Katinka Lampe: Let’s Change History and Colin Chillag: It is Important to be Nobody
at Elizabeth Houston Gallery
Lampe: September 5 to October 20, 2018
Chillag: September 5 to December 8, 2018
190 Orchard Street, between Stanton and East Houston streets
New York City, elizabethhoustongallery.com
The idea of an unidentifiable portrait would likely have seemed strange to the old masters, as portraiture used to be functional—depicting the sitter’s wealth and power—rather than a mainly aesthetic genre. How does anonymity affect how a painting or portrait is viewed? An old-master portrait of an obscure noble might as well be anonymous to a viewer today, as the details of his or her life have probably been lost to time. Does knowledge of the name behind the face change anything at all? In partially overlapping shows at Elizabeth Houston Gallery, Katinka Lampe and Colin Chillag each presented portraits of nameless sitters.
Lampe’s portraits, in a show that closed October 20, have the flatness and slickness of TV screen. The sitters appear still, yet a slight motion-blur effect gives their faces a sense of movement, evident in 5065184 (2018) and 6080171 (2017). This effect recalls the interlacing found in analog video, in which individual frames are split in two, scanline by scanline, and each resulting frame becomes a flickering superimposition of these halves. The screen may appear still, but the image itself is in constant motion; it cannot stop shifting between the two moments that constitute it. Lampe’s portraits exhibit this sense of still motion or moving stillness. Each sitter’s face stays perfectly motionless but the blurring effect creates its own shivering action, an inner restlessness or akathisia brought to the surface.
Her sitters aren’t given names, but each painting is titled with a seven-digit number. The significance of each number is left up to the viewer’s imagination: is it some kind of serial number or sequence, or a date, or something completely random with no significance or meaning at all? Regardless, it stands in place of a name and allows each sitter to hide his or her identity behind this inscrutable code. Despite their anonymity, Lampe’s subjects exude personality. 6080179 (2017) show the back of a girl’s head and her complicated (perhaps physically impossible) hairstyle. Her pearl earring recalls Vermeer, but the act of facing away from the viewer recalls Goya’s Charles IV and Family from 1800. As the story goes, the sitter facing the wall was the hypothetical future wife of Fernando VII.
Like Lampe’s work upstairs, Chillag’s paintings in the basement gallery defy portraiture’s historical functionality. His reimaginings of school portraits twist and distort an already awkward moment. Chillag captures the process of metamorphosis in these baby-teeth grins, the beginning of an uneasy pupation between larva and imago. High-key backdrops merge with each sitter’s face like a chroma-key shot gone awry, fragmenting both figure and ground as in Portrait of a Girl 2 (2018). If Lampe’s portraits have the shimmering effect of an analog freeze-frame, then Chillag’s are digital glitches. His distortions provide a second layer of anonymity to his subjects. Not only are they not given names, but their faces are rippled and warped to the point that facial-recognition technology would likely be rendered useless. Chillag’s sitters remain safe in their cocoons, their identities virtually unknowable and untouchable aside from those closest to them in real life.
Aside from his portraits of individual girls, Chillag shows two larger paintings based on classroom group photos. In Class Portrait (2018) the students’ flesh and clothing merges into an amorphous pink mass, and a meandering brown line connects their fragmented figures like a route on a map. The students have been taken apart and put back together again with some pieces misplaced in the process. The other group painting, It is important to be Nobody (2018) displays a selection of relatively intact students sitting on bleachers with their hands in their laps or standing in the back rows. Blobs of opaque paint obscure parts of the figures and reveal others in an apparently arbitrary manner, although any overall logic can’t be known without knowledge of the source material or the sitters.
Maybe all portraits are ultimately anonymous, or at least not tied to a particular identity. After all, the sitter isn’t actually on the canvas or in the picture plane, as he or she has an independent existence outside the image that can’t be fully depicted. The sitter is not necessarily the subject of the painting: The depiction is a messy merger of the sitter and the artist and their combined visions, images, and subjectivities. If a name makes a difference, it is on a historical or personal level. The name exists outside the frame, floating tethered to the image, a delicate connection bound to snap at any moment.