Re-Facings and De-Facings. On a Series of Paintings by Robert Listwan
The connection between the face and painting, in the Polish language at least, is a very close one. We can say that an emotion “painted [= manifested] itself” one someone’s face. Like a painter working on a picture, the face too needs time to proceed from an infinitely reproduced “schema”, the several fixed points like the nose, eyes, or mouth, to the irreducible. A specific subject. A person.
The face can be read like a text, a record of that which is happening deep inside, under the skin. An emotion, thought, or character can be “written on the face” of someone we are facing or standing face to face with. We ourselves can read a face or intentionally read something from it, implying an active operation on our part, an assessment or appraisal.
It seems that the work of Robert Listwan, a graduate of the Gdańsk Academy of Fine Arts, which on many levels engages with the most conventionalized genre of portrait painting, also plays with the habits of language. As well as with the viewers themselves. The human figures in his paintings – their status is always uncertain, the captions referring us to reminiscences or random encounters (She-Wolf from the East; Transatlantic) – try to “put on a face” (express something, adapt to a social convention), “make up their face” (changing its features by painting them over), “lose” their face (relinquishing views or opinions) in order to finally subject themselves to a few gestures by the painter and “lose” it forever (become rid of individuality). Operations on faces are like operations on language. What happens in Listwan’s paintings are acts of “re-facing” or actually artistic “de-facing”.
The Latin word faciēs, related to facere (to make, to produce), meant both “face” and “form; outer shape.” The noun “face” was originally used to denote the effect of making. The source meaning of “re-production,” which can also be interpreted as “re-facing,” that is finding in the portrait convention a subject inscribed in a visual “schema,” defines the principal thread of the artist’s work. The “face” is its goal and effect. Despite the global “inflation” of the (human) image in the mass media.
Meeting the characters in Listwan’s paintings “face to face” is a difficult confrontation. Their silhouettes stand out like stencils from a flat, monochromatic background, always framed in a similar way. They neither avoid our gaze or look at us. It is not possible to see anyone under the layer of the face-image. Nor is it to decide whether the artist establishes or protects the portrayed person from our gaze with his gesture. If we assume the latter is the case, then we can repeat after the Polish philosopher Tadeusz Sławek that a refusal to be portrayed is an act of supreme trust, for it reveals that which would have to disappear under the mask of the portrait – the irreducible subject.
But if the artist covers the faces of those portrayed with layers of quickly applied paint (“I never know where the process ultimately takes me,” he says), he not only negates the sine qua non condition of the portrait, i.e., the long discredited principle of mimesis. Rather, he opposes the genre convention that turns the face of a real person into a socially acceptable mask. In Listwan’s paintings, the universal is confronted with the individual. The spontaneous act of painting, as Hans Belting put it in Face and Mask: A Double History, gains the upper hand over the image, the violent gesture trumps representation, which appears merely as reproduction.
There is in these portraits something of tintamarresques, the naïve funfair face-in-hole cutout boards. As if by magic, the provincial photographer turned the faces of the posing subjects into a view, a memento of a make-believe adventure. The aura of photographic studios, somewhere at the far ends of history, is a recurring theme of Listwan’s paintings. Sometimes the author himself forces his models to freeze in mid-gesture in a painter’s studio transformed into the atelier of a small-town photographer. Reminiscent of it are the poses of those portrayed, whether they are shown en face, in profile, or in three-quarter view.
The connection between Robert Listwan’s canvases and photography seems to be a close one. The tropes include a muted color palette, stretched between black and shades of grey, and a claustrophobic space. In the catalogue of similarities, one element only eludes the law of series: the place after-the-face. Or the place for-the-face. Often painted-over, covered with graffiti ideograms (Good Girl Killer, 2015; La Libertad, 2015; Ich bin Dein, 2015), or emerging from a sketchily suggested landscape (The Big Sleep, 2015; Bad Girl, 2015). But let us not be deceived by appearances. As Hans Belting verbalized a Barthesian intuition, photographs turn us into objects that others can freely dispose of. The place after-the-face refers to no one. It is an image within the image. A surface ready to be painted on (Air, 2016; Tokyo Morning, 2016; Young Portugal, 2016). Or written on (Head of Medusa, 2015; Head of Medusa 2, 2016). Typography wins over background, the absence of the portrayed figure is made up by the pleasure of reading.
Sometimes however a familiar face-without-a-face emerges from under the layer of paint. The artist’s gesture allows the prematurely deceased Zbigniew Cybulski, an outstanding actor and peripheral replica of James Dean (Dying Workshop, 2011; Love and Death, 2016), or Fryderyk Chopin (My Idols Are Dead, 2016) to escape their trivialized, pop-culture images.
A similar artistic strategy – allusions to exhausted painting genres, use of the photographic medium, skillful technique, and playing “games” with painting – can also be found in the work of younger painters, including graduates of the Gdańsk Academy of Fine Arts: Marcin Zawicki (19th-century landscape painting tradition) and Ewa Juszkiewicz (portrait, photographic portrait). Return to worn and tired modes of depiction through the modified medium of black-and-white photography, producing an effect of “familiar uncanniness” (Heimliche/Unheimliche), restitutes, even if contrary to the artists’ intentions, the art of painting.
Robert Listwan’s work can be placed in the context of a phenomenon known as the “Tuymans effect.” Like Poland’s best-known painter, Wilhelm Sasnal, and like many other European painters, Listwan seems to have the Belgian artist’s works “in his head.”
Affinities include monochromaticity, photography and framing conventions as inspiration, and lack of depth of field. Listwan’s paintings (and Sasnal’s and Tuymans’s before him) emphasize texture, technical skill, ostentatiously demonstrating the quickness of their execution. This also seems to be the source of the “ominous” aura of his canvases.
What do these references or borrowings mean for the viewer? Unlike his great predecessor, Listwan not so much probes the limits of our perception as mocks them. If he is preoccupied with a critique of the ideology of representation, it is through the grotesque. Imitation is out of question here; this work is not about voyeurism but about pastiche. Co-opting the Tuymans effect, one is able to ridicule and deconstruct it. To calque the “ominous aura” and break it up with the untenable pathos of titles (Love and Death, 2016; Scandinavian Noir, 2016). The painterly idiom, so banalized today, disappears, smeared over with paints straight from the tube.
The choice of one of the most “exhausted” painting genres (portrait) and “operations on the face” remind us that in the era of simulacra and surfeit of images, of media space overwhelmed by “duck-face” Instagram selfies, no one is really looking at us from behind the mask. Something that the artist comments on, not without sarcasm, in the title of one of his “portraits”: Face-Off.
Hans Belting, Faces. Historia twarzy, trans. Tadeusz Zatorski, Gdańsk, 2015 [English: Face and Mask: A Double History, Princeton University Press, 2017, p. 222].
Jordan Kantor, “Efekt Tuymansa,” in: Sasnal. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej, Warszawa, 2008, p. 124-135.
Jolanta Maćkiewicz, “Twarz to człowiek. Metaforyczne i metonimiczne funkcje w języku,” in: Punkt po Punkcie – Twarz, vol. I, no. 1, Gdańsk, 2000, p. 31-35.
Stefan Skorupka, Słownik frazeologiczny języka polskiego, vol. II, R/Ż, Warszawa, 1968, p. 408-409.
Tadeusz Sławek, “Byt bez twarzy?” in: Punkt po Punkcie – Twarz, vol. I, no. 1, Gdańsk, 2000, p. 19-30.