Tracy Williams, Ltd. New York
By Michael Wilson
“In the afternoon of April 6, 1966, one of the most famous UFO cases in the world occurred over a school in Westall, Australia,” begins a passage on a handout that accompanied “Anatomy of a Phenomenon,” New Zealand painter Peter Stichbury’s recent exhibition. “Pupils and teachers were told not to talk about what they had seen, and the chemistry teacher, Barbara Robbins, who had taken photos with her camera, was forced by authorities to hand it over.” In Stichbury’s portrait of the woman, Ms. Robbins is depicted as an oval-faced blonde with haunted, wide-set eyes that suggest the persistence of a traumatic memory—and give her something of an otherworldly appearance. This particular look is a longtime signature of the artist’s, and in this exhibition, he explained it by asserting that those pictured were all “experiencers”—individuals who have supposedly had a close encounter with aliens or their craft.
At Tracy Williams, Ltd., Barbara Robbins, Westall High (all works 2014) was joined by four other portraits ranged along one wall. These faced off against five black-and-white paintings based on published photographs of UFOs, and a sixth such pair hung together in a separate space. Picturing mostly saucer-like shapes—and, in one case, the elongated inverted teardrop of a weather balloon—the UFO series made the exhibition’s basis in the culture of sighting, encounter, and abduction visually explicit. The images’ internal ambiguity—the geometric simplicity of their forms and near-featurelessness of their aerial backgrounds make them appear virtually abstract—not only established an effective contrast with the portraits but also sparks a dialogue around the nature of perception, representation, and reportage that extends far beyond the particularities of alien-spotting.
The portraits in Stichbury’s previous exhibition at this gallery, 2012’s “Superfluous Man,” shared the current crop’s slicked-back hair and smooth skin, symmetrical features, and glazed expressions; on that earlier occasion, the artist linked his subjects’ apparent torpor to the existential angst associated with the nineteenth-century Russian literary archetype from which the show borrowed its title. And two years before that, in “The Proteus Effect,” he tethered the unreality of his steely, Lempicka-esque visages to the robotic idealization of digital avatars. Although his style remains consistent from project to project, this continual thematic reinvention has allowed the artist’s oeuvre to gradually accumulate an absorbing breadth and complexity.
Perhaps Stichbury’s work is linked, however, not only via explanation but also via continuing mystery. Just as the UFO phenomenon is shrouded in layers of disinformation, conspiracy theory, and myth that no amount of investigative reporting or academic debunking seems able to conclusively penetrate, so too do Stichbury’s portraits depict the citizens of an alternate reality that hovers just out of reach, visible but partially suppressed. The stony-faced likes of Milton Torres, a military pilot who was ordered to open fire on a UFO over England, and Gordon Cooper, an astronaut and repeat experiencer, confront the viewer with a seeming candor that ultimately repels helpful analysis. The photo paintings too are self-consciously frustrating, offering only tantalizing glimpses, never the longed-for head-on view. The UFO phenomenon is real in the sense that it continues to generate reportage and debate (not to mention entertainment), but, as with the “phenomenon” of art, its interpretation is unfixed, perhaps unfixable. It is, like the photographs on Barbara Robbins’s government-confiscated camera, removed from common view.
NDE, Felicity Milburn
101 Works of Art, catalog
Christchurch Art Gallery
It’s odd when your immediate reaction to a painting is to look away and over your shoulder instead. That’s how I felt when I first encountered Peter Stichbury’s unsettling NDE. When someone fixates anxiously on a point behind you it is undeniably off-putting - a classic schoolyard ploy – and what’s more, it disrupts comfortable art viewing protocols: rather than returning, or receiving, our gaze, the immaculate woman’s intense concentration elsewhere makes our presence seem somehow superfluous. It’s creepy intriguing and, yes, even a little insulting.
NDE made its first public appearance as a glowing, seven-meter-wide billboard on Christchurch Art Gallery’s exterior as part of our post-earthquake Outer Spaces program. Looming over Worcester Boulevard, her unnerving gaze rested squarely on the Christchurch City Council’s Civic offices, and no sooner was she installed than we began receiving expressions of alarm via our blog:
At 12:28 PM on 19/04/2013, Gus wrote: The painting is scaring people.
At 8:14 PM on 19/04/2013, Gus wrote: This is spooky! Take it down!
