I come from people who loved to search faces.
As a kid, my folks would visit a honky-tonk strip in a place called Savin Rock early on a Saturday night and, of course, they’d take me along. They’d park in a good spot on the main drag, open the windows and gaze out at the passing stream. Or we’d set out on foot, find a roost near the cotton candy stand or similar attraction, and go to work from there.
We had more than a little interest in what our passers-by were wearing (or in their gay abandon, not-wearing), how they were enjoying themselves (besotted in pairs and threesomes), but the main thing was their faces. They seemed to be masks as well as portals: about their workweeks, their illnesses or desires, about the boats their grandparents had come over on, the churches they’d attend tomorrow, or the suburbs they were aiming for. It was as if you looked hard enough, you might see it all there.
We were spectators who’d come for the faces.
The muttered comments from dad or mom were rich to a kid. I suppose that some were judgments of a sort. Marking distance while they gazed, maybe saying “We’re better than this. Look at how far we’ve come.” But I don’t remember the superiority in it. They genuinely seemed to want to make sense of it all, of this colorful slice of the world on parade and how they fit into it. We didn’t go so much to laugh or to pity but for the enjoyment of locating ourselves in the hot mess of it all as it seemed to teem by.
It’s a proximate experience that I’ve really missed during the past year and a half.
The crowds I’ve seen from afar while walking or driving have often seemed irresponsible or even dangerous. It’s literal masks I’m looking for now, or how few are wearing them. Since they’re outside like I am I know how foolish this is, but the crowds still draw me in less and make me more wary. They’re other people instead of the same people, less a pageant that I’m a part of too. I miss what seems like an old chronicle (although it’s only a short time ago) about who they are, where they’re going and seem to have been, or what I’m doing here in the middle of them.
Those triangles of eyes, noses and mouths that pull in our attention even as newborns are apparently embedded as essential markers of danger or promise in the most basic instincts of our brains. Is she friend or foe, is he caregiver, stranger or something different than either of those things, but still “of interest”?
When Wally looks up to read me, it’s not at my hands or how I’m sitting. What he’s after is a dog’s kind of facial recognition.
We look for that, and need that, too.
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With deadly germs around, it seems safer today to search a stranger’s face through the eyes of an artist, whether it’s a painter, a sculptor or a photographer.
Aside from pictures of family and one increasingly infamous ancestor, the only portrait I have at home is of The Queen. Although clearly a violation of protocol, I mean it no disrespect by keeping it over a commode so I always have it to look at when I’m standing in front of it. A sign of the times, it never looks back while I search those lines and folds of powdered skin for clues about her gravity, about who she really is. Because it’s a good portrait and perhaps because she’s sat for them so often, she’s known how “to do the portrait-thing” forever so it’s full of information that she wants us to have and little that she doesn’t. Even if This Queen doesn’t live forever, she’ll still be sharing her majesty with me in this theater of perceptions she was so clearly “in on” creating.
“Lightness of Being,” by Chris Levine (2004)
When I go to a museum these days—at least when I did before the lockdowns—I’d go to see one or two things that I missed having a conversation with or simply wanted to learn more from. The regular aim was targeting my attention instead of bringing it “to all of European Art since 1850” or to everything that the curators had decided to hang up on a wall from the Orient or ancient times.
It turns out that being more selective about my attention has also carried over into what I’ve been doing in museums after I’ve covered my destination pieces and places.
For example, when I flew out to see Emily in LA a few years back and we went to The Getty for the first time, I knew “what I had to see” but quickly discovered that those who had staged the galleries I was seeking had played their own games with the objects of my affection. So, while I searched the face of Rembrandt’s “Old Man in Military Costume” for clues, I eventually noticed that I wasn’t the only occupant in the gallery who was doing so. A marble bust in the same room (Bernini’s “Pope Paul V”) was searching the Old Man’s face too—its sight lines arranged “just right” by the staff—so that the rest of my visit involved noticing the interplay between “must see” works and how there always seemed to be other Star Gazers who’d been strategically arranged to see them too.
Because of the distance, my camera couldn’t capture Bernini’s “Pope Paul V” (1621) gazing over at Rembrandt’s “An Old Man in Military Costume” (1630-31), and certainly not when I was eye to eye with the Old Man himself, but here are the two of them as they looked that day.
The aim for Rembrandt and Bernini and maybe for their time was to capture the essence of their subjects by using all their artifice and painterly tricks to find the truth in their sitter’s faces. These days, of course, truth is a far more slippery agenda, approached, if at all, with irony and trepidation—more mask (in the pursuit of) than a sign promising what’s true over its portal.
