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Faces to stretch the mind at the Belkin

If you delight in what my daughter’s teacher calls “mind stretching and bending,” then “Faces: Works from the Permanent Collection,” the current show at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery will please you.  Using the permanent collection and undergraduate and graduate students as co-curators, Belkin director Scott Watson has put together a stunningly brilliant, detail-rich exhibition.  

“Faces” asks us to think about how the face has been viewed and by whom.  How it is used to frame and capture people?  To manipulate and stereotype?  To control?  Is the face truly a reflection of a person?  a window to the soul? a mirror?  or is it a mask?

The show includes 90 works from the permanent collection, the Museum of Anthropology with a few added pieces and spans three locations.  The Walter C. Koerner Library at UBC, with traditional portraits of University types (mostly “dignified” white males); the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at UBC, and the satellite gallery at 560 Seymour Street in downtown Vancouver.


Curated with such attention to detail, the placement of every “face” -- painting, print or object, matters.  Each room, each wall, each piece and how one links back to another is significant.  Individual walls are themed, covering topics from political manipulation to racism.

The exhibition room near the entrance combines ethnographic photographs, mostly of Native North Americans dating from the mid- 1800s to the 1920s, with newsprint photos of politicians and celebrities from 2001.  Between the face studied and the face popularized is the message, focused in one eye that has been extracted from a larger full-frame photograph. The eye belongs to “Kwaziínik, a Naika pamux Woman” (1897, photographed by Harlan Ingersoll Smith).  In that eye is the reflection of the photographer -- the eye of the observed, observing the observer. 


The second room, down the hall, contains hard-to-grasp, conceptual works (except for a 1950s portrait of a woman) and seems virtually devoid of the face.  Alas, this room contains the exhibition’s premise. 

The UBC students based the exhibition on two philosophical considerations.  The first and most important are the writing of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who posit that “the face is inhuman, political, the site where we construct racism and a machine to control and repress.” In this theory, the face of Christ is the prototype of western identity and capitalism and Christianity are insidiously bound.  The foil to Deleuze and Guattari is the text of Emmanuel Levinas for whom the face is godlike and utterly human. 

So it is in this room that we see Christ married to capitalism in Decio Pignatari’s “Cr$isto e a solucao”(1966), a print that places an image of Christ in the center of a dollar bill, and in a giant representation of the face as mask, two holes on a blank ground. Neil Campbell’s “Narcissus” (2011) is the focal point, or eyes in this room.   Two huge, velvety black circles painted on a white wall, the piece isn’t just another example of the hole in the gallery wall.  The black is so dense and rich (it puts El Greco to mind) that the circles appear curved and three-dimensional.

Room three, the largest, vibrates with ideas.  Ken Lum’s “Study for Mirror Work: You’re an Asshole; I’m an Asshole”  (2000) puts the viewer in the mirror with these words.  And next to it, is a mirror from the Chinese Cultural Revolution with words to remind the reflected of her/his place in society.  Then, Andy Warhol’s “Mao Tse Tung” (1972).  Three images that create a Picasso-like abstraction of the face from different angles -- the internal/external face; the face psychologically manipulated for political ends; and the face of politics as pop culture.

Kevin Madill’s “Portrait of an Academicî”(1994) an oversized photograph garishly depicting a music scholar, blinged, gray-haired and loud-shirted, ironically harkens to the portraiture on display in the Library. Geoffrey Farmer’s “Untitled Paperbag” (2002) presents another mask with holes for eyes here with a humorous twist.  Referencing the Kwazi’nik woman is Dana Claxton’s “Paint Up #1” (2010), an oversized light jet c-print of his painted face, touched up in photoshop so nothing is reflected back in his eye.

A conceptual piece by Ian Wallace, “Magazine Piece,” (1970) with instructions to take one magazine and arrange the pages to create a “painting” in this rendition is a portrait of the commercialization of women’s bodies, manipulated and degraded. Both bill bissett’s and Jerry Allen’s works add simplicity of style and reference folk art portraits. Every style of contemporary (and modern) art seems to be on view in this show, but not dizzyingly.  The connections accumulate pleasingly to stretch and bend the mind.


The fifteen pairs of glass prosthetic eyes sitting in a box or Walter Marchetti’s “Musica da Camera No. 298” (1998) for me provides the intellectual conclusion to this exhibition.  The eyes are the window, but they are disembodied, a window without a soul, easily manipulated, providing no true way either in or out of the mind, the focal point of a faceless face.


For more information and gallery hours, check out the website


The students in the undergraduate program and the Critical Curatorial Studies and Theory graduate program in the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British Columbia who co-curated the exhibition are: Kate Barbaria, Adriana Estrada Centelles, Jonah Gray, and Mohammad Salemy.  I look forward to seeing their work in the future.


At the satellite gallery, is a taped performance piece “The Named and the Unnamed” (2002) in which Rebecca Belmore commemorated the lives of some of the women who have gone missing from the downtown eastside. The video is projected onto a screen studded with lightbulbs, intended to interrupt, obscure and distract attention, like the passage of time, and other news stories. The women are faceless in the video.  There are no images of them.

Images:  Lilias Torrence Newton, "Dean Gordon Shrum" 1959; Neil Campbell, "Narcissus" 2011; bill bissett, "tjis is yr head lovingly" c. late 1960s

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