By Jason Foumberg
Our eyes, so careful to speak the mind’s intelligence, can easily regress to bestial instincts. They slim to a predatory shape, scan and hone. The café-set call it people-watching, but really it’s just a form of animal intelligence. When you walk down a busy sidewalk and set your eyes on another, then look away, then look again, away, and eyes brush past each other, it’s like dogs tracking fear, sex, competitors. The optic nerve stabs through the brain’s pearly pith, darting straight for the primitive core. Yes, it’s base, but even the most refined prepared meal satisfies the gurgling stomach.
It’s with these eyes that I went looking for art with my teeth bared, and found Michael Wolf. The Museum of Contemporary Photography, which recently opened an exhibition by the German artist, paints him as a jet-setting photographer of serious architecture who could respectfully represent our city to itself. The work in the show tells another story. Wolf got caught up with what’s inside the buildings—people, alone, unaware that they’re being photographed, making dinner, working on a computer, languishing in their solitude. It’s as if Wolf were combing the beach for beautiful seashells, and dug his snout into something meaty. He discovered that buildings are the decorative shells within which people take off their clothes, lie down and sleep. Welcome to the big city, Michael.
Now, it’s the unwritten rule of living in proximity to so many people, fishbowl style, that you don’t look at them and they don’t look at you. The point is hammered home in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” where the hero has a hobby of spying on his neighbors with a telephoto lens, and assumes he witnesses a murder. Wolf is very aware that he’s enjoying the same pastime. In one grid of windows Wolf sees someone watching this very same film on a big-screen TV. By staging this act of recognition, Wolf hopes to undercut any criticism of scopophilia—the joy of peeping. It’s as if his creepy intrusion is undercut by an awareness of it, but self-consciousness is no excuse for animal desires.
A dog can understand you, in its own way, simply by smelling you. Bypassing any sort of refinement, if they have any, dogs go straight for the ass, which seems to be the ID spout. Humans, too, pick up traits about others in a glance or even using periphery vision. How do you choose which stranger to sit next to on the train? The decision is made in a split-second. Threat level or even date-ability is calculated. “Hell is other people,” said Sartre; but then why the hell do we care what other people look like when they think they’re not being looked at—as in Wolf’s photographs?
These drooling eyes hit the road for other toothsome sport. At the Suburban in Oak Park, author Jonathan Safran Foer’s friend, Sam Messer, exhibited portraits of the writer. Expressionist profiles of Safran Foer were punctuated with scribbles about the sitter’s receding hair, dry skin and an intellectually couth but self-deprecating ‘look’ that made him seem twenty-five years older than he really is. There was no sport to be found here.
“There is even something absolutely inhuman about the face,” wrote philosophers Deleuze and Guattari in teaching us about faciality, or face perception, one of the few instincts attributed to humans (it is said that there are no true human instincts, or actions that we follow irresistibly). Such inhuman faces are to be found in Iv Toshain’s drawings at Dan Devening’s gallery. Here, beautiful people—the idea of which is questioned by the artist—have horrific devils grafted onto their faces. Toshain uses transparencies on top of drawings, effectively having the demons and beasts emerge X-Ray-like from the smooth skin and groomed hair. I prefer not to see these images as commentaries on beauty or ugliness as manufactured by fashion magazines, for beauty and ugliness need as few words as possible to make their strongest statement, but rather these are illustrations (in that they’re not realistic), like anatomical charts or Freud’s funny little drawings of the ego, of the primeval tar pits and genetic cesspools that distance humans only several degrees from hirsute wolves. It’s kind of scary.