Mission accomplished, Stichbury may well have thought, given he’d previously admitted his hope that NDE would ‘induce an uneasy response, like witnessing a UFO’. The artist, in fact, had been managing some anxieties of his own – this was his first public artwork and also the first time he’s made a painting with the intention that it be translated into vinyl and blown up dramatically in scale. From his comments at the time, it’s clear the work received even more than his usual forensic attention to detail:
‘It feels slightly strange knowing it will be transformed into a huge illumination. All those small hairs and tiny details I’ve been sweating over will end up as scruffy foot-long gestural brushstrokes. I should really be painting with a microscope. Actually, once it’s blown up, even the linen will look like the moon’s surface.’
Back in the Gallery, the subsequently acquired original exudes an enigmatic perfection reminiscent of Hitchcock’s icy blondes, though closer scrutiny suggests she might have more in common with the fretful, too-perfect, ‘valids’ of Gattaca, Andrew Niccol’s 1997 sci-fi classic about a eugenically designed society. That initial, synthetic flawlessness unravels further every moment, revealing a series of subtle manipulations calculated to maximize our discomfort. First, those haunted, haunting eyes – enlarged and widened in the chilling ‘objective’ tradition of Lucian Freud, who Stichbury cites as a key influence – but also sunken, red rimmed and ringed with shadows. And the strangely ambiguous look within them – is this a woman who is startled, afraid or merely processing some life-changing new information? Her clothing (chic trench or lab coat?) is similarly inconclusive. Our viewpoint is so low and close we can almost see her pupils dilate, and Stichbury’s fascination with testimonies of near death experience, documented and analyzed in countless internet forums. Across age, gender and religion, several core motifs recur: a sensation of bodily detachment, a feeling of serenity and the presence of a light, traveled through or toward. Have we stumbled across someone on the cusp of the hereafter? Her implied, inaudible gasp seems to support it. Whatever she has seen or experienced, it has, at least temporarily, removed her from our sphere into another – leaving us uncomfortably close, but worlds apart.
The Paranormal Portraitist
Peter Stichbury Paints Alien Abductees for a Living
February 3, 2015
By Zach Sokol
When New Zealand artist Peter Stichbury was seven, he thought he saw something shoot across the sky in broad daylight. Though he no longer believes that the object was anything out of the ordinary, the moment was a creative sucker punch for the portraitist: At 46, Stichbury is as enraptured by UFOs as ever and devotes his work to them. His recent show at Tracy Williams, Ltd., in New York, titled Anatomy of a Phenomenon, featured paintings of people who claim to have had a UFO-related encounter, extraterrestrial-related or not.
A painting of a young blond girl with downcast eyes was inspired by the time John E. Mack, a psychiatrist and Harvard professor, traveled to Zimbabwe after 62 children reported seeing a flying saucer and "strange beings" during recess. Rather than depicting the girl in utter terror, Stichbury chose a vacant facial expression to prevent the work from being one-dimensional. He thought about how such an event "would have changed the psychology of a witness over time," and how "experiencers" (as Dr. Mack called UFO witnesses) tend to talk about these phenomena with a multitude of emotions other than fear.
Aside from the strange happenings themselves, the artist has found the lore of ufology fascinating because of its "cast of complex characters, intrigue, and infighting," as well as the inherent factual contradictions of paranormal occurrences. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his earlier work revolved around the empty, glossy expressions of models and actresses.
"The UFO phenomenon is utterly confounding and, on the surface, ridiculous," Stichbury said. "The easiest thing to do is ridicule and marginalize people when they challenge consensus reality. But after two years of research, I think some of the phenomena are inexplicable in terms of our current and conventional understanding of physics and the universe.
"The underdog is such a rich archetype and interesting position to explore," he said. "It has a kind of objectivity that is completely autonomous from the groupthink or broader social collective." Tellingly, one of his favorite quotations is from Roswell researcher Stanton Friedman: "Don't bother me with the facts, my mind is made up."
Stichbury's subjects come from a variety of sources, including UFO documentaries, paranormal-themed podcasts, and research compiled by scientists and journalists. He shared with us two of the strangest UFO-encounter stories he's come across—tales that have inspired his idiosyncratic portraits.
THE SIGHTINGS IN COLARES, BRAZIL
"The sightings occurred over a period of months in 1977 on the Brazilian island of Colares," Stichbury told us. "Beams of light shot down from the sky, burning villagers and leaving small puncture marks on their bodies. For me, the most interesting thing about this case is that the Brazilian Air Force eventually formed Operation Saucer to investigate and document the ongoing incidents, and interviewed thousands of witnesses from the region. There are almost no other cases like this that leave a trail of meticulously collected hard evidence, and most of the formerly classified government documentation connected with this case has been released to the public, including photographs of the aerial phenomena and military drawings. It's plausible that this was a military exercise, some sort of psychological warfare, or a new weapon being tested on the hapless villagers, but I personally believe this is a legitimate case. The UFO photographs are some of the best ever recorded."
JAPAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 1628
"This is, in my view, one of the best pilot sightings ever," Stichbury said. "In November 1986, Japan Airlines flight 1628, a cargo plane flown by Captain Kenju Terauchi, encountered a giant, walnut-shaped UFO in the skies above Alaska. Two smaller objects were also seen flanking the plane. Terauchi said in an interview, 'The thing was flying as if there was no such thing as gravity. It sped up, then stopped, then flew at our speed, in our direction, so that to us it [appeared to be] standing still. The next instant it changed course. In other words, the flying object had overcome gravity.'
"The UFOs were tracked by ground radar, and a target was picked up by nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base. A whistle-blower at the FAA released the radar data to the public. The FAA dismissed the case as an 'equipment malfunction.' Captain Terauchi was grounded by Japan Airlines for several years before being allowed to fly again."
7 of the Most Absorbing Artworks at Art Los Angeles Contemporary
By Andrew M. Goldstein
Jan. 31, 2015
The New Zealand artist Peter Stichbury revels in the crossroads where portraiture meets the occult, and his portraits of women who have claimed to have had close encounters of the third kind possess an eerie, gripping power. Set down in flat oil in a manner that recalls early Lucian Freud, these paintings (of Barbara Robbins on the left and Mona Stafford, an abductee, on the right) are just off enough with their wide, askew almond eyes and catatonic affect to convince the viewer that a gulf of experience lies between them and the subjects. Previously shown in a solo show at the gallery in November, works from Stichbury’s appealingly paranoid series are bound this year for a group show of alien-inspired paintings in Spain, where a talk with be delivered by the Bobby Fischer of Ufology, Jacques Vallée.
Superfluous Men Can't Get No Satisfaction
Written by: John Yau, November 18, 2012
Peter Stichbury is a portrait painter whose work is unlike anyone else that I know of, and I am only stating the obvious. In “Skin-deep: Peter Stichbury and The Art of Appearances” (Art & Australia, September 2011), Justin Paton writes:
Hung alongside Zuckerberg’s fizzog were faces of nearly oppressive flawlessness. There was a chiseled Donald Draper type called ‘Roman’, a waif-model named ‘Bregje Heinen’ and a riveting youth called ‘Bernard M.’. They all have hair like sable, clear veinless eyes and skin that doesn’t sweat. As you might have guessed from those details, Stichbury is an awed admirer of the portraits of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (“halfway through making a show his book always makes its way onto my table to mock me,” Stichbury told me recently, and he sets down his new characters with extraordinary patience and technical cunning.
However much Stichbury is an “awed admirer “ of Ingres, he does part company with him in substantial ways. In his essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire’s complaint about Ingres seems to have been implicitly understood by Stichbury:
The great failing of M. Ingres, in particular, is that he seeks to impose upon every type of sitter a more or less complete, by which I mean a more or less despotic, form of perfection, borrowed from the repository of classical ideas.
For all of their “nearly oppressive flawlessness,” Stichbury’s paintings and drawings do not look back to “the repository of classical ideas,” but to a world replete with cosmetic surgery, Photoshop, Facebook, Twitter and reality television, just to name a few of the ways society exhibits new and improved faces. Along with Ingres, I would advance that Stichbury belongs to a group of linear portrait painters that includes Christian Schad, Tamara de Lempicka, and early Lucien Freud, particularly “Girl in Bed” (1952), which is of his then wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, who was known for astonishingly large blue eyes.
* * *
In 2010, Stichbury had his first New York exhibition, which he titled The Proteus Effect, at Tracy Williams. The title signaled his interest in the phenomenon of creating a digital persona (or avatar) as a form of self-representation. Stichbury’s second exhibition at Tracy Williams is Superfluous Man (November 8–December 22, 2012). The term was popularized in Russia in the mid-19th century by Ivan Turgenev’s novel, The Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850). The “superfluous man” was born into wealth and privilege. Unwilling to work in the government, which was where one could make a name, he gambled, dueled, and arranged romantic trysts. He tended to be shallow, cynical and bored.
Whereas Elizabeth Peyton romanticizes various examples of the superfluous man, making it seem as if idleness is the only important goal in life, Stichbury’s aim is different. He isn’t celebrating pop icons, like Lindsay Lohan and Adriana Lima, by making them into eleven-foot paintings in soft-core porn poses, as Richard Phillips did in his recent exhibition at Gagosian. Although Stichbury is exploring some of the same territory as Peyton and Phillips, he isn’t following in Andy Warhol’s footsteps and trying to connect himself to celebrities, and that’s saying something.
