January 10, 2010
Interview by Philip Clark

The face is the greatest form of communication, and the stronghold of secrets. How often I've heard the phrase, "His face is an open book." Many years ago, in training to be a librarian, it was drilled in to us that we must always present an "open face" to the public so that they would immediately see -- like a bright flag -- those of us who would with surety help them with their questions. The face holds a potent chemistry of mutability, expression, and emotion. With it alone, language needs no words. Yet, it is also the element that often confounds when trying to decipher the person one is in front of. A face under the control of its owner can also be a closed book. It is one of the greatest and most compelling subjects in art. Why is this so? What is it about a face that we find so fascinating and revelatory? Why do painters labor years and years to learn its secrects, as well as the means and techniques in which to reveal them? This language -- of eyes and mouth; of mathematical proportions and "golden means"; of colors and pallors, smiles and downward glances -- how does an artist make a face speak?

Jonathan Adolphe's faces -- his portraits in wax and graphite -- seek to find answers to these questions. Yet the questions reveal as much about the vagaries (and treasures) of communication as about the forms of language that we have to express them. He has always investigated the forms of communication and language that we used to reach or distance ourselves from each other. Our acronymic sense of saying in gesture what no words can fully express. His art is that of what is underneath, silent, but about to surface. It is abundant in changing surfaces, and thus changing perceptions. These eyes that look at or away from us still always command our attention. It is a form of silence made visual. We "read" these faces as we would a secret code -- we try to fathom clues, we choose and discard proofs,

How did you come to your art? What were the initial beginnings, in terms of what you were interested in as a subject? Your mask pieces are fascinating to me. These have a simplicity of pure abstract form, yet immediately imply a sense of individual character in the way each is formed and shaped. The materials create a surface that seems both organic and alive, even while connoting something perhaps darker. As all masks do, they act as a substitution for a face, yet always reveal more than in on the surface.

Philip Guston once quoted Paul Valery, who said that "a bad poem is one that vanishes into meaning." With that sentiment as cover, I will take a stab at answering your questions. The powerful effects of memory and absence is a subject I've always been drawn to. The paintings unveil an atmosphere evocative of a distance or gap in communication and connection. My first paintings were of faces and masks. I painted a collection of theater masks hanging on the wall at age 12, an early response to James Ensor and Joseph Cornell. Cornell touched me most of all. Cornell's women -- isolated behind glass in that rarefied space -- were beautiful, sad portraits of them and of him. The early mask paintings were hybrid pieces, both painting and sculpture at the same time, abstract and figurative. The mask shape I most often painted on was derived from stretching an Islamic tile design until it resembled an animal skull, a shield or a torso. The pieces were covered in wax. Now I work on a ground of poured wax. This smooth, perfect skin I associate with the flat impeccable surface of a movie screen and Joseph Cornell's glass.

Beginning with your earlier work, the mixed-media constructions: word and image are closely linked in these. The use of sign-language symbols, coupled with fragments of statement, create a semaphoric quality of communicating these visual "plays" -- there is a lovely sense of theater to the pieces. They convey very tangible emotions, and yet remain mysterious and secretive -- at least to anyone who does not understand these symbols and sentence fragments. We wonder who might be speaking; we are intrigued by the word erasures, by the pieces of cloth or flags. There is an element of something below the surface, or at least more than the surface shows. How did they develop your visual ideas?

The Chalkboards, yes. When I felt like working with figurative imagery, there was always the face. When I felt the need to paint abstractly, I turned to calligraphy and writing. The chalkboard paintings were my "abstract" pieces. But painting writing meant that I had to have something to say. While trying to navigate Twombly and Johns territory, I happened on the book of Navy Signal Flag Language. This was a treasure trove of flags Johns hadn't touched and each flag had its own meaning: Echo-Xray: "My position is doubtful"; Foxtrot: "Disabled; communicate with me"; Kilo: "Wish to communicate"; India-Lima: "I am unable to proceed under my own power, I am adrift"; Victor-Romeo: "No change". You get the idea. Language talking about distress at sea I brought to dry land. I coupled this with hand signs for the deaf and braille for the blind. Plus I threw in a stick figure alphabet from Sherlock Holmes, for good measure. This was sprinkled with African hairstyle names -- "Kill Me and Fly" (a one-night stand) and "Skin Pain". I could signal anxiety or pain but distance it as well. After all it was really the Navy saying these things, not me. Expression through compression. The language of the chalkboard paintings could speak for the faces if the faces could not speak.

Your early wax pieces continue the ideas of experimenting with what lies beneath the surface. They are luxurious and yet disarming -- the viewer is compelled by the materials, yet must work to decipher what is below, as something coming up through water. It's not so much hide-and-seek as seek-and-find.

In the wax portraits I rarely use paint. I usually drag powdered pigment across the wax and rub it beneath the surface. Powered pigments are actually just colored dirt, earth that I buy at the art store. In the latest triptychs of Marcel, it seems as if his face is floating up -- like watching an image rise through the liquid developing solution. The head appears frozen, about to surface. Suspended, never arriving. That image mirrors my process physically and looks and

Can you speak more about your techniques and materials? Why did you choose such methods of ground and medium to express your imagery?

It was around this time, 10 years ago, I accidentally discovered a transfer method for my portraits, rubbing powdered graphite and solvents into wax. It was a process of rubbing and washing, addition and subtraction, revealing and concealing. These first portraits surprised me and I wasn't ready to accept them. So I set them aside. My daughter urged me to take them up again. Rubbing powdered pigments into wax scars and marks the surface, creating a rich history of the markings. It reminded me of how I used to leave etching plates in the acid bath to collect a complex web of markings.

