MFA Shows More Than Just a Pretty Face

Face and Figure at the Museum of Fine Arts through March 2

Unlike the Herb Ritts show, the "Face and Figure" exhibition down-stairs at the Museum of Fine Arts contains only one celebrity portrait, which is thankfully not by Mr. Ritts. Despite a somewhat flimsy and overly ambitious curatorial premise, "Face and Figure" includes several strong works on the body by Ritts' more talented contemporaries, including Yasumasa Morimura, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Lorna Simpson, Catherine Opie and Gilbert and George. At their best, these artists more successfully use the face and body as a site of contention on which to explore questions of gender, race, sexuality and power.

Since the mid 1970s, artists have increasingly turned towards the human body as a subject, following years when criticism favored Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Both "Herb Ritts: Work" and "Face and Figure" illustrate this trend, yet Ritts' photographs tend to stress formal considerations over content. His celebrity portraits and even his riskier homoerotic photographs are all highly aestheticized, easily consumable images-- perfect for the sides of note pads, tote bags and mugs.

The subjects of photographer Catherine Opie's three portraits in "Face and Figure," on the other hand, wouldn't be caught dead on the side of a note cube. In "Vaginal Davis," "Ron Athey" and "Christopher Lee," Opie presents her subjects before seamless background paper, so they seem to float in space like several of Ritts' portraits, including those of dancer Bill T. Jones. Yet rather than classic black and white, Opie's colorful backgrounds scream in yellow, viridian green, and an ultramarine blue, which matches the color of Vaginal Davis' garish eyeshadow. Except for the tufts of curly green hair which cover his head and sprout from his underarms and crotch, Davis stands stately before the viewer wearing nothing but little white socks and shoes. Opie's photograph fascinates us with a perfect combination of elegance and sleaze.

When "Face and Figure" artists Andy Warhol and Gilbert and George turn their attention to Ritts's favorite subject--celebrity--they do so with a far more ironic and skeptical eye. Gilbert and George are a pair of artists who have long explored the relationship between celebrity and the art object, most notably in their "Singing Sculpture," in which they painted their faces, stood on a pedestal in a gallery and sang popular British songs. In "Staring World," their contribution to "Face and Figure," the pair presents us with an enormous collage of mass market postcards. The giant rectangle is filled with alternating rows of cards picturing an idyllic waterfall, crowds praying at Mecca and a fresh-faced Rob Lowe, circa 1987. By multiplying and juxtaposing these vividly colored, incongruous pictures, Gilbert and George render banal the images and provide witty social critique. Signed boldly in red by its co-creators, "Staring World" comments on celebrity worship and the information age's endless proliferation and confusion of images from the spiritual to the pedestrian.

Cindy Sherman's "Untitled #282," originally made for an artist's project in Harper's Bazaar, provides another interesting comparison with Ritts' commercial photographs upstairs. Sherman, easily one of the most important photographers of the past fifteen years, photographs herself in various guises ranging from ingenue to Bacchus. In "Untitled #282," she lies before us in an outlandish, semi-transparent gauze dress by one of Madonna's favorite designers, Jean-Paul Gaultier. Her legs are slightly spread, but the voyeuristic gratification usually afforded us by such images is denied by our recognition of the opaque, flesh-toned tights which ascend from a seam at Sherman's toes. Here, Sherman subverts the salacious gaze that Ritts' photographs of naked male or female models never fail to satisfy.


Despite these strong works, as well as Morimura's spectacular appropriation of Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp," the show is plagued by the inclusion of poor work by Boston area artists. Although the curators nobly attempted to showcase local talent, most of their selections are weak in comparison with pieces by better known artists. Carol Cohen's "Greek Revival," plates of glass etched with a body and set in a mauve and teal neo-classical base, pales in contrast with Nancy Spero's deft exploration of female power and representation in the ancient era. More disappointing, however, is the glaring exclusion of some of the most talented Boston-trained photographers such as Jack Pierson, David Armstrong, Mark Morrisroe and Nan Goldin (the subject of a recent Whitney Museum retrospective), who pioneered gritty work on the body. Only Annette Lemieux, who according to label text "divides her time between New York and Boston," provides a compelling work, "Pacing," a blank canvas traversed by a gash of black footprints.

In addition, the curators of "Face and Figure" have flagrantly ignored video, a medium which has spawned the most innovative investigations on the body in recent years. This omission would not be nearly as noteworthy if the curators had not gone so far out of their way to include a variety of media ranging from glass to bronze to ceramics. Video artists including Gary Hill, Matthew Barney, Bill Viola and Tony Oursler (whose pillow-headed figures come to life with eerie projections) have all made significant contributions on the figure in the form of video sculptures and installations, many of which could easily be displayed in the MFA's galleries.

Yet "Face and Figure" overcomes these flaws on the strength of some of its stand-out pieces. The show provides an appropriate, sharp foil for Ritts' retrospective upstairs and offers a satisfying and divergent view of figuration over the past twenty-five years.