Nancy Burson: Composites @ClampArt

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 photographic works (10 single images and 3 diptychs), variously framed in black and generally matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are either gelatin silver prints or Polaroids from computer-generated negatives, made between 1982 and 1996. Physical sizes range between 3×4 and 24×20, with most 11×14 (or reverse); edition sizes are generally 15+2AP, aside from the unique Polaroids. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: At a time when digital image combinations and mashups have become increasingly commonplace in contemporary photography, this exhibit takes us back more than 30 years to provide us with some historical context for our current fascinations. With the help of some MIT scientists back in the late 1970s, Nancy Burson began making computer-generated composite portraits, and much of her career since then has been spent exploring the boundaries of what faces can show us. This tightly edited show collects her innovative early works from the 1980s and early 1990s, where ideas of race, gender, and physical beauty were carefully sifted through various experimental processes and algorithms.

Simple mergers of opposites (cat and dog, lion and lamb, male and female) introduce Burson’s image synthesizing methodology, but quickly give way to more nuanced combinations. The specter of the Cold War nuclear threat was given a “face” by compositing the politicians (Brezhnev, Reagan, Thatcher and others) on the basis of their percentage of total warheads, and a population weighted mixture of races gave a “face” to an aggregate melting pot of mankind. Burson also explored the changing nature of beauty, with groups of male and female movie stars from past and present combined into side by side juxtapositions of ideal looks that were in favor at different times. She used the same software to generate a composite Goldman Sachs banker (all men) and an androgynous mix of 6 men and 6 women, each visual idea boiled down to a universality that was both familiar and oddly surreal. Later works on view continue this exploration, with Burson using software to age Barbie to a time beyond her perfection, or finding real faces with unexpected features altered by disease or disfigurement (snake man and bug-eyed woman).

Burson’s smart blending of science and art provides an important foundational precedent for the digital manipulations we are seeing today. Her best works are those that used the technology to get at a truth or irony that wasn’t obviously visible, often showing us a surprising commonality that lay underneath polarized opposites or discrete individuals. Her haunting hybrids smooth out differences, collapsing visual details into more complex and sophisticated conceptual questions.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $3500 to $15000. Burson’s work has little consistent secondary market history; those lots that have sold in recent years have found buyers at prices between $1000 and $9000, but this isn’t likely a particularly representative sample of her work.

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