"Repetition and Absence: The Paintings of Martin Gustavsson"
Catalogue essay by Peggy Phelan - 2000

T.S. Eliot remarked that only people who have personalities know what it is to want to escape them. Martin Gustavsson’s wonderful painting Somebody Else’s Head, reminds me of that wish and of the difficulty of making it come true. Even when I am wishing I could escape my own head, I realize (with acute horror) that all my fantasies of another person’s head are like arrows bouncing off my mind’s own mirror. By virtue of authoring my wish to escape, I condemn myself to exile within the architecture of my own imagining.

Gustavsson’s triptych presents us with the same model in three slightly different portraits. The mouth and the angle of perception shift from one to the next, lending a kind of photographic, even filmic, sequential charge to the triptych. Moreover, the portraits themselves carry the consequences of that shift, while remaining in the dark, with the viewer, about its cause. Thus, the shifting perspective at work in each portrait accents the shift in the model’s own perspective – not the traditionally coherent solid art ‘object,’ Gustavsson’s model is allied with the viewer in his perplexity about what occurs in the narrow space between each painting. If sculpture is often defined as that which remains after the artist has cast away unnecessary material, Gustavsson suggests that contemporary portrait painting might be defined as that which remains after enigmatic emotion strikes us dumb, open-mouthed, and hood-eyed. Unable to capture a true flight from oneself, unable to explain what occurs between two people or two moments, unable to trace precisely the boundary between the object of art and art’s true subject, unable to leave off attempting to capture the thing one missed and unable to forget one has missed it, one returns to the fragile facts one can trace -- the shape of a chin, the color of skin, the slow pivot of somebody else’s head toward and away from one’s grasp. The events that occurred prior to each of the three poses, events that themselves remain resolutely off-frame even though the possibility that the events occurred during the act of painting remains open, transforms the face of the model and therefore, the eye and attitude of the looker. These transformations, in turn, are registered in the change of Gustavsson’s hand -- each brushstroke handles the emotional charge somewhat differently. To hold and to massage the delicate net of emotion is the work of the painter’s hands. Some of that work cannot be approached directly; one needs to tilt the head in order to absorb and to survive its hold on us.

The psychic territory of Somebody Else’s Head was well mapped by Sigmund Freud in his suggestive essay, “The Uncanny,” in which he analyzes the doppleganger, the alter-ego, and the strange oscillation between the Heimlich and the Unheimlich that constitutes the fascination of the double. For Freud, the uncanny responds to the psychic anxiety of not knowing quite where one begins or ends, of not being able to distinguish precisely where home is and is not. Gustavsson’s Butterfly, a mirrored painting in which the model is reflected on two canvases of such striking similarity, and of such subtle but noticeable difference, that one cannot speak with certainty of the original and the reflection, explores the uncanny join that both anchors and divides us from our own baffling selves. Comparing Butterfly with Somebody Else’s Head accents the sequential force of the triptych, which gives us three distinct portraits, while Butterfly gives us two copies of one. Gustavsson adds to Freud’s catalog of the uncanny, using his portraits to suggest that one’s own body is a kind of home, whose borders are often difficult for the head to make out, especially in moments of sex and death. In sex, the borders fade because there is so much intermingling of fluid, skin, viscera, and when we’re lucky, passionate emotion. In death, the borders fade because the survivor knows that the dead beloved has taken part of them into death. In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud suggests that the death of the beloved requires that the survivor actively kill off that part of the ego that had been attached to the beloved. In other words, the death of the beloved produces a kind of partial self-annihilation on the survivor’s part before psychic equilibrium is restored -- reminding us, once again, that psychic health is often very expensive.

Freud’s notion of ‘equilibrium’ was derived from thermodynamics. He thought of psychic energy as something that could not be created nor destroyed. Art, for Freud, was often the result of a sublimation of a thwarted erotic charge. Therefore art often carries an aspect of mourning within it. I feel this grief in some of Gustavsson’s paintings, especially in his work with repetition and doubling. The experience of the double, and with repetition tout court for Freud, is an experience that brings us close to the death drive. Psychic life, Freud suggested, could be explained as a long drama between the life and death drives; the erotic encounter is the privileged site for this drama and that is why it remains the central psychic enigma.