* * *
There are seven paintings and four drawings in colored pencil on charcoal gray paper. The largest one, “Estelle & Helena” (2012) is 63 by 47 inches. It is a double portrait and the largest painting Stichbury has made to date. At the other end is “Augusta Vane” (2012), which is around 13 by 12 inches. The other five portraits — examples of the superfluous man — are all the same size, around 40 by 30 inches.
In his best paintings, Stichbury walks a fine line between the unblemished and the grotesque without showing his hand, either literally or metaphorically. We tend to associate flawlessness with beauty, but Stichbury’s smooth, perfectly modulated, tight surfaces are unsettling. His paintings don’t strike me as portraits of people but of people who want to look as smooth and flawless as dolls. In “Estelle & Helena,” Estelle’s head is a perfect oval; she looks like an egg with eyes that are just a little too far apart and a little too big. The carefully manicured eyebrows rise uniformly above the eyes, like the wings of seagull. The bridge of her nose drops down from where the eyebrows end, like a swimmer executing a perfect dive. Other than Estelle and Helena’s gray eyes and rose lips, Stichbury works with a palette that consists of different tones of ocher, brown, black and white. The fact that Estelle is posed with whom you assume to be her adolescent daughter adds a note of creepiness to the painting. After all, what legacy is Estelle passing on to Helena?
Here is the real difference between Stichbury and both Peyton and Phillips. While they all focus on surface appearances, only Stichbury evokes interiority and depth. By not picking a celebrity — someone we recognize — or a clichéd romantic type (wan and thin young men), and by focusing on people who haven’t been branded, Stichbury invites us to scrutinize these remote individuals who are uncomfortable in their perfect skin. Harold Child’s forehead looks too big, with the skin stretched a little tightly over the skull. Barnaby Pan has a few tiny moles that, against the flawless skin, become visual irritations. (Imagine how Mr. Pan must feel. And this is also what makes Stichbury’s work so extraordinary and riveting — one cannot guess at the turmoil seething behind these perfectly controlled faces, these calculated looks of introspection. Perhaps, as Gertrude Stein stated, “there is no there there.” Or perhaps it might be that they have succeeded in repressing every errant thought or desire, have succeeded into making themselves into perfect robots.
Baudelaire’s flaneur was at home everywhere in the world, including, presumably, the Internet. Stichbury’s “superfluous man” isn’t relaxed anywhere. He may be a young CEO or someone who inherited wealth, but you feel that his discomfort is synonymous with his existence. For all their individuality, these people know they are replaceable, that there is nothing special or inimitable about them.
* * *
The longer you look at Stichbury’s paintings, the weirder they become. It is almost as if the figures in them have become too perfect, too manicured, too controlled.
As viewers, we might have occasion to remember that this control is an illusion, that dissipation and entropy are unavoidable. Stichbury’s fascination with the world of self-representation in the age of digital media goes far beyond the surface — it is a meditation on the lengths to which we will go to avoid being human and aging, and how deeply human such attempts make us.
Peter Stichbury: Superfluous Man continues at Tracy Williams (521 West 23rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 22.
The New Yorker
Goings On About Town: Art
By Peter Schjeldahl
October 4, 2010
Exceedingly strange quasi-portraits of quasi-youths, by a newcomer from Auckland,
suggest Alex Katz crossed with a forensic scientist. Some are paintings; most are digital
prints. All present wide-eyed faces distorted by what seem to be efforts at idealization
gone too far, overshooting beauty to land in living deadness. Stichbury worries about
Internet virtuality run amok (one face is, more or less, that of Mark Zuckerberg). He does
so to exquisite pictorial effect. Through Oct. 30
Tracy Williams, Ltd / Novemberr 8 – 8 December 22, 2012
The superfluous man, a Russian literary archetype marked by world-weary alienation and inaction, is the springboard for Stichbury’s grim psychological portraits in this exhibition of the same name. In seven paintings and four drawings, Stichbury’s subjects are inert and eerily flawless, their furrowed brows the only sign of interior presence. The artist offers contemporary versions of the archetype, updated to reflect alienation in an increasingly digital society: gleaming, avataresque models of perfection, as if airbrushed past the threshold of reality.
Bulletin 172, 2013 Christchurch Art Gallery
Justin Paton in conversation with Peter Stichbury
NDE, Worcester Boulevard, Christchurch
Justin Paton: Your portrait paintings are finely worked and usually only a few feet across. How has it felt to make such a painting knowing that it will be blown up to billboard scale?
