Whenever humans interact, faces provide a key source of social information. Our brains are programmed to ‘read’ features like words, gauging size and shape as part of a bigger picture. We look out for sexual dimorphism (how masculine or feminine a face is) and assess levels of symmetry. Studies even suggest that we are intuitively drawn to faces that resemble and reflect our own. Let’s face it, from the time we’re born (“he’s got Mum’s nose and Dad’s eyes”) to much older age (investing in creams, treatments, even surgery), as a species we tend to take things very much at face value.
One artist looking at our facial focus is the Korean-American Byron Kim (b. 1961). His work Synecdoche (1991 – present) is a large, multi-paneled (429 at last count) portraiture project. Each panel is painted a single shade of pink, brown or tan, reproducing the skin tone of a different person who sat for him (Kim approached strangers in the park, friends, family, famous artists). An alphabetical grid of names on a nearby wall matches sitters to their color patches.
It’s a special experience, standing before Synecdoche in the lower gallery of the East Building. The crisp grid-lines (11 down, 39 across), rectangular panels and flattened colors link the work to Minimalist painting of the 1960s (and someone like Ellsworth Kelly, who we looked at on 15th Jan). But in addition to this aesthetic connection, since its debut in 2003, people have been anxious to see in Synecdoche daring declarations about race. Is Kim holding up a mirror to our obsession with skin color, showing us how we’re all just a few notches from each other on a color chart? Is he throwing the very concept of racial division into question? It is interesting, as your eye skirts over the panels, how the colors begin to meld into one as the rigid divisions begin to blur. Kim has described how difficult it was for him to mimic accurately a person’s exact skin tone since different parts of a body appear different in color and since faces “change color” when they move.
Synecdoche (which comes from Greek for ‘simultaneous understanding’) is a literary term referring to a figure of speech that takes a part of something to stand for the whole. For example “all hands on deck” or “all feet to the dance-floor” are expressions using synecdoche, where hands and feet stand for whole people. This work then deals with parts representing a whole, “all of us”, in the mind of the artist. It mounts a racial and cultural “mosaic” that is flexible (it can be installed in an infinite number of ways) and accommodating (it’s open-ended, and will continue to have “portraits” added to it). “I wanted to concentrate on something very small to evoke something very large” says Kim.
What’s radical here is the facelessness of the portraits. Even though Kim used 10 x 8-inch panels (a common size for portrait photography), his pictures give no indication of the sitters’ features. Synecdoche suggests color and features are but small indicators of our actual identities. What matters is the bigger picture, in which our connectedness is clear and our differences are diminished. Whatever the meaning of this monumental work, let’s face it: it’s refreshing to look beyond skin deep.