Friday, November 18, 2005

Headless Indians and Other Art

There's a feature story in the Toronto Star today about a new exhibit by Canadian artist Charles Pachter, best known for his "queen-on-a-moose" paintings. Pachter's exhibiting paintings done on a recent trip to India, where he said "even the poor people looked exotic and beautiful."

In the photo from the Star, Pachter is standing next to a painting of an Indian woman in a sari. The painting is nearly photorealistic, but for one thing: the woman's head is erased, replaced with a large red dot located where her forehead would have been. This, Pachter says, is "reality-based but moves on to abstraction"; he says he erased the head because he wanted to focus on the colors of the sari. Indeed, according to the article, all the faces of Indian women in the show are erased. (Men obviously don't get the same treatment; there's a man's head in the background of the Star photo.)

The result, to me, isn't beautiful but disturbing. As suspect as Pachter's gloss is, I'd be inclined to give it more credence if the image were framed differently. But since the painting is framed like a conventional portrait, the absent head becomes the focal point. Actually, that's not right: it's the bindi, retained as the pure signifier of exoticism, that becomes the focal point, literally erasing the person who is wearing it.

A few weeks ago I was at a conference and saw a paper on Leslie Scalapino's The Tango, a large-format book illustrated with color photographs of orange-robed Tibetan Buddhist monks. I asked whether race ought to be a factor in interpreting the text. The response, in part, was that the pictures were probably selected as studies in color and movement--in other words, that the clothes we were seeing should be regarded as empty, bodiless. I wonder if such a reading could have been supported if the photographs were all of white women in flowing bridal gowns, or of male African Americans in football uniforms. The Asian body was easily aestheticized--which is to say, rendered invisible.

Isn't Pachter's painting doing that, literally? Indeed, it's arguably quite a bit worse: the erasure of the head, and its replacement with the red dot, makes the Indian woman's body nothing but a marker of foreignness--an exoticism that ultimately becomes not some means toward abstraction but the point of the picture itself.


Joseph said...
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Joseph said...

After reading your description -- before I read the article -- my first reaction was, "Maybe that's the point." That is, maybe the artist is commenting on the way representations of foreigness (in this case female foreigness) eliminate the body only to focus on the exotic. This is a move you might typically see from a young artist fresh out of art school who has had an education in contemporary art history, postcolonialism, semiotics, etc. But after reading the article and seeing the language Pachter uses to describe his work I realized that, no, his work is not even that sophisticated, it simply approaches orientalism. But it made me wonder: how would our reception of the paintings change if, along with the same paintings, the artist employed the discourse I described above? Would that somehow make the paintings less disturbing? Would this use of discourse by the artist neutralize your criticism?

Tim said...

That explanation had crossed my mind--that this is a sort of too-clever, self-aware comment on the exoticization of India. But even if the artist did offer such an explanation, I don't think I would buy it, because the work itself doesn't seem well-executed enough to bear that reading; because of the way the painting is executed and framed, I think it reads more like an unconscious or clumsy gesture of exoticization, rather than a self-conscious, ironic gesture.

Jordan said...

In Leslie's case, and I don't have the book to hand, but isn't the text in some part an exposition of the belief system of the orange-robed monks? I had rather thought that cover art was literally inextricable from the work. It's possible this is one of those distortions of memory; curious to hear your take on Leslie's text, and whether you'd differentiate that presentation from Pachter's.