People have become very friendly at Yale Art Gallery since they moved the information desk to the center of the first floor. I never found the place unpleasant to begin with, but I almost expected aromatherapy and a neck-rub after the radiant greetings from security and the desk crew during my recent visit. What a sweet bunch!
You’ll find a number of interesting pieces in the lobby nowadays, but three pieces in particular, lying in fairly close proximity one to another, have needled at me in the week or so since my visit: Ann Weathersby’s “Untitled” from 2002, Robert Arneson’s “Last Gasp” of 1980, and Zhang Huan’s “Ash Head No.3” from 2006.
Ann Weathersby, Untitled, 2002
If, like me, you spent too much time in front of the TV during the 1970’s, you probably thought “Brady Bunch,” on first look at Ann Weathersby’s “Untitled.” But Sherwood Schwartz would have balked at the sterility of this arrangement. It’s a cheerless piece, nine naked and emotion-free portraits like so many Caucasians caught sitting on examination-table paper, waiting patiently for the doctor to arrive, examine, and modify their Prozac dosages. The stark lighting and lack of any other visual stimulus drove me to look for scars and other hints at imperfect living, but I couldn’t find any.
In contrast to the preservation of the Kodak moment seen in family photos (I realize this might not be a family), these images preserve, like taxidermy-sporting museum cases, specific arrangements of anatomical elements. I view “Untitled” as a meditation on the shapes and forms of flesh as it changes through life, and, simultaneously, a joke about the futile yet persistent sense we have, against all knowledge, that our physical existence has any real endurance.
Robert Arneson, Last Gasp, 1980
The chuckles are more on the surface in “Last Gasp,” which flanks Ms. Weathersby’s “Untitled” to the right. In this piece Robert Arneson decapitates himself and sets his bearded head, mouth agape, on a pillar-like pedestal. A wash of bluish glaze drips down from the pedestal top like so much rancid, deoxygenated blood. The hair feels plastered down as if in a final stress-induced sweat, and the beard reads less like hair than like so many maggots feeding on Arneson’s putrifying flesh. He’s made other self-portrait heads on pedestals, but unlike them “Last Gasp” comes off as a true death depiction through the ‘pose,’ the slack jaw and dead look in the eyes. It reads as a comic meditation, the artist laughing while brooding upon the limits of his own existence, both physical and cultural. In what might be a supreme act of self-effacing humor, Arneson presents his own severed head as a trophy for his enemies.
Zhang Huan, Ash Head No.3, 2006
Flanking “Untitled” to the left is “Ash Head No.3,” by Zhang Huan. Cut like a classic statuary portrait, the head of an Asian male lolls very slightly to one side atop a simple three-legged pedestal. It’s not clear to me whether the subject is deep in meditation, asleep, or dead, although from reading of Huan’s Buddhist influences I suspect it may not matter. The nature of the ash puzzled me at first, until I saw this video:
“Ash Head No.3” is composed of the accumulated meditative acts of thousands of devoted Buddhists. It exists because of a persistent, pervasive human need to face mortality and to somehow grow beyond it, to master existence and its limitations. There’s an irresolvable tension at its root, the refusal of flesh to accept what it is and the ironic ability of the human psyche to comprehend and to yearn for something tangible beyond the limits of flesh. I’m reminded of sutras in which readers seem to be encouraged to become trickster-heroes, to outwit reality through understanding and subverting the illusions it puts forth as truth. A portrait is an illusion of sorts, the molding of form into a recognizable mass. “Ash Head No.3” appears as though it might tumble back into a heap of incense ash at any moment, making it a telling portrait of human identity, composed as it is of so many disparate temporal elements cohering through ego’s pervasive illusion.