How did photography first enter your work? Had you been photographing at the same time you were painting? What is your process of portraiture in preparation for the final paintings?

Although artists of my generation have felt free to use photography in painting, for me it took a number of years to grant myself permission to use a camera. First I photographed -- or rather, re-photographed -- Godard, Bresson, and Antonioni films. I filled several notebooks with these copied film stills. I wanted to have them. Eventually, I showed these images to my first model, Ersellia, and asked her to be my "movie" She got it!

The portraits have a sensual and heightened quality to them, made more dramatic by the dark movement of pigment across the surfaces. Each face is defined, yet also enigmatic and seems to hold secret, personal information. This "veiling" mesmerizes me -- there is so much that I want to look at in each of these, but only so much information will be revealed. The perfect conundrum.

For me, the art that elicits the strongest response calls on the viewer to try to fathom the artist's intentions. When the message is just on the tip of your tongue, you can almost put it into words; almost grasp it. It keeps you looking. I used to have a dream about painting that I took from Hitchcock's "Strangers On A Train." The villain-protagonist has dropped his incriminating evidence, the cigarette lighter, down a storm-drain beneath the street. It is on a ledge just barely out of his reach. In closeup, his fingers can be seen scraping the smooth, shiny surface of the lighter but he can't quite grasp it, can't possess it. He must try again and again. That's the process of painting for me.

Why is the face such a magnetic subject for you? What, if any, were the initial visual ideas for the portraits? There is a quality of antiquity to these portraits -- as if they were unearthed after long periods of time, or perhaps found like old glass negatives in some forgotten time. Yet the faces are beautiful and redolent of timelessness. Who are the models, and how do you construct a portrait session?

Since I'm on dreams for the moment: this question of being "unearthed after long periods of time" reminds me of another recurring dream. I'm digging in the earth under my parents' house pulling up old portraits and masks covered in dirt and hard to read. This unearthing of each face threatens the foundation of the house overhead. I've chosen the models from among the people that I know. I have looked closely at how Robert Bresson recorded faces. His viewers can read deep emotions in the inexpressive faces he portrays. Bresson says in "Notes on Cinematography": "The thing that matters is not what they show but what they will hide from me and above all, what they do not suspect is in them." Later, he states, "Choose your models well, they will lead you to where you want to go." Cailen was most comfortable in front of the camera. She would relax into a near trance. I had originally asked her to model because she looked like a Medardo Rosso come to life (who, of course, encased his portraits in wax). Once when I was photographing her, I finally asked her what she was thinking about. My question startled her and she replied that she wasn't thinking about anything. Her passive, open expression invites much projection onto her like a blank screen. But she, herself, is quite private.

In one of my sessions with Natasza, she told me she had just come from lunch with a girlfriend, where she confessed she was upset and angry at some guy. Her girlfriend said, "That's terrible..and now you have to go and be photographed." Natasza said, "It's okay, he likes that." I do. I am so steeped in imagery from art and film history that during the session, sometimes a steady stream of painting or film images flit by while I'm looking through the lens. The models think it quite amusing that when they come over we do the same thing every time. The sessions consist of identical poses taken week after week. Expressing emotion through restraint and repetition is essential. Repetition is the only way I know to make something.

What are the elements of great portraiture for you, in any medium?

I'm not sure I feel equipped to answer your question. Traditionally you hear, a great portrait reveals the sitter. But maybe great portraiture conceals the sitter and reveals the viewer. You can read yourself right into that face [space].

There is a spiritual quality to these faces; how do you achieve this? Is this inherent in the thinking about your work, or this project in particular?

To this question, I immediately think of Bresson, Byzantine icons and Matisse's chapel. This chapel has always been very important to me. In my studio, I have tacked up a little Matisse postcard. It is a reproduction of a simple charcoal drawing of a priest's face. It is an empty oval whose proportions are that of a Byzantine icon. There is almost nothing to it and it is very powerful. This question also prompts me to look again at Paul Schrader's "Transcendental Style in Film: On Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer." I was shocked by how much I had internalized Schrader's analysis of the spiritual face. He says, (page 96): "The long forehead, the lean features, the closed lips, the blank stare, the frontal view, the flat light, the uncluttered background, the stationary camera -- these identify Bresson's protagonists as objects suitable for veneration." It's been years since I read this, but clearly I took it almost as marching orders. I would tell my models we're doing mug-shots and would always encourage them to look straight and impassively forward eyes open or closed.

Your faces must be read; they have a silent language of their own. The emotional components of each of the individuals you've photographed has to also work through the layers and surface markings -- obstructions -- to speak to us.

I am very moved by your observation that the faces must be read. The marks and "obstructions" you speak of are the obstacles to being seen and understood.

Where do you find yourself going now? What new ideas are you exploring, developing from this work? Will the face continue to be a rich subject for you?

Now I would like to do some more abstract paintings to go alongside the paintings. Perhaps to make an abstract painting now I need only erase the faces. Erasure has always been a necessary part of the process. Erasure is quite beautiful. On the other hand, I would like to expand the imagery, perhaps to include hands, the figure, landscape. I would like to make a story board that doesn't reveal its story.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT JONATHAN ADOLPHE, 2009. Used with kind permission of the artist.