Eros and Thanatos: The Paintings of Miki Carmi, by Coco Fusco
Miki Carmi’s oil paintings of hairless, elderly faces are haunted by many dark pasts. Though the people depicted in his paintings are his relatives, his treatment of them is anything but sentimental. Enlarged, shorn and detached from bodies, each face becomes a study of how life leaves its marks on the skin. Carmi turns his family members’ faces into landscapes in which fastidiously rendered veins, wrinkles and sun spots demarcate the surfaces and represent forces of entropy and decay. The hyper-real technique most evident in his early paintings is counterbalanced by his act of symbolic erasure, as he eliminates his subjects’ torsos and limbs. Though he seduces our look with his detailed epidermis, the experience of beholding his suspended figures is unsettling. Magnification and disembodiment evoke the visual language of the specimen, suggesting that we are engaged in a kind of clinical observation of these subjects, who, though severed from their bodies, still seem alive and mildly annoyed by the presence of a viewer. His figures do not return our gaze – their lips are pursed and their bearing suggests resignation and even mild discomfort. Those hardened jaws and unreturned looks engender the sense that morbid curiosity drives our desire to scrutinize subjects of the paintings. Carmi’s subjects do not look at us, but it feels as though they judge us for standing before them.
Carmi’s works have none of the trappings of honorific portraiture, where background surroundings, subject bearing and dress, together with a direct engagement with the eye of the viewer create the sense of social importance and psychological depth. His approach to the pictorial articulation of human likeness is steeped in troubling histories where anthropology, criminology, scientific racism and portraiture intersect. He revisits political uses of portraiture produced as evidence of claims made by 19th and early 20th century scientists about correlations between ethnicity, physical traits, behavior and intellect. These kinds of portraiture are associated more closely with photography and its evidentiary function than with painting, but Carmi manipulates their characteristics to great effect in transposing his reflections on such charged symbology to canvas. When discussing his work, Carmi frequently invokes the German eugenicist and Nazi sympathizer Hans Günther and his racial studies of Europeans, linking this mode of visualizing the human body to National Socialism and its use of science to rationalize its genocidal campaign against Jews. While this association fills Carmi’s retrieval of the style with tension and ambivalence – particularly because his actual subjects are Israeli Jews who escaped from Europe at the onset of Fascism – it bears noting that eugenics was widely accepted prior to WWII. Nearly every ethnic group known to humanity was transformed into a discrete object of study using its methods. Furthermore, formal characteristics of scientific illustration such as the isolation and abstraction of key elements and the magnification of details of organisms under scrutiny continue to prevail in the visual languages of medicine. Thus, I would refrain in my interpretation of Carmi’s paintings from suggesting that they are solely or even principally a commentary on the legacy of Nazism and its anti-Semitic visual culture. Carmi’s paintings delve more deeply into the politics of depicting human likeness, creating a critical appraisal of the discourse of positivism and its role in the arena of scientific observation of the body, where physical characteristics are the focus and ascertaining the key elements of type is the goal. He evokes the visual language of the mug shot, ethnographic studies of human subgroups and forensic medicine. These are, in essence visual languages that suppress the subjectivity of those depicted by turning the body’s exterior into an immanently legible text.
Interestingly, the other key historical reference for the artist’s approach is the death mask, an ancient practice of casting the face of eminent personages after death to create mementos. The practice was subsequently taken up by phrenologists and ethnographers in the 19th century, who cast living people’s faces in order to study notorious criminals and identify racial types. Nonetheless, the insistent life force of Carmi’s subjects works against these modes of visualization, hinting at its deficiencies and its limits. The clinical gaze never completely erases the evidence of interiority in Carmi’s subjects, nor does it trump his intensely physical engagement with his medium. As he has progressed with his series, Carmi’s rendering has become less hyper real, more symbolically distorted and more painterly. His heads have begun to turn away even more from the eye of the observer, their skin has become whirl of surface marks and unamalgamated pigments and their proportions are subject to obvious distortion. It would seem then that in Carmi’s paintings, the biological instinct to fight for life and the artist’s own creative impulse win out over the forces of death that haunt them.
Coco Fusco, Brooklyn, NY, 2012