Human Abstraction: 3 Superfine! Miami Artists on Uncanny Bodies
Something uncanny was afoot at Superfine! Miami… strange creatures roamed the corridors. They had eyes but no mouth, bones but no skin, and thoughts but no body to contain them. They were rendered in ink, oil paint, and mixed media, but their bodies felt organic. The energy within them was alive— they are watching. Human abstraction was a major theme the artists at Superfine! Miami played with this year. Artists Ebru Duruman, Adam Christopher Reed, and Tony Michale Estrada demonstrate how the humanoid form can make us question what it means to be human.
Like a scientist, Ebru Duruman explores the human body, yet her work is anything but clinical. Her desire to take apart her own body is more psychological—even magical—than scientific. She is interested in the signification of her abstracted human form. How do these parts make her feel? How do her emotions interact with her anatomy? Duruman explores these questions— and more— in the work she brought to Superfine! Miami.
In Watching Faces, eyes sink through the air, as if gravity has been replaced by a vat of gooey syrup. These eyes are surrounded by an amalgamation of curving lines. Some arc around the lids like eyebrows. Others, sinuous and black, wind their way around the canvas like snakes. And still others, filled-in with tightly-packed lines, suggest burrowing worms—themselves adorned with all-seeing eyes. It’s a strange parade of humanoid animal-parts, floating amidst a stairwell that defies physics.
In this otherworldly stairwell, the steps wind their way down only to converge with a panel of beams. Both markers of space are undermined by cracks on the surface of the picture plane. Resembling both twine and ripped paper, these frayed tears split the surface of Watching Facesinto three-dimensional puzzle pieces. From every dimension in this fractured universe, we are observed. Watchful worms wriggle though space-time to catch a glimpse at us. Eyes hover between dimensions, casting their heavy-lidded gaze upon us. The result is disconcerting.
It is an effect that Duruman explores in several of the works she is bringing to Superfine! Miami. Lost in Faces presents a more architectural dreamworld— interesting, given Duruman’s background in architecture.
Looking at Lost in Faces and Watching Faces is like peering into Duruman’s sketchbook as she draws. They represent her most primitive thoughts, drawn from her own subconscious. She says that children have the purest array of emotions, but as we age these emotions become “agitated with anxiety.” In drawing, she is able to retrieve these pure, childlike thoughts from the recesses of her mind.
She uses processes similar to that of her surrealist precedents—Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and Dorothea Tanning— though she also draws inspiration from the emotional intensity of Caravaggio. Watching Faces has all the style of surrealism, with the added emotional depth of Renaissance painting. Perhaps this is because all of Duruman’s work is a self-portrait of some kind, though many include figures that stimulate within her a certain emotion. Watching Faces creates the feeling of being watched; of being cornered. It begs the question: are these eyes Duruman’s eyes, turned in on herself in a critical way? Perhaps are they the eyes of another, infringing upon the artist’s psychological space. Should we place ourselves in the position of the artist, cornered by this three-dimensional gaze? Or should we look deeper to find the human parts of Duruman in the deepest dimension of the canvas?
Adam Christopher Reed is a master of the uncanny. He understands how form and color can work together to create subjects that are not quite human, but not inhuman either.
In the paintings he brought to Superfine! Miami, like the exquisitely colored Audra, Reed juxtaposes objects in pursuit of revivification. He hopes that the presence of life will emerge from his assemblages— and it does, every time. Reed’s creatures loom large, their emotive force communicated by their richly colored bones and uncannily positioned bodies.
There is no painting better suited for explaining this phenomenon than Frosted Glasses (Editor’s note: this work found a wonderful new home at Superfine! Miami). The fabric draped around the large blue skull creates the illusion of a person wearing a headscarf and a robe. Two shoulders take shape, as does the suggestion of an elbow and a knee. It seems as if this bony being is sitting, hunched over, with one leg bent. The second, smaller skull, facing the large blue one, completes the composition. Suddenly, we are looking at a Pietà—an image of the Virgin Mary and the baby Christ.
Reed describes the creatures he brings to life as “perceived beings, imperfectly evoked by an arrangement of objects, [or] a certain angle of the light.” The artist goes on to explain that the creatures’ humanity is a projection of the viewer—and the artist’s—psyche. What this means is that we choose to see Reed’s creatures as alive, and use a ray of light or a religious image to support our claim.
We also look to the creatures’ eyes and see life where there is emptiness. Because of the vacuous nature of the skulls’ eye sockets, it is impossible for the viewer to determine any information from them. Humans register identity and gauge mood through the eyes. When there are none, we are left wondering how we relate to the figure before us. Because of this uncertainty, we start to imagine that we are being watched—in fact, we feel the heat of a stare from these eye-shaped holes. The result is an uncanny relationship between subject and viewer, in which the gaze is ever-present but never defined.