While we are now accustomed to associating portrait photography with death, thanks largely to the work of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, we are less comfortable with such thoughts in relation to painting. In discussions of photography, death is what attaches to the model and to the viewer; in stilling a moment of time, the camera suspends the life of the model for a moment. When one encounters that still image, one both recalls and anticipates the more permanent stillness that death brings. In discussions of death and painting, however, death is attached to the medium itself. “The death of painting” has been repeatedly announced since the invention of the camera. But Gustavsson’s project is less an inquiry into the ontological category of painting in the age of mechanical reproduction, and more an inquiry into the specific touch that haunts and creates contemporary portrait painting. For in representing the figure, in recomposing the face, Gustavsson necessarily touches it, over and over again. The discussion of repetition within painting has been largely supersceded by the discussion of repetition within the photographic arts. But I think this is a mistake. Terms such as “still-life” or “petit mort” carry the charge of inanimation that Freud associated with the death drive. This is at the core of painting’s fundamental psychic allure even now.

Gustavsson makes a bid for painting’s still urgent contribution to the representation of sex and death. In a manner reminiscent of And Warhol’s brilliant film, Blow Job, in which the camera is trained steadily on the face of the actor as it makes the contortions we associate with orgasm, Somebody Else’s Head carries the charge of sex, and more especially of gay men’s sex. Shot from slightly below the actor’s face, Warhol’s camera angle is mimicked here by Gustavsson’s perspective on his model. The associations we make watching Warhol’s film are framed by the provocative title; similarly, Somebody Else’s Head plays on the sexual pun invoked by the term ‘head.’ The slackening of the mouth, especially the upper open lips in the central portrait, also suggests sexual release, while the closed eyes in all three portraits acknowledge the bodily concentration summoned in the erotic act. Moreover, in the central panel, the model’s open mouth is full of paint, wryly doubling, at the psyhci level, what we imagine he might be spilling into someone else’s mouth. Given the psychic logic at work here, the artist’s signature dab of paint in the open mouth registers what he gives back in this exchange. This sexual and artistic economy nicely comments on the long history of heterosexual artistic economy in which male artists employed female prostitutes as both art and sexual objects. Two men at play and at work in Somebody Else’s Head reveals the perversity of the traditional historical dynamic, which is too often taken to be a matter of course.

In Warhol’s Blow Job, the camera does not stop; there are no cuts in the film at all. In Somebody Else’s Head, the space between the three portraits is central. It is this blank space, much larger than the leader between each film-still, that haunts me. For it is in this open space that another doubling occurs. If we read the triptych as a tracing of the effects of sexual orgasm, the reading still does not remove the enigmatic charge of the painting, or indeed of the sex act itself. The painting frames, repeatedly, an absence; that white river of wall between and beneath the portraits beckons us away from the given-to-be-seen and toward that which cannot be represented, no matter how precise the technique. This absence remains art’s truest provocation and inspiration.

In Sofa, another series of paintings that recalls sequential photographic and filmic work, Gustavsson carefully paints the indentations in the furniture left after somebody (else?) has gone. A kind of visual metaphor for the psychic grief suffered by the loss of the beloved’s body, the work of painting touches the shape of that absence itself. Using the paintbrush to retrace the weight of the body on the surface of the sofa, the canvas becomes an arena to transform absence literally into the presence of paint and to transform mourning into the act of painting. Arranged in a gallery with the space between the six canvases representing the still-enigmatic breach, Sofa puts us in mind of the vocabulary of interior decorating -- with its sofas, couches, and sectionals. It’s a short walk from the sectional to that other technology of interior decorating, the (psychoanalytic) session. The psychoanalytic couch, with its impressions and divisions, its indentations and secrets, is recalled here as something that itself must remain radically suspended. Sofa floats on a wall, rivers of white run between the painted and the unpainted space of our own still largely secret and divided psychic lives. Freud’s essay, “Analysis, Terminable and Interminable,” presciently addressed the unending labor of psychic (re)examination. Like the labor of figurative painting, the task of reconstructing, revising, and reconciling divisions and joins in our erotic and aesthetic lives, is still with us. Painting’s power, Gustavsson suggests, comes precisely from its ability to repeat all that remains still with us, still in us, after the beloved has become an abstraction. Gustavsson’s work invites us to still live the portraits we call still-lives.

Peggy Phelan, January 2001