LOST AND FOUND SOULS: BARNETT SUSKIND’S PORTRAITS OF EVERYONE
By Peter Frank
We humans are hard-wired to recognize and respond to the face. Uniquely blessed (or, perhaps, burdened) among sentient beings with a part of our body that betrays our deepest feelings and sensations, we regard the visages of others at once as reflections of our own humanity and as indications of social weather, the shape of clouds in the emotional atmosphere. Can there be any such thing, even in the hands of the simplest, crudest painter, as a “basic face”? No; as long as there is a hint of eye, a mouth that seems to set in a certain way, we project everything from passion to nationality to animal nature onto the blandest, most masked of faces. Even our balaclavas laugh at us….
Knowing all this implicitly, Barnett Suskind has realized that “less is more” applies as much to the painting of faces as to the painting of abstracts
Some of these people we want to know. Others we already think we know. Still others we know we know, even though we have never met them. They are extraordinary in their ordinariness, and whenever they display any sort of superficial distinction, it seems startling Suskind is clearly a keen observer of people, their faces not least. But his real gift comes in his ability to distill essences, to “get” people at the moment they seemingly transit from individuals to types, or vice versa. In this regard, he has the eyes and instincts of a casting director.
Even in the most literally specific of his face paintings, the ones that must be labeled “portraits,” Suskind suppresses reportorial detail in favor of mood and gesture borne by a simple container of bone structure, hairline, eyebrows, etc. Sometimes the lack of detail is radical to the point of primitive or cartoonish
It is also entirely without judgment, at least moral judgment. We may pity, adore, identify with, and even fear
There is, then, a great deal of generalization in Suskind
Suskind invests his subjects with just enough individuality to keep us wondering, “Who are these people?” But the question that nags at us is not Who, but How– and even Why. They seem responsive to forces that have acted and continue to act upon them, even though such forces are nowhere in evidence. Their presence is at most secondary to the effect they have on the sitters. People, in all their peoplehood, remain not simply central to, but alone at the center of, Suskind’s vision of humanity. There is no theater here, only drama – and it resides deep within.
Some of these paintings are of specific people; more are not. It may be possible to devise ways of determining which are (or were) living, breathing flesh and which are entirely Suskind Los Angeles August 2011’s invention. But that’s a game one plays with the exigencies of the painter’s touch and manner. More important is the occasion where you fail to identify someone you should be able to spot in a crowd but still feel as if you know that individual “from somewhere” – or identify with certainty a visage Suskind has concocted from broad observation and even broader imagination. How did he know what my uncle looked like? This is no mere parlor game; and Barnet Suskind is not merely taking advantage of the relative similarity – the structural standard – of all faces. He is exploiting our dependence on that similarity, that standard, and revealing to us that we expect to know so much from a face that we actually don’t “know” faces well at all. These are optical illusions, conjurations made at the edge of “real life,” people at once seen and imagined through a hypnogogic blur. They are anything but immediate; they are anything but real. But they are also real, not simply as accretions of pigment on support, but as approximations of who we think we are. – perhaps more so. The more information a painter piles into the rendition of a face, the more power the face loses over its beholders. Mystery gives way to familiarity; the complexity of presence dissolves under the plastic surgeon’s gaze. Fortunately, there is never Too Much Information in a Suskind face; and when there is too little, it still works to his advantage – and ours.– not distracting, and not tempting, but simply a rich chord struck in the middle of a monadic line. Suskind’s style, topically smooth but earnestly methodical, entrances us into a meditation on the human spirit, and the stray earring or collar or bald spot finally figures as a subtle cue rather than a distinguishing characteristic.– a casting director apparently trained during the silent era. But in film an actor, silent or not, must project expression. Having found expression already playing about a subject’s visage, Suskind has to coax it out and mold it, but only so far, into a universalized version of itself that somehow remains fused to that particular sitter. He makes us viewers feel, finally, not simply as if we know the subject – intimately, routinely, or at the very least “from somewhere” – but as if we could just as easily be the subject. By casting his subjects “as themselves,” Suskind casts them as all – or, better put, any – of us.– but knowingly so. Suskind treats even the most rudimentary of his presences with a lyrical tenderness, drawing them sympathetically and putting paint down as if caressing them. Suskind’s treatments are not only technically self-effacing, but seek to collapse or at least suffuse sitters’ identities with viewers’. His is an empathic construct.– fear, that is, to become – Suskind’s gallery of sad sacks and floating souls; but we are rarely if ever invited, or even tempted, to determine the cause of their condition. Age and youth, self-consciousness and abandon, apparent satisfaction and apparent regret play themselves, as it were, the faces embodying these conditions without the merest indication of cause and effect. There is no back story here; these presences are not narrative summaries, but momentary captures, faces in a crowd that never coalesces. They could have evolved from photographs taken early on, and haphazardly, in rush hour near Grand Central Station, or from sudden glimpses of people shopping or sitting at lunch counters, glimpses that sear their way into memory. But even those circumstances infer a specificity Suskind wants to avoid, or at least obscure. If anything, he wants to capture the moment before the glimpse, or the moment after. More to the point, he doesn’t want to capture the face itself so much as its faceness, those basic qualities that make it human – that draw us to it atavistically – and from which individuality just begins to emerge. ’s approach to the face. But the approach does not reduce the face to its broadest qualities, its most elemental conditions, but draws out just enough information to engage us, moving – gently coaxing – the subject away from the featurelessness of the clothing dummy and through the pathetic anonymity of the face-in-the-crowd towards a more radiant, dignified indistinction. These personages do not yet exhibit the complexity of being we are certain resides in each of us; but they slouch towards that complexity, gently and naturally, the contours of their cheeks and the light in their eyes just sharp enough to imply a soul in residence, or at least an adult in the process of emerging – and merging with the rest of the species.