Peter Stichbury: It feels slightly strange knowing it will be transformed into a huge illumination. All those small hairs and tiny details I've been sweating over will end up as scruffy foot-long gestural brushstrokes. I should really be painting with a microscope. Actually, once it's blown up, even the linen will look like the moon's surface.
Have you made a public artwork before? Have you felt like a ‘public artist’ while making it?
No, this is the first one. Making a show usually revolves around the relationship of each painting to the others and of the paintings to the given space, so a singular public artwork is a novel challenge. I think studio painting can look oddly disconnected when it's taken outside into daylight and forced to contend with the scale of nature and buildings. My particular kind of painting seems to need an internal architectural context to make sense, a quiet and protective incubator to exist within. Ironically one of the great things about this project is the opportunity to become unencumbered by the rules I create for gallery shows.
What do you reckon it will do on the exterior of Christchurch Art Gallery that it might not do if seen on a wall inside it?
I'm hoping that being the large outdoor transparency will give the painting a mirage quality, the feeling of a technological deity on a giant computer screen looking over the nearby streets.
Though you’re immersed in the tradition of portrait painting, you’re not at all opposed to photography and reproduction. Indeed, you have occasionally tampered with your own paintings – cloned and altered them. How exactly do you do this, and why?
After you've laboured over a single work for six weeks, it's liberating to digitally play Dr Frankenstein with the finished painting. Photoshop gives me the freedom to accentuate or degrade the image's beauty or asymmetry. I remember when they cloned Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Institute in Scotland, there were reports of biological mishaps and failures before a successful clone was rendered. I think there must be drawers and drawers of malformed animals hidden away somewhere. I quite like the idea of having incorrect or botched manipulated paintings, like the 'In-Valid' characters in Gattaca – though I do get to the point where I need to put down the digital tools and get back to the hard graft of the studio.
We’re used to seeing perfect faces on a vast scale, in billboards and advertising. Have you been thinking about those kinds of faces as you made this painting? Do you want your portrait to stand apart from that kind of imagery or to overlap with it confusingly?
It is unavoidable to think about the overlap, but I explored these ideas extensively in my first couple of shows. Now subverting advertising imagery is like flogging a twice-dead horse; most people are complicit in the consumer/advertiser transaction. However, leading up to this project, I did try to take photos of a cosmetics counter light-box at LAX, but I found out that Chanel doesn't take kindly to rogue artists photographing a photograph of Brad Pitt. Maybe they thought it was industrial espionage…
People familiar with your work will recognise the woman in this work; she’s a model you’ve often used, called Estelle. But here you’ve refrained from naming her, and also left out the background details you sometimes include. Where is she? What’s happening to her?
She's in an in-between place, a transition from one reality to another. I was reading about neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander's near-death experience and then started investigating other people's similar experiences. The commonalities of their visions close to death are uncanny and they exist across religious beliefs, culture and time. There's the cliched beckoning light or tunnel and the person's loved ones welcoming them into the afterlife. Often there's a communing with a loving God explaining that it's not their time and they must go back to their body. Whether or not these recollections are true or hallucinations caused by neurotransmitters or lack of oxygen in the brain at time of death is anyone's guess but the experiencers truly perceive that what they have gone through is real. When they recover from near death and return to their everyday lives they often report being less materialistic, more loving and altruistic in general.
Where else have your internet searches been leading you lately? You seem to keep a close eye on some of the stranger developments in contemporary psychology, which feed the crackpot back-stories you give your characters.
Hah, yes the back-stories can get somewhat convoluted and a little crackpot-ish. Their invisibility is a real paradox but I enjoy traipsing over a huge terrain. This year I've been researching ufology and its folklore, specifically Leslie Kean and Stanton Friedman's work on the subject. The mythology surrounding ufos or uaps (unidentified aerial phenomenon) is full of the most bizarre stories.
There’s nothing obviously bizarre about your portrait, but the eyes suggest she might herself have seen something very unusual. What’s with that gaze?
It’s a middle distance gaze. A state of reverie, lost in thought. I liked the ambiguity it gave the character. Is she the 'angel' beckoning the departed to the afterlife or the person experiencing a vision or hallucination?
Does the gaze have art historical precedents? I’ve seen that book on Ingres in your studio…
The historical precedent in this case and with many of the Estelles is Lucian Freud's Girl With A Kitten from 1947 but I had also been looking at Antonello da Messina's Christ at the Column. I discovered the work of Domenico Gnoli recently. The way he painted hair was incredible, and I suspect his example has crept in somewhere too.
