X-Rated Images: Art and Science in "Hand to Mouth"

Everyone knows the phrase about “knowing something as well as the back of your hand.” And we all can identify something—be it a favorite poem or baseball glove—that we know that well. But how many of us actually know the backs of our hands?

In his new exhibit at the Howard Yezerski Gallery, Gary Schneider is trying to find out. A striking series of seven small and four large toned silver gelatin photographic prints reveals the contours of children’s hands and mouths in all their complexity. The symmetric, proportioned limbs and lips of traditional painting give way to ethereal, x-ray-like forms, each as unique as the fingerprints they highlight. These works build on Schneider’s previous experiences at the intersection of science and art, in which he produced extremely detailed portraits of parts of his own body, including a hair, his teeth and a sperm, using methods ranging from electron microscopy to molecular crystallography.

Schneider’s work above all asks a question of form: in what terms should we understand the parts that make up our own bodies? The children’s hands immediately call to mind the answers children themselves often give. Most basic is an outline, as those that are found in children’s coloring books. More complex is the practice of fingerpainting, which captures more of the hand’s individuality: its lines, its valleys and its asymmetry. Yet like the outline, the imprint is still a static representation, freezing a child’s growing hand in a moment of its development.

In contrast to these naïve efforts, Schneider’s prints capture motion. The hands and lips glow to the extent that they were pressed against the negative. Some are incandescent and pulse with life, as if trying to burst out of the glass; one from a two-year old boy sits curled and silent like a raccoon’s paw, taking up almost no space on the black matte. The life that animates each hand’s outline creates tension between the jet-black background and the dark, mottled interior with its rune-like lifelines. And the hands are recognizably human: There is not any bone or blood vessel to remind us that each of us is, essentially, a Halloween skeleton.

Schneider, while using sophisticated methods of printmaking, never loses sight of the glowing humanity at the core of each image. Unlike their close cousin the x-ray, these photographs never violate the boundary between body and environment. The hands and lips are brilliant in their complexity, but never try to be more than a very sophisticated surface, never penetrating to bone and sinew. For Schneider, science illuminates the body’s form, without ever violating its sanctity. That constant sense of reverence is what makes his work art, rather than a photocopier joke gone horribly awry.

The vision of science that informs these photographs is, paradoxically, not scientific at all. Traditional science in the form of medicine seeks to classify, parametrize and regularize the body—with the aim of predicting and controlling function. Schneider works with a greater degree of freedom, in much the same way that chaos theory has opened up complex new vistas in hard science. Schneider shows how abstract art can be natural, since it can be generated simply by looking at parts of the body in a completely new way. Ironically, since science uses “handedness” to define the very concept of symmetry, Schneider only photographs right hands. This immediately strips away the context of rigid formalism that normally surrounds representations of the human body in art, allowing Schneider the space to turn the hand into his very own abstract canvas.

Schneider’s hands are a space where strange figures play. Probably very few of these children were aware that their hands contained exclamation points, pyramids, spider webs, ballet dancers or veins of gold. The charlatan photographer brings all these things to light. One can imagine a fly, with its UV vision, seeing much the same thing as it is about to be swatted. In this sense the images are very inhuman, since they require the unnatural eye of a camera to be seen.

With a line of 11 identically arranged, ghost-like hands hung side by side, the landscape certainly looks bleak at first glance. Yet in another sense, these photogrpahs humanize science itself. Even reduced to its most basic components of muscle, joint and skin, no hand is remotely similar to any other. Schneider’s accomplishment lies in the consolation that despite even the harshest scientific conditions, the individual characteristics of the hands and lips shine through.