Face the Facts

Here's a scary idea: Take photographs of the leaders of the countries with the largest nuclear stockpiles in the world and blend them into a composite portrait, weighting each photograph's contribution to the composite by the size of his or her stockpile. In the early 1980s, the heads of state in question would have been Leonid Brezhnev, Deng Xiaoping, François Mitterand, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. (I said it was scary.) The ratio would be about 55 percent Reagan, 45 percent Brezhnev and less than 1 percent for the other three. Nancy Burson tried this little experiment in 1982 and came up with Warhead I, giving a chilling face to the nuclear nightmare under which most of us have lived our entire lives.

The face is usually our starting point for defining identity, our own and others', and "Seeing and Believing: The Art of Nancy Burson," now at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery, is full of faces. This mid-career survey -- organized by Terrie Sultan, the Blaffer's director, and Lynn Gumpert, director of New York University's Grey Art Gallery -- follows Burson's interest in identity issues from her early fascination with the aging process through the 2000-2001 series, Guys Who Look Like Jesus.

The earliest work here is Five Self-Portraits at Ages 18, 30, 45, 60 and 70 (1976), for which Burson had a makeup artist "age" her (and "de-age" her, for that matter). The results are spectacularly unconvincing. But, working with scientists at MIT, she developed a considerably more successful software program, The Method and Apparatus for Producing an Image of a Person's Face at a Different Age (1976), that was subsequently used to help find several missing children. In fact, it was later licensed to the FBI for that purpose. Based on the fact that we all age the same way (essentially, our faces grow out and down), the technology, displayed here as The Age Machine (1990), allows you to scan your face into an interactive computer station and see what you might look like in 20 years or so.

The other programs at the computer station are outgrowths of some of Burson's other concerns during her career: The Anomaly Machine (1995-1996) deals with facial irregularities; The Couples Machine (1999) will make you androgynous; and The Human Race Machine (2000) is an emphatically personal iteration of the artist's truism -- which cannot be asserted too often -- that "there is no gene for 'race.' "

Burson's interest in what is now called morphing lasted through the '80s. Along with Warhead I, she made a composite of mankind, blending white, black and Asian by percentage of world population, as well as a composite of six men and six women to see which sex would dominate (somewhat reassuringly, the female does). To explore standards of feminine beauty, she produced two composites, one using the faces of '40s and '50s film stars; the other, '70s and '80s film stars. Neither composite is terribly appealing, perhaps because beauty depends on the individual -- the idiosyncratic, rather than the norm. As if to prove that point, between 1988 and 1990, Burson made a series of large Polaroid composite portraits, most of which would be at home on an (original) Star Trek set: a woman given a doll's eyes, faces with bald cranial extensions, a man with mildly reptilian features. The soft beauty of these black-and-white portraits draws you in past the anomalies.

The heart of this exhibit is a series of formal portraits from 1994 and 1995, part of a larger series called Special Faces. These large format Polaroid photographs, Rembrandtesque in their lush color and rich lighting, portray sitters with facial anomalies or prostheses, people with congenital conditions and survivors of cancer. These faces possess a calm dignity; some even express an open curiosity, inviting your gaze, welcoming it. The ravishing beauty of these portraits combines with the warmth and candor of the sitters to make you want to stay with them awhile.

Burson's most recent series, Healing and Pictures of Health, are the most problematic works in the survey. The former is concerned with primarily the community of healers, people who can marshal some kind of energy to, for example, shrink tumors (note: they are not faith healers). Burson sought to photograph this energy. In Gary (2000), a vertical, red-rimmed yellow flare of light hovers before the subject, while Nancy (1996) appears to be sitting in a dry ice cloud. These are, if nothing else, remarkable portraits of faith and hope; the expression on the face of the (presumable) mother in the background of JP with Sammy (2001) says it all.

Pictures of Health involves microscope photographs of healthy and unhealthy cells; the juxtaposition of the blooming world of a healthy human lymphocyte with a sick one's barren moon is compelling. The idea is "to assist people in picturing their own health," Burson tells the curators in the catalog interview. But the series also includes "aural fingerprints" captured by a gas discharge visualization camera, demonstrating the aural difference between, say, anger and love: Anger seems asymmetrical and looks like much harder work.

The problem with these two series is that after spending the first part of her career manipulating photographic images, Burson now wants us to accept the veracity of the photograph as an objective record. There is a contradiction here, but it's not fatal. What finally persuades is the obvious sincerity of the artist; that's why the Special Faces series is at the heart of Burson's work. There, the integrity, generosity and empathy that inform Nancy Burson's work are most evident. In recognition, it would be churlish not to curb our skepticism.

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John Devine