Western Exhibitions’ website claims that “HEAD” “features work that riffs on portraiture.” But this show—smart and wild, dark and dazzling—does more than this. It is less about riffing than ripping the head off of portraiture, countering it through a dismantling of the face. The “horror of the face,” according to French theorist Gilles Deleuze, resides in its imperialism: it imposes its own self-portrait, “overcoding” the libidinal depths of the body with legible surfaces and thereby domesticating the act of signification. But many of these works turn horror back onto the face, opening, animalizing, libidinizing and disorganizing it. Mariano Chavez’s astonishing masks cover the human countenance with the shed coils of snakes’ bodies, a harrowing invitation to become animal. Rachel Niffenegger offers painted faces as traumatized traces, seductively disgusting: the visage made visceral. Inner depths—visceral and emotive—sully legible surfaces in counter-portraiture, activating a more intensely embodied mode of viewing than the contemplative, becalmed gaze proper to portraits. One climbs a ladder to get into the headspace of the installation by the John Riepenhoff Experience, featuring Ann Greene Kelly, while Paul Nudd’s gloppy non-portraits bring bodily depths bubbling up, rendering the “face” monstrous. Counter-portraiture includes the kind of facial disorganization evoked in Richard Hull’s canvases, where thickly applied curving tracks of paint produce the face as displaced, rupturing with intestinal efflorescence. Heads explode again in Rob Bondgren’s work, where clipped magazine images multiply and mutate the face, dismantling it. But heads also give head: Stephen Irwin erodes porn pages to render their figures all the more affectionate; Larassa Kabel’s female subject returns, defiantly, the viewer’s gaze; and Dutes Miller offers up discombobulated fellators. Giving head here speaks to an enthusiasm for liberation through libidinization. Deleuze defined the face as “the white wall/black hole system.” Western Exhibitions makes of its white walls not a facial system, but the setting of an enthusiastically schizoid show that reveals the limits of portraiture, and revels in the possibilities of counter-portraiture. (Jeremy Biles)
Through March 9 at Western Exhibitions, 845 West Washington.