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.