Baby schema

French philosopher Emmanual Lévinas (1906-1995) proposed that an encounter with a human face “orders and ordains” us. It calls us into a circumstance of “giving and serving” the Other. It represents the infinite responsibility of the I for the Other.

A baby face activates an even more pronounced solicitous response. The configuration of a baby’s features—the baby schema—mobilizes instinctual attentiveness in adults. Our attention is literally captured by a baby’s face.

This series, Babyface, works with and against the pleasure of recognizing a baby’s face. The distorted images unsettle at the same time as they engage.

Unlikeness (during the pandemic)

My exhibition, Unlikeness, originally scheduled to open in the spring, finally opened at Simon Fraser University’s Teck Gallery (Vancouver) at the beginning of September.

The world and how we move within it has changed greatly in the intervening months. The pandemic’s health protocols require us to reconsider every aspect of our lives, including exhibition planning. Visitors wanting to see Unlikeness must book an appointment, come in limited numbers, wear masks and practice physical distancing.

The exhibition, consisting of large-scale digital prints glued directly to the gallery walls, will remain installed until next spring. The images that evoke faces began as small drawings, previously discussed here.

 

My interest in representing faces is longstanding. My drawings of faces represent contradictory impulses: engagement with and alienation from the other. I work with materials and processes that interrupt representation and create tension between a gesture and the illusion it creates. Rather than pursuing the idea of a portrait as a fixed, singular image I represent the face as an ambiguous, shifting field of interaction and interpretation.

Our human inclination to read another person’s face and presume their age, gender, race, and personality is almost instantaneous. We focus on what we think we understand, and what matches our idea of how other people look and behave. When we encounter a face that’s unlike our own or not easy to categorize, we may respond with confusion, interest or displeasure. The images in Unlikeness are predicated on this kind of uncertainty and ambiguity.

The practice of “othering,” attributing negative characteristics to individual or groups who are imagined to be unlike oneself, has become increasingly prevalent in the months since the start of the pandemic. Following reports that the Covid-19 virus likely originated from China, diasporic Asian communities became the target of discrimination and subject to waves of abuse in many countries. By identifying “others” as the source of risk, the dominant group endeavours to reduce the sense of helplessness they experience during a time of crisis.

BIPOC people have been overwhelming affected by the pandemic, through various forms or harassment, racist attacks, job-loss, reduced work hours as well as related anxiety and other mental health stressors. The events precipitating recent Black Lives Matter protests follow countless histories of exclusion and injustice. These incidents are not new, but have gained greater visibility within the heightened news cycle and increased focus on social media platforms during the pandemic

The practice of representing faces, both real and imagined, requires me to consider both the harm and potential benefits of encountering other, unknown faces. Like French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906 – 1995), I’m convinced that the face represents the mortal and vulnerable other toward whom we have a social responsibility. Any encounter with a another’s face should prompt a spontaneous, ethical response. By recognizing the face of another we are invited to be in relation to that person. Rather than recoiling from an unknown other, recognition should activate a sense of responsibility and obligation towards that other person.

This, obviously, is not the modus operandi at work during these challenging times. Racial othering along with related racist attacks, have become increasingly visible in the months since the onset of the pandemic.

The ideas I’ve been exploring within my work, ideas that consider how we respond to and interact with uncertainty and difference, will be tested and interrogated in the days ahead.

Moving forward, the desperate social inequalities this pandemic has brought into focus must be addressed within my work as an artist and as a citizen.

Face Processing + Recognition

Two types of information are crucial for face processing and recognition. The first is featural information—those aspects of a face that can be considered in isolation from each other (e.g. eyes, nose and mouth).

When we encounter a face we look at both the internal features (e.g. eyes, nose and mouth) as well as the external features (e.g. hairstyle and jaw-line). While both are important for face recognition, the internal features are considered the most important to face processing and recognition.

The second type of information needed for recognition is configural, which is based on an assessment of the spatial relationships between the features of a face (e.g. the distance between the eyes, nose, and mouth).

The combination of featural and configural information creates a holistic image, an integrated and unified whole—the  facial “gestalt.”

Within these drawings I interrupt a gestalt reading of the face—the featural and configural information is disorganized. How much ambiguity can I introduce within an image of a face and still engage and maintain the viewer’s interest?

Images are details of watercolour graphite on rock paper drawings , measuring 6.5 x 8.5″. Photos by Rachel Topham Photography.

Baby faces

I have a relentless interest in drawing faces. These days I’m not concerned with drawing specific faces, although I am interested in faces that evoke recognition. Baby faces have always intrigued me—they represent faces that are in-process.

As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, “A baby’s face is a peculiar subject within portraiture. While a portrait traditionally endeavours to capture the enduring character of a subject, the image of a baby, whose face continues to change dramatically, does not embody individual character so much as it represents possibility. The portrait of a baby thus highlights the inherent paradox of portraiture; an attempt to fix and materialize that which remains mutable and in flux.”

The materials and methods I’m using, watercolour graphite applied with a brush onto calcium carbonate (stone) paper, interrupt representation and create tension between mark making and the illusion the marks create. Faces emerge from the physical gesture, the abstract qualities of the marks, along with our human propensity to see faces.

Time travel: I am an artist. My name is… (1986)

In 1985 I did a presentation about my work for my friend Judith Schwarz’s drawing class at York University (Toronto). On the long bus ride home Judith mentioned the fact that her department had purchased yet another film about male artists. We were both exasperated with not seeing women represented in the documentary projects about artists and art artmaking being produced at the time.

We began to enumerate the many women we knew who were practicing artists and from this conversation spontaneously decided to make a simple document to acknowledge these women. We applied for and received funding, gained the expertise we needed, then set up a series of opportunities for women to contribute to a simple video compilation. We used word-of-mouth to invite participants, who invited other women artists they knew to make a contribution to the project.

The resulting four-hour tape is a series of “talking head” shots of 102 artists. Each speaker begins with the statement, “I am an artist. My name is…” then adds further details about their work and process. These were shot in real time, without further editing. Artists were given as much time as needed and asked to return the camera’s gaze at the end of their statement.

At times difficult to watch, the process recorded the women’s vulnerability, fragility and anxiety as well as their developing sense of empowerment. Recurring issues and concerns included: women’s relationship to history; the effect of education on our production and identity; the use of our own experience within our practice; our relationship to nature and how this is reflected in our work; an acknowledgement of influence; the effect that having children has on our practice; and a recognition of the political nature of our production in relation to the places we are assigned within culture.

A couple of years ago one of the participating artists contacted me, asking if I could find a way to make the tape available online. It took awhile, but this weekend I was finally able to digitize and upload the videos to Vimeo. I’ve included the first of the four tapes with this post—click on the video title or this link to see all four tapes.