Public art has to carry quite a burden of responsibility; it’s expected to be all things to all people. Instead let’s imagine just one person walking along Worcester Boulevard one night in June and encountering your work. What, ideally, do you hope they will see?
I agree public art does carry quite a burden – often a need for approval revolving around sensation and visual punchlines. But I like that it can also be enigmatic and mysterious. A giant floating portrait close to the heavens will probably elicit more questions than answers. Who is this? Why do they have that particular expression? I'm hoping it won't make much rational or narrative sense but will induce an uneasy emotional response, like witnessing a UFO.
Art & Australia Magazine, Spring 2011
Skin-Deep: Peter Stichbury and the art of appearances
Written by Justin Paton
What's that noise you hear? It's the sound of the human face, multiplying. This very second, on the social networking website Facebook, more than a thousand images are being uploaded. Before you've finished reading this paragraph, another 15,000 or so will be added. Four million more will join them in the next hour. Estimated total for the next month: a cool 3 billion. Of course the subjects of these images will vary. There will be unidentified sunsets, pets asleep in odd places, someone's new sneakers, and much much more: a colossal digest of stuff that humans think is interesting or, at the very least, not totally uninteresting. But there are no prizes for guessing what most of these photographs will portray: faces, faces, faces.
In Peter Stichbury's 2010 exhibition 'The Proteus Effect', viewers encountered an exquisitely rendered painting of an unexpected face: that of Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Stichbury is best known in New Zealand as a painter of the blank and the beautiful - of people who are, as Ben Stiller's hilariously clueless male model Zoolander puts it in the 2001 film of the same name, 'really, really ridiculously good-looking'. Indeed his characters are so dedicated to looking good that they're clearly no longer good for much else. By contrast, what seems to fascinate Stichbury about Zuckerberg is that - like another soft-featured titan of the information age, Bill Gates - he doesn't look famous. In the portrait Stichbury has made of him, Zuckerberg has an indoor tan, doughy asymmetrical features and an expression that seems to say 'I'm a zillionaire, no big deal'.
It's a face that might belong to anyone - but it doesn't, it belongs to someone. And that flicker from anyone to someone is what Stichbury is trying to capture: the suddenness, in the internet age, with which global fame can settle on a single person, a single face. Though ‘Zuck’ looks composed enough at a distance, up close you notice how Stichbury has subtly unsettled his features, nudging mouth, nose and eyes just far enough from their ‘proper’ places to make the mood of the portrait hard to place. It’s as if this face is still composing itself, still learning how to be ‘Mark Zuckerberg’. In a real-life twist that is too perfect for anyone to have scripted, an electronic image of Stichbury’s painting found its way to Zuckerberg himself, who replied with two short lines (he’s a busy guy); ‘Haha, interesting. Does that even look like me?’ This is not just a very good question for Zuckerberg to ask about his portrait. It’s a question that goes to the heart of Stichbury’s strange and singular mission as a portrait painter. He is an artist obsessed by looking, likeness and the play of appearances – by the way portraits, far from simply looking like their subjects, can take on artificial lives that seem to eclipse the real lives and real faces of their subjects. With ‘The Proteus Effect’, he locates these anxieties firmly in what we might call the Age of Appearances: the ag, that is, of cosmetics, plastic surgery and, above all, of social media – when everyone, it seems, has become an artist of their own identity and appearance, frantically tweaking, re-touching and amplifying their online identities. This new online life is hailed by advocates as a triumph of democracy through technology, with the internet granting awesome powers of ‘connectivity’ and self-realization to the formerly groping and cut-off citizens of the world. But to confront the other portraits in ‘The Proteus Effect’ was to encounter a very different point of view.
