaze at invisibly, voyeuristically, perhaps in reaction to feminist claims that the traditional viewer’s gaze is controlling, even fetishizing.

Try to gaze invisibly at Mary Ellen Croteau’s nude self-portrait as The Unrepentant Magdalen and she looks right back at you. This send-up of “Repentant Magdalen” paintings incorporates the elements typical of the genre: a seated woman, a mirror, a skull. But the skull is happily smoking a cigarette, and the plump Magdalen is even more happily eating from a box of chocolates. We see her body from the rear, but she turns her head to face the viewer, and whereas the typical female nude either doesn’t acknowledge the viewer or looks back invitingly, Croteau’s face reveals a subtle mixture of nonchalance, contentment, and confrontation. She seems self-satisfied, going against all that’s expected of female nudes and Magdalens in need of repentance. Croteau paints broadly rather than subtly, but the work is effective satire, its directness an answer to centuries of art.

Several other works depicting women also combat voyeurism by confronting the viewer. In Mary Lou Zelazny’s The Honey Moon, a woman in a transparent nightie faces us; the deep yellow light behind her, shining through the cloth, refers to the title’s pun. But painted on the fabric are many women’s faces in different moods, all looking out at us. These faces, interrupting our view of the woman’s torso, announce the complexity of her humanity. Barbara Kendrick’s sculpture Fashion is a bald mannequin whose “dress” is human hair shaped into spirals or randomly arrayed. Critiquing the manufactured clothing designed to make women more alluring, Fashion proposes natural hair as all the “clothing” we need. Mark Newport’s untitled piece approaches issues of body image from a male angle but to similar ends. He places colored beads on images of proud football players on two trading cards; in one, the beads mimic the colors of the uniform. Here the artist’s work doesn’t gaze back at us but transforms a virile figure into a glittery allover surface. The beads are analogous to Zelazny’s small faces, deflecting our gaze, but significantly they represent a decorative, almost “feminine” design.

One work that didn’t give me a lot of visual pleasure was nonetheless quite moving. Alice Hargrave’s abstract “Equivalent” Mammogram, a Cibachrome print made directly from a mammogram, continues the attempt to publicize women’s increasing deaths from breast cancer. But the title also refers to Alfred Stieglitz’s famous Equivalents, cloud photos he saw as metaphors for or “equivalents” of other sights. Hargrave’s answer to Stieglitz’s airy, transcendent rhetoric is to reproduce the record of a woman’s body, which also refers to women’s deaths. Rather than give us something beautiful to look at, she gives us something disturbing to think about.

While one group of works asserts the physicality of its figures while denying the viewer voyeuristic possession, another, less confrontational group aims for a visual beauty tied to or inspired by nature. These pieces are often in multiple parts, offering different views of the same or similar subjects; many of the sculptures must be viewed from several positions to capture their complexity. In either case, the viewer is elevated from passive observer to active cocreator.

Cocurator Carrie Seid’s Green One offers a long, curvy shape with a piece of Mylar under its silk surface; a green glow comes from within. This enigmatic form seems partly biological, partly geometric: a shape whose identity remains elusive isn’t easily “objectified.” In cocurator Susan Sensemann’s Swing, four layers of found fabric are placed atop one another, the delicate floral pattern of one surface overlying, for example, very faint red polka dots. The viewer who moves from side to side will notice different levels of depth as one design moves with respect to another. There is no single “image,” no “object” to focus on here; the artwork is an ever-changing product of the viewer’s position.

Barbara Cooper’s Cyclus is a large sculpture of wooden bands glued together to resemble woven rattan, then shaped into large arcs. The eye that follows one of these arcs will shortly be led into another; one cannot view Cyclus as a single unified shape. The viewer must traverse this work over time, in a kind of journey. These artists don’t see artist, viewer, and nature as separate entities commenting on or modifying one another but, like Cooper’s wooden bands, as inextricably interwoven.