Among many other things, “this way that we see things today” is what made John Vincler’s short essay this week (the latest of his “Brush Strokes” columns for The Paris Review) so illuminating.
Vincler was writing about the contemporary portrait painter Michael Borremans and his pilgrimage to see his first Borremans’ portrait “live” in one of New York City’s art galleries. The visit last December was a birthday present from his wife, his “out” after being cooped up for months during the pandemic. He’d wanted to go and search the painted face in “Study for a Bird” for what mere reproductions of it might have been less able to tell him.
Michael Borremans, “Study for a Bird” (2020)
To look at this image of it, “Study for a Bird” is slightly unsettling, somehow ajar. What’s going on under her chin or at the back of her neck? What is she wearing, why is she wearing it, and how does this headpiece direct our attention around the hollows and elevations of her face? Surely these are some of the questions that lead Vincler to say:
[t]he people in [Borremans’s] portraits often seem as if they are playing a role in some mysterious production, adding a layered tension to an existential question they ask of both themselves and the viewer: What am I doing here?
The same, I think, could be said about earlier portraits of his, like “Columbine” (note the slip in her left eye) and “The Hood” (the smudge at her mouth, along with that vaguely animate thing that’s perched on her shoulder). How do we pass through these “cues,” these intentional masks or diversions, on our way to The Truth about these subjects? What does the visual pathway that Borremans lays down for us tell us about reality today and the roles we’re playing in it?
It’s like he doesn’t want us to know anything for sure, or as an art critic wrote about another of Borremans’s portraits:
‘The painting somehow manages simultaneously to speak clearly and to stutter.’
Michael Borremans, “Columbine” (2008) and “The Hood” (2007)
It’s often interesting how artists talk about their work, and that’s certainly true about Borremans, who lives and works today in Ghent, a Belgian city that’s been associated with great artists for centuries. Here he is, explaining “how he first came to work in this structurally abstruse way,” in a 2015 interview and commentary.
It’s really a philosophical question about what truth can be. And truth is just as much in the lie as in something straightforward or honest. All of this came very organically for me from the way I perceived the world since I was a child: that there’s a variety of interpretations of something called ‘truth’. And I was always cautious about it. As an adolescent, that’s where my fascination for cinema came in. They build decors; they fake everything to make it seem real. And if they do it with that,’ he continues, warming to his mistrust, ‘they do it with everything. To have it is to use it. Landing on the moon, wars – you never know. So therefore in my work I want to give information in a way that’s clearly incorrect, not fitting, out of place. I think that’s more honest.’
This variability of truths seems well-suited for today, when we can’t even agree on whether the virus that’s roaming this land like a reaper is real, or that it’s actually killing us.
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Looking into the faces of Borremans’s subjects—staged as they are—isn’t the same as watching a parade of faces in a place like Savin Rock, or even the expressions of the confinement-rejecting walkers who stream past my front porch all day, every day. But there are similarities in the exchange. We look into these faces and they look back, telling us something about where we are–“doesn’t anyone else see this too?”–and how those fleeting recognitions make us feel less like strangers, if not quite companions of one another on this strange trip we’re all on?
In Vincler’s essay, after viewing Borremans’s portrait and starting to write about it, he tells us (with obvious nostalgia) how he remembers the similar joys of searching the commuters’ faces on a subway that he’d taken regularly to work not so long ago.
Taking the subway means daily having at least one person’s face across the aisle and many faces in your line of sight. You can’t help but study the concentrated face of a reader, the elsewhereness of a daydreamer, the sadness here, the exhaustion there, the twitchy concentration of a game player, the open face of the tourist, and even the practiced but not quite impervious shell of the city dweller, lightly armored in sunglasses or headphones. In staring at the face in Borremans’s portrait. . . I was . . . reminded of the experience of moving through a city, the mix of intimacy and alienation that comes from incessant, packed proximity with strangers. It was okay to stare there in the gallery, to contemplate the dignity and complexity of this subject, with the strange costume, the visage part mask and part portal, suggesting something as awesome and truly unknowable as an individual person. Isn’t this a paradox, to be made to remember the faces of strangers?
And how great it would be to stare into and search our ways through them again, just like we used to, face to face.
In the meantime, Michael Borremans’s portraits provide us with some suggestions about what we might see when we can finally do so again, whenever that is. Ambivalence, containment, resignation, foreboding and, at times, even some humor in the face of it all. (His picture up top is called “Man Wearing a Bonnet” after all, from 2005.)
There’s something true, if not exactly truthful, about each one of them. And even that sense of recognition feels good.
This post was adapted from my August 1, 2021 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning and occasionally I post the content from one of them here. You can subscribe by leaving your email address in the column to the right.