Face Off
Group Show featuring Justine Reyes
curators Derrick Adams & Nico Wheadon

Run Dates: November 16th 2007 - January 19th 2008
Opening Reception: November 16th 2007, 7-10 pm

Rush Arts Gallery
Directions:526 W. 26th St (btw. 10th & 11th Ave) Suite 311

For additional information, a price list, hi-rez images, and/or an artist press kit, please contact us

Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, situates the origins of painting, and arguably portraiture, in the legend of the Corinthian maid Dibutade, who, in the fraught hours before her beloved’s departure, lovingly outlines his candlelight-cast shadow onto a wall. The resulting indexical image serves as an aide-memoire for a soon to be lost presence; the impulse to create a portrait to capture a likeness, arises out of a profound expression of love, haunted by the specter of eventual death. While Roland Barthes famously explained photography’s inexplicable spell in much the same terms, the photographic portrait emerged as an important technology of the modern State, a supposedly neutral and objective document used to identify, characterize and control its many subjects. The portrait was transformed from an index of desire to an index of control, exemplified by the ubiquitous passport photograph. Committed to exploring the humanistic potential of photographic portraiture, the artists in this exhibition use elements of ritual desire, humor and emotion to conceptually tweak the iconography, logic and process of the headshot, challenging its apparent claims to veracity, neutrality and power over its subjects.

More than just conventional studio portraits, Luke Abiol’s beautiful, tonally rich black and white photographs document and monumentalize the many communities that have nurtured the artist through his life. Gustavo (East) (2005) and Ruth (East) (2005) present a pair of contemporary Aztec dancers, resplendent in traditional regalia. Turned away from the viewer, their ornate headdresses seem to deflect the objectifying gaze of colonialism and anthropology, which long relied on photography’s evidentiary claims to capture, analyze and preserve the ritual practices of exotic others. However, these contemporary shamans are not anonymous relics of lost cultures, they are named active participants of living cultures; their turn away from us is less refusal than ritual, as they sacralize our shared space by marking the four cardinal directions.

Masks reappear in Justine Reyes’ large color photographs. Evidence of a ritualistic re-veiling the artist performs in private, these images attempt to reclaim control over self and body by thwarting the intrusive, institutional gaze associated with the headshot, a strategy commonly and consciously practiced by women in the postcolonial Muslim world. Carefully handcrafted out of pantyhose, which bears the body’s most private traces, and other everyday materials, the veils obscure the artist’s face. Like all veils, these seduce, simultaneously frustrating our compulsion to know and enticing our powerful desire to uncover; the outlawed eroticism is reinforced by the careful choice and placement of materials, the hosiery’s crotch suggestively positioned over mouth and face. Reyes’ images are referentially rich, their fleshy colors suggesting post plastic surgery bandages while hinting at the growing specter of biological, chemical and nuclear terrorism.

Bayete Ross Smith’s conceptual challenges to photography’s veracious claims shift focus from the image itself to its specific contexts, asserting that despite its common use as identity document, the photograph’s ability to capture and convey the complexities of human subjectivity is entirely contingent on context and caption. For his Access

Justine Reyes, Untitled#7 (From the Mask Series) 2004, C-print, edition of 5, 30x40in or 20x24in (76x102cm or 51x61cm)
Image courtesy of {CTS} creative thriftshop, New York.

Granted series (2007), Smith digitally pasted the same standard headshot into reproductions of passports of various countries, taking on an appropriate nationality specific alias in each. Presented as pairs, which beg comparison, these counterfeit passports lay bare the biases, stereotypes and preconceptions that shape how we read a photograph. Simultaneously, they evince the myriad ways that nationhood is imagined and inscribed while hinting at global hierarchies and strategic alliances, which afford certain citizens greater rights and privileges. Haunting this project are multitudes of refugees, many rendered stateless, forced to adopt new identities and nationalities in order to escape death and persecution.

Deeply suspect of its objectifying gaze, Diane Wah goes a step further and subtracts the photographic image entirely from the likeness equation, relying instead on pure context. Spoofing both early feminist art’s championing of the vaginal form and the recent Vagina Monologues’ populist feminism, Wah adopts a lexical register to conjure a humorous social ‘self-portrait,’ with her vagina as stand in. Scrawled on a bathroom stall door and compiled from submissions of friends and strangers made to her MySpace page, Diane’s Vagina emerges as a worthy protagonist with a myriad enviable talents, witness to important historical events and trend savvy participant in popular culture. However, behind Wah’s playful project is the recognition that jokes are the realm in which racial and gender prejudice and stereotypes commonly circulate, the bathroom stall and the Web providing the anonymity necessary for repressed hate speech to emerge into plain view.

While retaining the neutrality of the basic headshot, Christopher Clary and Ivan Monforte, use distinct strategies to introduce duration, desire and emotion into the photographic process. For Clary, process dominates over final image. A stationary camera snaps pictures of a male subject, that Clary has a personal or professional tie to, at short regular intervals over two hours as he gradually strips. As the session proceeds, the images captured become less about the likeness of the sitter than about his relationship with Clary, as acknowledged in the work’s simple title. Shots are selected, digitally fragmented and reconstituted across the multiple frames of an old flip album. The duration and experience of the session is cleverly recreated in its presentation; as we flip through, our experience of the sitter is animated yet fleeting, constantly in a state of becoming.

In contrast, Monforte actually uses video, consciously deploying its temporality to test the viewer’s ability to endure raw emotion. His often heart-wrenching hour-long Sorry (2006) consists of recorded apologies made by both friends and strangers to someone they hurt. While reminiscent of the reality television confessional booth, Monforte’s simple conceit emerges from his own experiences as an HIV test counselor. Providing little else to look at, the video seems to test the very limits of empathy, of how much catharsis a viewer might endure before a self-protective boredom and apathy takes over. For French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the origin of subjectivity lies in the face-to-face encounter with the Other, an ethical encounter, where sense of self emerges through the empathetic acknowledgement of responsibility towards others. Arguably, it is this ethics of the faceoff that the artists in this exhibition strive to recapture through their wide-ranging experiments at the nexus of portraiture and photography.

-Murtaza Vali, Guest Writer


Justine Reyes, Untitled #1 (From the Mask Series) 2004, C-print, edition of 5, 30x40in or 20x24in (76x102cm or 51x61cm)
Image courtesy of {CTS} creative thriftshop, New York.

about the artist: Justine Reyes was born in California and now lives and works in New York. She received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and has shown her photography and installation and video works in the United States and abroad. She is now an artist in residence at the College. Her “What Remains” photo series documents the work T-shirts of a beloved deceased uncle. Each bears a unique imprint of habit, time and wear with silent grace: his presence is felt through his absence.

about the gallery: Rush Arts and Resource Center was founded in November 1996. As a core program of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation-a foundation that was established in 1995 by brothers Russell, Danny, and Joseph "Rev. Run" Simmons-, Rush Arts Gallery & Resource Center fosters a dialogue that reflects the diversity of ideas and issues relevant to emerging artists and audiences. Since its inception, Rush Arts Gallery has exhibited the work of over 300 artists and has served an audience of thousands of educators, students, and individuals who have not previously explored New York's galleries

Rush Arts Gallery & Resource Center remains dedicated to providing disadvantaged urban youth with significant exposure and access to the arts through its arts education programs. It also creates opportunities for writers, arts educators, and early- to mid-career artists who are not commercially represented by galleries or private dealers. They assist artists' careers by providing an inclusive not-for-profit exhibition space in the heart of Chelsea's art district.