Stephen Andrews: facsimile
Oakville Galleries, February 1- March 22, 1991
Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, October 24, 1992 - January 3, 1993
Art Gallery of Algoma, September 1992
from the exhibition catalogue
[ 1,435 words ]
The title of Stephen Andrews's new portrait series is deceptively simple. A consideration of what the term itself gives us to think affords an opening onto the complexity of this body of work and the challenges even the imperatives it poses for the viewer.
Facsimile is first of all the making (from the Latin facere) of a copy or likeness (similis), the work of imitation constitutive of portraiture. The images ranged under Andrews's title are understood to refer themselves to a life, an event, a moment that they reproduce or represent by way of a particular medium: in this case, bleached beeswax sheets coated with graphite. Already, however, these portraits trouble our working premises about the fundamentally mimetic relation between art and nature, image and model. For these 'copies' are made not at one, but at several removes from their 'originals'. Addressing the specificity of these distances, of space as well as time, is part of the project here. The Proud Lives to which these likenesses recall the viewer are those of men now dead, commemorated in a regular feature of that title in the Toronto bi-weekly Xtra!, which publishes the photographs of members of the community recently lost to AIDS related illness. Andrews's images, then, have their immediate antecedents in these journalistic photographs. Through his mediation the faces that look out from these pages do so from a then and there that is radically divided from our own here and now by death. They address us from that other time and place, that past that nonetheless remains so determinant for our present and our future.
If at the time of their rendering the models are absent from the artist's field of vision, they are very much present — and alive — to his memory. The portrait series, as well as the other works in this exhibition, testify to the origin of drawing as such in memory rather than perception — or in a perception that partakes, from the first, of memory. (1)
In Baudelaire's notable formulation in L'art mnémonique, 'tous les bons et vrais dessinateurs dessinent d'aprés l'image écrit dans leur cerveau, et non d'aprés la nature': 'all good and true draughtsmen draw from the image written in their brain, and not from nature.' Memory conceived as an image inscribed in the mind has little to do with nostalgia and its attendant pathos, and Andrews's images are remarkably free of both.
A further mediation involved here, to which the series' title insistently calls our attention, remains to be accounted for. Because Andrews was absent from Toronto, away from home and community (and his usual locus of production) when the photographs ran in Xtra!, he first received the images via transatlantic fax. The painstaking sgraffito portraits are thus copies of copies of copies, and indeed they convey the sense of the wearing away, the receding of the 'original', of the body and the life they nonetheless powerfully evoke. Facsimile also designates the technology of reproduction and transmission that inhabits the images, both in their 'look' — their resemblance, especially from a distance, to the rapid registrations of a laser printer — and more fundamentally as a condition of their very possibility.
Technology has long been understood as based on the model of an extension of the human body, a supplement to its physical limitations. (2) Andrews's series inscribes a whole history of thinking technology as prosthetic in this sense, and the ambivalence that has shadowed this history. The technology that extends the body's force, compensating for its frailties and shortcomings, of necessity also confirms these failings, recalling them to memory. The ultimate vulnerability of the body is death, that point of limit with which technology has always been intimately linked.
If the portraits are of lives and of deaths, of friends and of comrades present to memory but absent to sense, the relation of image to model can no longer be conceived according to the realist representational criteria of mimetic fidelity. Fidelity to memory is of another order, and its responsibility to the dead and to their survivors works otherwise. In these likenesses, the labour of drawing enacts the artist's work of mourning in its current phase. Andrews reflects on his trajectory to now:
The manual translation that produces these pixellated portraits (the marks are removed from the graphite coated beeswax with a jeweller's screwdriver in a patient labour of love) is not that of a hand following the prescription of a model. The movement of memory leaves these traces, like so many notations for future reference. The impact of these marks, which is anything but minimal, is not a function of seduction or manipulation, but rather of the force with which they address the viewer, as testimony and as provocation to a response. Andrews's body of work documents the critical situation of the affected community (those who suffer and those who attend and share their suffering), respecting the specificity of individual instances even as it locates them in a political and historical context. The series format itself testifies to the ongoing character of this history: the mechanical enumeration, case by case, is not dialectically resolved, does not come to a close, but could conceivably go on forever.
But how can a crisis go on forever? How can we allow it to do so? How begin to calculate the cost? The images ranged here address these questions doubly: to members of the community, and to those who think of themselves as uninvolved, as immune. As Thomas Keenan notes in a recent conversation published under the title The AIDS Crisis is Not Over
In the images gathered here, the urgent appeal comes to the viewer not only from before and beyond the grave, but from the moment at hand. It is a call to recollection and a call to response: a call we ignore at our gravest peril.
from the exhibition catalogue
Text: © Deborah Esch. All rights reserved.
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