Ed Paschke

at Phyllis Kind Gallery, through October 5

One morning this summer I caught sight of my very first wrinkle in the bathroom mirror. A crease parallel to my right eyebrow, not more than an inch long, it withstood even a vigorous pHisoDerm massage. I rinsed the area and leaned forward to commit the new feature to memory. For 15 minutes I stood there transfixed, but at the same time I couldn’t fight down the shame of being so concerned with my face. So I only stayed there another 15 minutes. I was horrified, yes, but also proud of the wrinkle as a harbinger of wisdom, old age, inner peace.

At some point, however, the aging process might indicate to the person involved less the onset of wisdom and more the onslaught of decrepitude and death. Ed Paschke may be reaching that point. The wrinkles on his face are apparent at 20 paces, the jowls are settling, the hair is white.

In self-portraiture he could have found the vocabulary to address his feelings about how best to live out his golden years or his anxiety about his art surviving him. But nothing in “Making Faces,” his current show at the Phyllis Kind Gallery consisting entirely of self-portraits, betrays any preoccupation with the obvious issues in the genre. These paintings are not easily interpreted as confrontations with the grim reaper, as protests against the inevitability of the aging process, or as vain stabs at discovering the dignity and bearing of a handsome older man. There is virtually nothing intimate, confessional, or personal about them. In fact they are some of the least autobiographical paintings of their genre, and by omitting this type of content Paschke asks crucial questions about the genre’s possibilities.

The best of these works, including Facade, in which Paschke has left nine vertical hatch marks in the center of his face, and the double portrait The Decision, are private rather than personal. And if you’re being honestly private it’s impossible to be sentimental. An analogy might be made between letters, which are personal–that is, meant for another person with whom the writer is familiar–and journals, which are private, not meant for anybody to read. In Paschke’s case the journals contain nothing scandalous, or even remotely revealing. They contain factual and somewhat mundane data.

We are allowed to tag along as Paschke looks at his face in the mirror, but he does nothing to acknowledge our presence. He tries out a lot of different faces, looking at his face the way a plastic surgeon might, with an eye to what could be profitably altered. In The Decision, for example, he seems to be trying out two different noses, one a button and the other a beak, just to see what they look like. Throughout the exhibit he applies a variety of painless and temporary tattoos. He adds distracted neon doodles after his pictures are finished. Donning shades (On and Off), opening his mouth (Interface), turning his face to one side and then the other (Spirit I and Spirit II)–these are gestures normally intended for private moments between a person and his reflection. It’s a completely different activity from striking a pose, when the subject imagines he’s being looked at and threatens, teases, and makes love to the viewer he thinks will look upon the work. Van Gogh and Rembrandt posed for their self-portraits, Warhol never stopped posing, but Paschke is just making faces.

A closer parallel might be the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror of the Mannerist master Parmigianino, celebrated by the poet John Ashbery as a picture “chiefly of [the artist’s] reflection, of which the portrait / Is the reflection once removed.” That sounds like what Paschke has been after all along, images of images once removed, distant cousins of the sights surrounding us. He paints the paint on other bodies, with uneasy and often explosive results. The tattoos that snake down the limbs of his subjects and the cosmetics that clog their pores might be seen as poor relations of the artist’s oils. These colors are added to beautify the ugly, but their effect is always much greater than mere decoration. In a typical early painting such as Francine (1973), which seems to glow radioactively, the body and face paint are applied so heavily that they almost add up to a second woman capable of drinking a scotch and soda at a nightclub while the original woman stays behind to see what’s on TV. Paschke’s success has been the result of self-consciousness. For him, art about art has been preferable to art about life.

Paschke is frequently compared to Andy Warhol because he too has painted such standard Pop subjects as Marilyn, John Wayne, and Elvis. Yet there’s a current of morality running through Paschke’s oeuvre that is absent from Warhol’s. Perhaps that lack is what accounts for the latter’s superstardom. Besides, Warhol was born a celebrity, and just happened to be one who made pictures.

Despite his weirdness, however, Warhol was like most of us, or most of us have become like Warhol. He allowed images to flow through him without assigning them a value, content to bask in their unexamined glow. But Paschke is suspicious, judgmental–he has standards. Where Warhol was happily seduced by stardom, Paschke kicks and scratches as he’s dragged to bed by his vulgarly colored subjects. Where Warhol shrugged, Paschke shudders. Where Warhol yawned, Paschke sermonizes. Their choice of subjects doesn’t quite overlap. Warhol would never have painted Abraham Lincoln–not enough glamour. Paschke would never paint Liz Taylor–not enough substance.

The root of the difference between Warhol and Paschke can be found in their choice of media. Warhol, in his effort to make himself like a factory, eschewed the paintbrush as obsolete, embracing instead the processes of mechanical reproduction. Paschke has always been a painter. He uses an opaque projector to create photographlike realism, but he edits as he goes, exaggerating or mutating forms, melting one image into another, arriving at a compromise between the fully determined faces of the mass media and the somewhat perverse goblins of his subconscious. Bahamas, Paschke’s 1983 portrait of John Wayne, begins with a familiar image of the cowboy, but the face has been turned into a jack-o’-lantern, the eyes and mouth gouged away to show us that the head is hollow. In Pink Lady (1970) Paschke sardonically joins Marilyn Monroe’s head to the body of a male accordionist.

Throughout his career Paschke has focused on other people’s faces, searching for the unexpected in subjects ranging from superstars to assorted sordid unknowns from the city’s underside. And after three decades of finding the beautiful in the ugly and the ugly in the beautiful, Paschke is turning to his own countenance. Considering his past approach to portraiture, the manner in which he treats his own face is surprisingly gentle. The lines describing his features are soft and fuzzy, as though he’d been photographed through gauze. Imperfections have been purged; even the wrinkles convey a kind of musculature. Only in the profile Spirit II is there the slightest indication of slackness. What has happened, now that Paschke’s withering gaze has been turned on itself? Does it have anything to do with that canceling-out effect you get when you aim the video camera at the video screen?

Perhaps it’s for the better that Paschke’s rigorous morality has been short-circuited, however. After all, nobody likes being sermonized at all the time. But then there’s the matter of what might replace the moralizing. And in self-portraiture narcissism, self-pity, and theatricality are all potential pitfalls, and much more regrettable than a little self-righteousness. Happily, Paschke avoids these pitfalls, only to slip into another strange and extremely paradoxical one: too many of the faces billed as self-portraits in a strange way resemble Pablo Picasso more than they do Ed Paschke.

This bit of self-aggrandizement works two ways, as Picasso is the better painter and the more handsome man, but perhaps there is more to it than self-aggrandizement. Many 20th-century artists have imagined themselves in Picasso’s shoes–Jasper Johns, for instance, and Jackson Pollock–but most have done it by imitating the way he painted. Such attempts are usually doomed to failure: Picasso’s specter mocks the audacity of any merely talented artist following in his footsteps. By imagining himself with Picasso’s face, with those famous eyes, Paschke can become Picasso, and therefore eliminate any need to paint like him.

These pictures contain heads but not bodies, and the resulting impression is of suspended animation. Without bodies, they aren’t going anywhere. Instead of interacting with us as we stand before them, as other self-portraits so often do, they just hang there, meditating. Utterly detached, Paschke looks as if he has acquired some of the wisdom that comes with age.