Hung alongside Zuckerberg’s mild and imperfect fizzog were faces of nearly oppressive flawlessness. There was a chiseled Donald Draper type ‘Roman’, a waif-model named ‘Bregje Heinen’ and a riveting youth called ‘Bernard M.’. They all have hair like sable, clear veinless eyes and skin that doesn’t sweat. As you might guess from those details, Stichbury is an awed admirer of the portraits of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (‘’halfway through making a show his book makes its way onto my table to mock me’, Stichbury told me recently), and he sets down his new characters with extraordinary patience and technical cunning. Every contour is razor-sharp, every tone fastidiously graded. Each brush mark conceals the traces of the one before it, like a criminal backing out of a crime scene. On first appraisal the resulting paintings exude clarity and a kind of calm. The longer one looks, however, the odder everything becomes. Very quickly one registers, for instance, the preposterous size of Bregje’s head and eyes, as if they are robbing nutrients from the inconsequential body hanging below. Rather more slowly, the play of shadow and light around Roman’s eyes discloses the shape of his skull beneath the skin, a device Stichbury might have borrowed from the formidable German new objectivist Christian Schad. Meanwhile Bernard M., whose name comes from a character in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel (1932), has a face as burnished, symmetrical and tyrannically unyielding as a Tutankhamun mask; if eyes are windows to the soul then his are creepily empty. (surely there’s also a nod here to disgraced New York banker Bernie Madoff.) In Greek mythology Proteus is a shape-changing god of the sea, an allusion which makes perfect sense in an exhibition about surrogate selves. But what exactly is Stichbury getting at with the show’s full title, ‘The Proteus Effect’? It sounds like the title of a movie – a thriller almost certainly – about genetic modification and corporate skullduggery. And bearing this in mind, it’s hard to return to the Zuckerberg portrait without feeling vaguely suspicious. Is Stichbury insinuating some less-than benign connection between Zuckerberg and his well-groomed companions, all of whom, as it happens, seem to share the same chilly grey-blue eyes? Is Zuckerberg, perhaps, the ‘Proteus’ of the title, a new god of self-creation and identity change – the man responsible for unleashing a tsunami of self-obsession on the world? Is it possible, even, to see something kelpy and sea-swirled in Zuckerberg’s boyishly curly hair – a hint of the titular sea-god?
No doubt I’m over-reaching here, hatching a conspiracy theory of my own; but that doesn’t dilute the larger point, which is that Stichbury’s new faces are strange and strong enough to make a viewer go looking for connections and backstories, whether they are there or not. Whatever exactly it is, ‘the Proteus effect’ is clearly at its most virulent in a series of five seemingly identical digital prints, based on a portrait painting (also in the show) of one of Stichbury’s favorite models, Estelle 5.1 introduces this face: blonde hair, flawless skin, huge anxious eyes. And Estelle 5.2 appears to be a straightforward repeat. Yet something’s different, and a close inspection reveals the subtlest of alterations. One of the freckles on her throat has migrated to her cheek, the ‘proper’ position for a beauty mark (think Cindy Crawford, Marilyn Monroe), and what looked tall and patrician in the first Estelle’s face has become squatter and more conventional in the second’s. At the same time, the second Estelle brings out what was unusual in the first: something extra-terrestrial in the thinness of her neck; something rabbit in her shocked expression; something slightly gawky in the tilt of her ears. And so it goes, through three more versions, all the way to the blandly even-featured 5.5- as if ‘Estelle’ is a software program undergoing progressive improvements and de-buggings. The obvious thing to say of this series is that it’s a commentary, a kindof distrustful gloss, on a cosmetically obsessed culture. With its succession of subtly adjusted faces, the series hints that fashion’s dreams of the ‘perfect face’ can easily slide towards darker fantasies of human ‘improvement’, such as cloning and eugenics. Yet to leave things there is to overlook something that is, quite literally, staring us in the face – namely the fact that Stichbury did this. By duplicating his own work and then adjusting it digitally (creating a material ‘clone’ of his own original painting), Stichbury does something much more revealing and chewy than merely ‘commenting’ on the wider culture. He owns up to his own place in the ‘appearance business’ – his role as an inventor and fabricator of faces. Stichbury concedes that, far from being a disinterested observer of today’s online shape-changer and self-fabricators, the portrait may in fact be the prototype for them all: in other words, part of the problem. Perhaps ‘the Proteus effect’, ultimately, is just the power of portraiture – the seductive, uncanny and undying capacity of painting to make people look the way they don’t.
What Stichbury is playing with here – what he is tapping into and testing –is our hardwired responsiveness to the human face, which we are no more capable of resisting than we are of shaking off our own shadows. Despite the repetition, the extreme artifice and the unrelenting emphasis on surface in the ‘Estelle’ serie, there’s a part of me (and, I suspect, of every viewer) that insists on reading these portraits traditionally – imputing thoughts and feelings to the ever-multiplying Estelle, hazarding guesses about her (or their) inner life. And the key to this life, as so often with Stichbury, lies in the treatment of her huge clear eyes – the way they press outward from her drum-taut features and look off to our right, as if distracted by something we can’t see. Needless to say, when all five prints are placed in order on a wall, these sideways glances have a fascinating cumulative effect – one that dramatizes Stichbury’s anxieties about his own considerable gifts as a face-maker. It’s as if the subject of each image, fictional though she is, can see what the artist is making of her in the next image. She is changing before her own eyes, and she’s half-frightened, half-hypnotized by the sight: Does that even look like me?