Reed recognizes this tension. He describes the skull’s expression as one of waiting. “Not expectant, anxious waiting,” he clarifies. “Just waiting for what comes next.” According to Reed, the skull has no concern for the viewer’s actions other than simple curiosity (perhaps because it is only alive in our paranoid minds.) For the self-conscious viewer, this can be maddening. The skull remains, like a fly on the wall, always watching and never acting; the most passive of poltergeists.
Reed also uses color to manufacture strangeness. He explains that color can be used to isolate disparate forms of an assemblage until they take on a life of their own. This is especially clear in a work like Surge, which uses terra cotta shades to suggest an anatomical connection between a human face, a foot of bandages, a grouping of flowers, and an animal skull. The assemblage is then further isolated from its surroundings by the blue sheet it sits on. The viewer comes to see the hybrid creature as one living entity, part bone, part flesh, part flora and part synthetics.
And then there is Tony Michale Estrada, an artist whose manipulations of the human form are rooted in his conceptual understanding of the human spirit. Estrada speaks of the collective consciousness of his ancestors as a ‘wellspring’ he taps into to learn the lessons of those who came before him. This communication also provides the artist creative guidance.
God and Monster is a result of this communication. The circular cut-out at the center of the work had been sitting in his workspace for quite some time, directionless and decontextualized. This past summer, Estrada tapped into the energy provided by his ancestral line and the purpose of the image became clear. It is now the centerpiece of a collage that explores mankind’s relationship to nature; the line between “the spiritual and the mundane.”
The collage is composed of several motifs, most notably an abundance of spirals. These come from photographs of shells Estrada found in a used book and enlarged. The scale of these prints emphasizes the spiral nature of the shells. The viewer is drawn into their centers, spellbound by their mathematical and mystical harmony. We associate the spiral with both logic and magic, which makes it an apt symbol through which Estrada can explore the ‘rational’ human and the ‘divine’ spirit. Seen through the lens of the harmonious shell, this relationship would appear to be one of substantial overlap. “My paintings are charged with thought and energy… and magic,” the artist says. “I believe they are portals that connect us to Mother Earth, and that create a balance between the spiritual and the mundane.” Estrada’s shells demonstrate how thought and magic are not so dichotomous. They reveal our world to be full of both.
The collage also includes images of young Brazilian men who help tourists traverse a waterfall in Bahia. Estrada calls these men the ‘River Gods.’ Like the artist’s shells, the River Gods suggest a spiritual understanding of nature. Their work instills in each visitor an appreciation for the magic and strength of the waterfall. Slowly, they will pass this knowledge to hundreds, and then thousands, of men, all of whom have been out of touch with their innate spiritual knowledge of the universe. Estrada himself has experienced this disconnection. It was only when he immersed himself in his art-making that the communication between himself and his ancestors opened fully, and he let his intuition take over. “It brought me back to a very child-like place where cutting and gluing shapes became almost urgent,” the artist recalls. Like Duruman, Estrada accesses his inner child to discover his most instinctive motivations.
Like the circle in God and Monster, the moon in Ancestors was in the artist’s possession for quite some time before he discovered its purpose. It always contained, as the artist says, “echoes of symbols and ancient lessons about balance in the universe.” He just needed to wait for the moment to use these symbols and lessons and tell a cohesive story.
Inspiration hit this summer, when he gave in to intuition and let the voice of his ancestors influence his making.
Estrada situated a male figure, a pre-Columbian deity believed to be the Azetec sun God Tonatiuh, in the foreground. The artist notes that his great-great-great grandmother was a Maya. He believes that he is descended from Tonatiuh because all indigenous Americans are descended from one people. And so, the image of Estrada himself is conceptually inserted into an indigenous depiction of an Aztec god. It is a unique method of human abstraction, and one that relies on a chain of conceptual relationships between the divine and the human.
The artist also sliced a horizontal line in the moon and struck through a collage of different eyes from photo prints. He notes the presence of Frida Kahlo and Louise Bourgeois’ eyes as two of the piercing gazes. Perhaps he is suggesting that they, too, are part of his line, as an artist and/or fellow indigenous American. Regardless of their specific identity, they underline the notion that the spirits of our ancestors are very much alive. They are watching us, from the surface of the moon, from every blade of grass, and from inside every swirling shell.
You can find work by Ebro Duruman, Adam Christopher Green, and Tony Michale Estrada on the Superfine! Miami E-Fair. Be sure to visit their pages and ask yourself: Are these beings alive? Are they human?