Think about someone you have known for years; perhaps since childhood. Then think of their face, what do they look like in your mind? Is it a single photo of them from years ago, an image that has never changed? Or are your recollections more like an album filled with all those moments each taking a different page? Can you recall the same image of them from years ago and then separately another of just a few weeks past? Or do you remember them not as photographic singularities but as a bizarre amalgam of both those times and all the others also? You remember the eyes but all the eyes as one, as though someone had taken the album containing their pictures and repeatedly and quickly flicked the pages through. The details of the eyes become lost but the essence of their eyes remain. Similarly with the cheeks, mouth, nose and posture, their entire character constantly in flux.
Now what if you think of Cindy Sherman, whose practice is centered around the flux in her appearance. Her constantly changing self is taken to an extreme. Who she truly is, is never explored, but all the possibilities of who she could be are. Yet as the work of New York artist Doug Keyes shows, she is still there concealed in her own self-portraits. Her face, nose and eyes have left traces of themselves in her work, traces that are exacerbated by the repeated layering of her portraits on top of each other in a process of reconstruction.
The style that Keyes uses in his work originated from his Collective Memory series in which he used multiple exposures to collate the contents of art books into singular images. The continuation of his process has lead to a collection of images, which detail the work of other artists, from Frida Kahlo, Alex Kats and Steve McCurry. Condensing the history of contemporary portraiture down into just a few images, he certainly progresses our understanding of whether portraiture can ever truly capture the truth to a person. Instead, he asks if portraiture can capture even a single truth of the sitters.
Keyes also works with the catalogue of other artists who are not focused on the self-portrait like Martin Schoeller, and Steve McCurry. This forks his questioning of the portrait down two more paths. The layering of images from the same artist reveals the photographers and artists' style. Steve MCCurry's aggregate image shows just how much additional information he has in his photos through the inclusion of the costume and dress of his sitters. While the image of Schoeller's work exposes just how egalitarian his style is, the outlines of all his sitters sit so close together, everyone is treated the same to within millimeters.
It is again the Schoeller image that best shows the results of Keyes methodology, by reducing a portraitist's entire oeuvre to its essence, the work started to create a phantasmic humanity. The faces of all his sitters, celebrities, politicians and relative unknowns, aggregated into a singular face, not belonging to any one specific person but instead constructed from traces of many. A face that gazes at us from the surface of the image is one that has never existed; it is the face of his work, the face of his sitters' humanity.
Doug Keyes work is currently on show at Klompching Gallery in New York, running from March 5 till April 11
Images © Doug Keyes, courtesy of Klompching Gallery