Not only is “Embedded,” Justin Bower’s show at Ace Gallery, Beverly Hills, captivating because it's so visceral, it also makes a compelling argument that portraiture is problematic because, as he suggests, there is no subject matter. Once you sort through the exhibition’s flayed and decomposed heads, you appreciate the gravity, if not the humorous irony, that the work elicits. The message is not eschatological like Gauguin’s "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" No, it’s more existential, more Sisyphean, namely, what if artists really could burrow down to the core of the human psyche, in order to capture a sitter’s essence, and found that there was nothing there?
Your first impression of the twelve larger than life sized works is that the heads have just been exhumed for forensic examination. Like Francis Bacon’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” skulls vibrate in furious motion, so fast that paired eyes appear in two places at once, as if in mid-teleport. Epidermises are brutalized: eyes gouged out, cheeks slashed, lips shorn off to reveal rows of teeth, giving each portrait the appearance (and the wicked humor) of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Bower builds up the faces with energetic swaths of paint, brutally efficient. Sometimes a few swipes suffice, sometimes the surface is built up, as if it’s made of gauze except, it’s not gauze, it’s flagellated skin. These portraits make your blood chill at the same time they make you grateful that you still have blood.
The colors are strident and sepulchral, unworldly. Tone-wise the work resembles a cross between Luis Buñel/Salvador Dali in “Un chien andalou” and early Walt Disney. The backgrounds are decorative: pink flowers, black with a light blue schematic, red and pink with a blue schematic, red with sharp gray wedges, muted light bursts in a foggy gray mist, and various tones of planks. Each lie in stark and placid contrasts to the activity in front them and could easily stand in as funeral shrouds, with the planks as the components of a coffin. A couple of the heads are outlined with a luminescent green, which suggests the x-ray of a postmortem. The gallery’s antiseptic, sterile atmosphere and orderly rectangular shapes of the frames oppose the organic decomposition of the images contained therein, as if you’re looking down into a coffin that rests in a mortuary decorated by Richard Meier.
Bower crams these heads up against the picture plane. Being so close with these heads, it’s easy to get lulled into the Freddie Krueger rhythms of their compositions. Despite the subject matter, we’re utterly fascinated. Without batting a lash (they have none), these macabre faces taunt us, still grinning after their ordeal, grinning after layers of painted skin and hair and whatever else peels off, like the skin of a boiled tomato.
Over time, though, you notice that the frenetic surface activity masks the voids contained within the remnants of the skull. Up until now, you’re thinking these pieces resemble Claude Rains in “The Phantom of the Opera.” The, noticing that there’s nothing inside the heads, you decide it’s Claude Rains, all right, but Claude Rains as “The Invisible Man,” That’s when it hits you – that sinister grin is not laughing in spite of what must be excruciating pain, it’s laughing because, quite literally, it has the last laugh. The joke’s on us. All those strokes gashes, slashes, dashes build up a structure (the heads) contain a void. There’s nothing there. Bower has cannibalized abstraction, figuration, abstract expressionism, and surrealism to show how neither style nor genre (i.e., portraiture) can penetrate to the core of what makes us human. It’s not science, psychoanalysis, it’s not anything; all such efforts are futile because seekers quest after chimera.
Bower does not analyze personality for insight or expression, he dissects it, showing that painterly excavation will yield, not the riches of Tutankhamen but, rather, an empty chamber. What’s left? Shards of surface. All this attention Bowers pays to surfaces isn’t an indictment of culture. It suggests, rather, that we literally have nothing to hide. As a viewing audience we looking for meaning, insight into, and commentary of the human condition in everyplace except where it really matters, in our own soul which, as these paintings admirably and insightfully show, can’t be described, at least in paint, much less in words. Bower seems to dare us to try to “get him,” to look at these images and determine whether it’s worth the effort, whether self-expression is the proper aim of art. In “Embedded,” a John Donne bells tolls and it tolls for us. Thanks, dude, for the reminder.