The following was written for Compendium, an exhibition that details the interchangeable qualities of art and science. The artists featured in the exhibition are firmly planted in both disciplines.
On view from October 4 – December 27, 2015 at Islip Art Museum in East Islip, New York.
While most of us think of art as an act of creation, there are many who instead have explored it as an act of erasure. Take, for example, Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). As a friend of the artist, Rauschenberg was able to secure a work from the master with permission to erase it. The original contained charcoal, oil paint, pencil, and crayon markings that took Rauschenberg a month to undo. The final result was intended as poetry, yet interpreted by the art world as an act of vandalism. How dare Rauschenberg insult Willem de Kooning in this way? The scandal loomed large. Rauschenberg had removed a masterpiece from the history of art, and yet he had also introduced an important question: What meaning lies in the act of un-doing?
Other artists have fought against our ability to erase that which we do not want to see. Sculptor Rachel Whiteread caused her own controversy in London in the early 1990s. Her work House (1993) casted the internal impression of a soon-to-be demolished home in what had been a working-class neighborhood. The tall concrete structure sat in a fenced off park for months like a demanding ghost and received thousands of visitors. With gentrification pushing its way through the city, many did not want a reminder of what they were painting over with new buildings and communities. The concrete imprint illustrated our ability to pave over history; it was an eyesore. It also wore the marks of those who had lived in that very home, thus making their erasure impossible. On the same night that Whiteread won the renowned Turner Prize for House, the local council voted to tear it down from their neighborhood.
With his project Detouched, Brooklyn-based artist Travis LeRoy Southworth works somewhere in between the two aforementioned examples. In the age of Photoshop, when perfection is a mere blending tool away, we are surrounded by images of people with no visible flaws. Southworth literally collects these imperfections and composes them into portraits that come across like flesh-toned celestial bodies.
Having worked as a photo-retoucher, the artist is perhaps all too familiar with the small erasures that accompany any photo shoot. Every wrinkle or a laugh line, each area of cellulite or blotchy skin, is taken away so that we can appear how we would like to be seen. By saving these undone blemishes and composing them into nebulae, Southworth creates portraits of who we cannot stand to be. The works have a distinctly biological feel while maintaining a look of abstraction. Like clouds, you can read into their shapes what you will.
In the early 19th century, the Hudson River School played with perfection on their own terms. These landscape painters celebrated the majesty of nature, whose wilderness was quickly disappearing under manicured agricultural fields, by combining multiple settings into one perfected scene. The results are awesome, sublime landscapes powerful enough to weaken your knees, yet they never actually existed.
Like the Hudson River School painters, Southworth assembles his works from different sources. Rather than celebrating the majesty of nature, however, he brings to light our obsession with erasing the natural. Photoshop allows us all to perfect our images into the current standard of idealized forms, yet in doing so we paint over who we really are.
Southworth’s Detouched portraits look like outer space landscapes shaped from fragments of human flesh. The physical distance between humans and the cosmos can be read as a symbol of the separation between our natural selves and the idealized bodies composed in contemporary photography. By collecting the erased bits of photographic portraits, Southworth, like Whiteread, forces us to look at that which we do not want to see. Like Rauschenberg, he forces us to question what it means to erase.