Peter Stichbury: The Proteus Effect, Tracy Williams Ltd., New York, 10 September – 30 October 2010
Peter Stichbury The Proteus Effect - Tracy Williams Ltd , New York
by Genevieve Allison
Eyecontact, 9 December, 2010
In Peter Stichbury’s first solo show at Tracy Williams, The Proteus Effect, the artist’s characteristically pristine paintings and prints of typal plastic looking faces line the walls, often reproducing the same figure in several identical works. His painterly style, if you’re not familiar with it, is characterized by a smooth, highly finished acrylic rendering that is naturalistic yet unrealistic. Nacreous, like polished pebbles, the uniqueness of each feature is either distended or obliterated by the artist’s exaggerated stylisation.
At first glance the impeccable mimicry of these reproductions comes across as a rather banal exercise of painterly virtuosity. Each detail of the canvas is perfectly blended and painfully precise. In fact it is the boredom with this perfection that invites the viewer to do primitive things like try and spot the differences … and discover the conceptual underpinning of the series. On closer inspection, or rather after prolonged staring, the carbon copy images reveal themselves not to be carbon copies. From image to image, the proportions between identical faces have been subtly, almost imperceptibly tweaked.
These small changes, once noticed, do seem to affect the aesthetic reception of each face. Just by a slight re-proportioning, Bernard M somehow becomes less adolescent than Bernard 1 or Bernard 2; Estelle, in her six different renditions, morphs ever so slightly between the elfish, porcine and womanly as her eyes shift in size and relation to her forehead, chin and nose.
It is almost impossible to talk about human form and the ratios understood to generate feelings of aesthetic harmony without reference to classical ideals. While the location of beauty is a very imprecise science according to more contemporaneous and therefore plural attitudes, these images seek to illustrate the subtle volatility of facial enigma, and therefore reverberate with platonic principles. With one exaggerated ratio the appeal or impression of a face can alter. This must be, in part, the Proteus effect. In Greek mythology Proteus is a primordial sea-god endowed with the ability to morph form, ‘the protean’ denoting to the mutability of self-representation.
As Proteus can voluntarily change form, so too can the average modern human by way of the profile-creating machinery of social media networks. The portrait of Mark Zuckerberg, the founding creator of Facebook, indicates this concern a little too literally. Although the world is generally much more aware of whom Zuckerberg is, now that the movie The Social Network is out and the identity behind Facebook has been subject to greater attention, for the last several years he has been the unseen face behind a seemingly acephalous virtual empire. He is, like many of Stichbury’s subjects, a little geeky and awkward. Though what is far more interesting (than his face) is the explicit breed of ‘image-making’ that is endemic to the form of self-representation he created.
Stichbury’s images, like social network profiles, are half construct, half reality - a synthesis of images from newspaper clippings, the internet and his own imagination. They present (or evoke) stereotypes, ideals and felicities. Many of the features he depicts are appropriated from people he has never met. In some respects the relationship here between painter and subject reverberates with the co-existent familiarity and alienation that occurs with interconnectivity. These portraits do not resonate with the enigma or presence of reflective human beings; they are not Sprengler’s “biography in the kernel” (F. David Martin, “On Portraiture”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol.20 No.1 [Autumn 1961] pp.61).
Rather, they are surfaces that depict a vacant, inaccessible self-consciousness. The type we find mannered in advertising and popular media. Far from the intimate urban encounters and humanism of 19th and 20th century portraiture, these paintings are less involved with generating a sense of an individual’s character or presence than of discussing an alternate space where inter-human relations appear to have been dis/misplaced.
These reflections are timely, but come across hedged with anti-futurist paranoia due to their pairing with classical mythology. The suturing of classical narratives, conventional portraiture painting and thematic concerns relating to digital media, suggests a proleptic regression. In the west, the history of portraiture extends back to antiquity but it wasn’t until the Renaissance, after centuries where generic and stylised forms of representation had been the norm that distinctive likeness began to reappear. The change reflected a growing interest in everyday life as well as individuality and notions of identity. Now we file the same format, confronting and embracing ubiquity and genericism.
If portraiture “seeks to bring out whatever the sitter has in common with the rest of humanity” (quoted in Shearer West, Portraiture [Oxford, 2004], p. 24), Peter Stichbury is doing exactly that. At the time of writing this, there are over 500 million currently active members of Facebook.