by Gail Stavitsky, Chief Curator
Since the early 1990s, Jonathan Santlofer has reinvented traditional conceptions of the human body through his constructed and drawn portraits of artists and art world figures. Having begun his career in the 1970s as a painter of eccentrically shaped, multi-paneled, abstract canvases, Santlofer turned to the subject of portraiture at a pivotal moment in his life and career. In 1989, Santlofer lost a significant group of paintings which were consumed by a fire during an exhibition at a Chicago gallery. His subsequent term as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome in 1990-1991 was a life-saving experience that reaffirmed his abiding interests in the history, practice, and meaning of art. Making drawings and prints of the art of the Italian old masters he was seeing, Santlofer started, in his words, "cutting them up and making collages, just to get a feel for imagery which ultimately led to using portraiture in my work."[i]
The immediate antecedents to Santlofer's recent series of drawings inspired by Man Ray's photographs are a series of carved and painted hydrocal relief portraits of iconic artists. Working with photographs and secondary information, Santlofer created images of Warhol, Picasso, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem De Kooning, Man Ray, and others, juxtaposing them with meticulously recreated examples of their work. He was inspired by the idea, reinterpretation, and replication of these masters and the process of transforming them into his own compelling works of art. Regarding these reliefs as "little crafted objects like folk art, that combine high and low art traditions," Santlofer appreciated their handmade aspect.[ii] He began, however, to move in a different yet related direction when launching the Man Ray-inspired series of graphite drawings in the year 1999.
Wishing for "fiction to appear as non-fiction," Santlofer chose the medium of graphite for his meticulous renditions of elements culled from Man Ray's photographs. These highly refined, sophisticated juxtapositions confound the viewer into initially accepting the fictitious illusions that are so convincingly presented. Asking "How do you arrest the viewer's attention?," Santlofer rewards "the extended, psychological look" which unearths the technical and metaphorical complexities of these remarkably astute drawings. Slowing down the viewer's vision in our fast-paced world, Santlofer creates "the most basic drawings (pencil on paper) with allusions to photographic, mechanical replication which places them on the edge between the handmade image and the mechanical image." Although these works are compelling without any knowledge of their art historical sources, they certainly pack a double wallop with the recognition of their reinterpreted elements in the oeuvre of Man Ray.
Santlofer's interest in Man Ray dates back to his college years when he created sketches of the American modernist's work. He then created several oil and carved hydrocal reliefs, including Duchamp, Man Ray, & Rrose (2001) and Juliet circa 1945 (2001) which coincided with the drawings derived from Man Ray's work. Bordering on obsession, Santlofer's fascination with Man Ray stems from the multi-faceted artist's engagement with a variety of mediums, including painting, photography, sculpture, and writing -- "He was everything, a truly consummate artist, a paradigm for the contemporary artist." Furthermore, Man Ray's work requires repeated viewing in order to grasp its intricacies. An owner of several well-thumbed Man Ray catalogues that are literally falling apart, Santlofer has observed how the same Man Ray photograph looks different as it is reproduced in different books. These variations of the same image interest him greatly.[iii]
Le Baiser (The Kiss, circa 1932) (1999-2000), the first drawing in this series, is based upon the renowned 1937 photograph of M an Ray's companion, Ady (Adrienne), a young dancer from Guadaloupe and Nusch Eluard, an actress and wife of the Surrealist writer Paul Eluard. They are juxtaposed with an image of Man Ray, based on a 1934 self-portrait photograph, who appears to be dreaming of them. Enlarged figments of his imagination, their artificiality is enhanced by the trompe I'oeil folds and tears which suggest the identity of a casually mistreated photograph. Santlofer reused the photograph of these two women in Nusch and Ady (2001) which reveals more of their erotic encounter, almost as if someone was in the room photographing Man Ray with these women. In Santlofer's staged world, Man Ray is as much a photographic illusion as the works with which he is juxtaposed.
Another early work in this series, Man Ray Eyes (2000-2001) juxtaposes a self portrait derived from a 1947 photograph with Man Ray's famous close up photograph of a French can-can dancer, whose left eye is adorned with artificial glass tears.[iv] Man Ray considered this mysterious Surrealist image of ca. 1930 to be among his best works. As quoted in Santlofer's source for this mysterious Surrealist image, Jean-Hubert Martin's Man Ray Photographs, "a dancer's make-up brought forth these (glass) tears that do not express any kind of emotion."[v]
Man Ray's facility for reinvention is epitomized by the drawing Untitled (Man Ray and Rrose), 2000-2001, based upon a little-known, undated image of the American artist in female attire and the infamous 1921 photograph of his French colleague as his Dada feminine alter-ego Rrose Sélavy. Flipping through the catalogue Man Ray Photographs, Santlofer happened upon the humorous image of the slight Man Ray in a dress and naturally had to combine it with the better known, appropriately inscribed, looming, iconic image of Duchamp, which Santlofer humorously refers to as "the boys playing dress up."
Scale plays an important and surprising role in The Prayer (2001) in which a renowned, pensive self-portrait based on a photograph dated 1929 is juxtaposed with an equally prominent recreation of one of the artist's best known Surrealist works, La Priére (The Prayer), 1930, featuring a prominent posterior of an unknown model.[vi] The artist himself is a cool, thoughtful participant who engages the viewer rather than his muse and work which has a characteristic double edge of eroticism and innocence. The tears around and into the images are so meticulously rendered that their trompe l'oeil effect flattens the entire work. Wishing to avoid the illusion of projection, especially with regard to Man Ray's head, Santlofer created the tears and painted masking tape "to flatten the whole thing onto the surface, onto another image," suggesting an impromptu studio pin-up.
