Scott Fife @ Tony Wight Gallery
January 16 – February 21, 2009
The death and resurrection of art forms has been at the forefront of my thoughts lately. Painting, for instance, has been given final rites a number of times since the 1960s. But painting today is robust and pervasive despite the explosion of video, installation, sound art, relational esthetics, etc. This ubiquity helps weave painting into our cultural consciousness. As a result, when we encounter a painting, we are in familiar territory, even if what is, or how it is, depicted is atypical.
Busts are another matter. Very few artists working today devote their energy to sculpting busts. If they do, the heads are only one component of a diverse artistic output (examples include Marc Quinn, notorious for sculpting his likeness from frozen blood, and Janine Antoni, who has used chocolate and soap to do the same). Our experiences with busts are generally limited to museums where, in transit from one gallery to another, we pass by smooth stone or bronze eminences from centuries past. These objects, commonly devoid of enlivening pupils, seem historically and emotionally remote and unlikely to yield any big surprises with a second look.
Intimations of death and unfamiliarity conspired to raise the hairs on the back of my neck when I walked into the back room at Tony Wight’s gallery this month. On display were four larger-than-life heads by Seattle-based artist, Scott Fife. Fife has been sculpting busts of historical and celebrity figures for a number of years. At Tony Wight, he showed four recent additions to the project: Abraham Lincoln, Cassius Clay and artist Ed Kienholz (Ed the Younger and Ed the Elder). The works were mounted on three walls, while the fourth wall featured a painting on paper (again, of Ed Kienholz, both a friend and mentor).
In contrast to the busts found in museums, Fife’s heads are tactile, asymmetrical and scary. The artist makes them by screwing together strips of archival cardboard that vary in size and shape. He then colors sections of the heads with touches of bright, sometimes fluorescent, paint and pencil.
The heads project from the gallery wall at eye-level, but, curiously, they do not meet your gaze. They look askance or over your shoulder and, because of the way they are arranged on the three walls, at one another. One could imagine that after the gallery closes and the lights go out, these heads pass the night engaged in conversation. It is fascinating to think of what Ed, Abe and Cassius might have to say to one another. Certainly they are bound by the fact that they all took risks to break barriers—social, political and artistic.
The eyes, caught in the act of looking to the side, are only one aspect of these heads that makes them unsettling. The cardboard from which they are made is mortuary gray. And because this cardboard is layered strip by strip, with holes left open here and there, it gives the head a wounded or semi-decayed appearance, as if their maker bound together scraps of flesh and bandages. Even the exposed screws invoke Frankenstein. Yet while these heads might conjure fantasies of bringing the dead back to life (a fantasy that may not be far from reality given recent advances in genomics and medical engineering), they are in no way hubristic. Rather, the entire project is an homage to a group of trailblazers and a meditation on celebrity, albeit a quirky one.
On a purely visual level, what Fife can conjure from lowly cardboard and screws is impressive. As we look (and shudder), the cardboard transforms into image and image reverts to cardboard. However, Fife’s heads do not strive for verisimilitude at the expense of process and materials. He wants the viewer to be aware of what and how they’re made because that is where the real pleasure comes from. That the heads appear recently exhumed is perhaps Fife’s sly commentary on the death and resurrection of certain types of art. It’s not about digging up Abe, per se, but revitalizing a sculptural tradition.