Santlofer's usual process is to lay out the overall shape of the image, draw the tears, and then to paint the tape on with gouache --"as if Man Ray took a picture of himself with a model then took the tape and stuck it on the wall of his studio. He would be the only one to treat them so poorly." This casual, dog-eared quality is in contrast to the overall hyperclarity, detail, equal depth of field, and attention paid to the depicted images. Reprising the photograph Larmes, Santlofer's drawing Tears (2002) incorporates a new temporal element as Man Ray's head (based on a self portrait of 1936) is depicted as a blur. Thus the artist is brought to life in a different way that signals a more complex and abstract direction for the recent drawings in the Man Ray series.
Duchamp, Kiki and Man Ray (2001-2002) suggests a scenario that may or may not have occurred in early twentieth century Paris. The legendary model and art groupie Kiki of Montparnasse, lover of both artists and live-in companion to Man Ray for six years, is depicted here as placid and slightly blurry. A hazy, dream-like image in the background, she is based upon Man Ray's earliest photograph of her in a classical pose taken in 1922. According to Man Ray, Kiki's "body would have inspired any academic painter. Looking at her from head to foot I could see no physical defect."[vii] The two close up images of Man Ray and Duchamp, based on photographs of 1929 and the 1960s, evoke a mysterious sense of Pygmalion and Galatea recast in a little Warhol movie without a clear plot. Thus the viewer is free to make up or complete the story.
The most recent drawing in the Man Ray series is Untitled (with Dora Maar) (2002) which is a composite of images drawn from several photographs, including his self-portrait of 1947, Hand on Lips (1929), Hand (1931), and Dora Maar (1936). Companion to Picasso and artist in her own right, Dora Maar bears an uncanny resemblance to Madonna, thus giving this image a peculiar contemporary resonance. Putting together an array of hand fragments, Santlofer confounds and convinces the viewer that they somehow connect to the depicted faces. Rotated from its source, the hand on Man Ray's face seems at first to belong to him, then it is seen as female. A tiny ceramic hand (adapted from the source photograph Dora Maar, 1936) resting on Dora Maar's chin similarly compels and perplexes the viewer. The sophisticated, incredibly complex composition suggests the increasingly abstract direction in which Santlofer may be heading with this work -- perhaps in a sense going back to his roots as a non-objective artist.
While working on this series, Santlofer wrote and published an acclaimed novel The Death Artist (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2002) which he feels has "made my artwork more literal, more tangible." Noting that the writing has focused his drawings in surprising and interesting ways, Santlofer claims that the mediums "have fed off and into each other" While writing, he visually walked through the scenes of his novel. In a review of this book, Carol Kino aptly characterized the relationship between Santlofer's written and visual work:
What works best about this book... is that it is something of a conceptual artwork in itself. In writing it, Santlofer (like [the heroine] Kate) rather subversively presents art and the art world in terms that a wide public can understand -- the lingo of the thriller. The novel also has some of the same hallmarks that make a really good conceptual artwork tick: an intellectual conundrum posed with visceral immediacy.''[viii]
Similarly, Santlofer's enigmatic drawings are both conceptual and seductive in their highly persuasive, fictitious illusions that are rooted in his abiding interests in art history, cinema, and narrative. Enjoying the formal and intuitive process of creating these works, of "slipping into the part of their staged worlds," Santlofer continues to discover new aspects of Man Ray's paradigmatically diverse oeuvre that he has looked at for many years. Still engaged in his longtime discourse between abstraction and representation, reality and illusion, the handmade and the mechanical, as well as different media, Santlofer has created a new body of work that resonates with deeper meanings. Rewarding the patient viewer's extended gaze with their convincing illusions of unknown scenarios, these complex drawings evoke the rich ambiguities of modern and contemporary life.
i "The Art of Getting Inside," Interview (November 1998), p. 74.
ii Interview with the artist, October 9, 2002. Unless otherwise noted, all other quotations are from this interview.
iii For Santlofer's source images in these catalogues, see Jean Hubert-Martin, Man Ray Photographs (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997 reprint), ills. 17, 84, 89, 104, 121, 134, 191, and 267; Man Ray, foreword by L. Fritz Gruber (Taschen Press), pp. 15, 28, 35, 37, 38, 53, 65.
iv She is identified as a can-can dancer in Jean Hubert-Martin's catalogue on p. 87. For an identification of this model as a woman named Lydia, see Emmanuelle de l'Ecotais and Alain Sayag, eds., Man Ray, Photography and Its Double (Paris, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1998), pp. 177-178 and its accompanying brochure, p. 44.
v Jean Hubert-Martin, Man Ray Photographs (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997 reprint), p. 87, ill. 84. See also p. 30 for Man Ray's high regard for his "Close up of an eye with the lashes well made up, a glass tear resting on the cheek."
vi For a discussion of this Surrealist photograph and speculation as to the identity of the model (possibly the Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim), see Katherine Ware, In Focus Man Ray Photographs from The J. Paul Gerry Museum (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998): 60, 121-3. I wish to thank Kate Ware, Curator of Photographs, Philadelphia Museum of Art, for bringing the materials about Man Ray's models to my attention.
vii Man Ray (Taschen Press), op cit, p. 12.
viii Carol Kino, "Brush with Death. There's a terrific art world novel out this season, and it isn't Updike's," posted online in Culture box, March 22, 2002.
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