Compromised Perception: A New Way of Seeing at Hoyt Gallery
through April 19th
at Hoyt Gallery
By Genie Davis
The fascinating photographic works of J. Fredric May and Jane Szabo are at the Hoyt Gallery in the USC Keck School of Medicine through April 19th, an exhibit that is not only important to see, but is actually about sight. May and Szabo have both chosen to use photography to document their perceptions of the outside world.
May suffered a stroke during open heart surgery in 2012 that left him legally blind and subject to vivid visual hallucinations; Szabo experiences facial blindness. Their work here, along with additional works by Tylar Ard, Andrea Bañuelos Mota, Alice Liu, Divya Patel Kristine Ravina, MD., Jo Marie Reilly, MD., James Stanis and Kella Vangsness, presents the ways in which these artists literally and artistically see the world.
Szabo says she was not aware that she had a real condition, or that it affected her work until recently. “Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, means I have a difficult time recognizing people. I never really understood I had a problem, I just thought I was socially awkward in that I often didn’t know who people were. My husband determined I had a problem when he realized I couldn’t always follow a movie as I had trouble telling the characters apart. The curator to this exhibit, Ted Meyer, knowing of my condition, made the connection that both my series Sense of Self and the following project, Reconstructing Self were essentially headless, and he helped me see how these things were connected. In both projects, it was a conscious choice to refrain from showing a face.”
She adds that “My intention at the time was to keep the figures anonymous, or universal, so they could speak to a larger audience. In retrospect, I realize that since the face is not what I use to really identify people, that likely made that element more dispensable.”
For May, “Memory and perception is what I have learned the most about from my entire experience. So much of our visual field is based upon memory. I recently learned that when you’re seeing an object, it is already in your memory, and your brain goes through its catalog and says ‘I know what that is’ but it doesn’t quite become the object until your synapses connect and your brain deciphers it.” He adds “The way I see things and what is actually in my vision are the black pieces of the shapes of the characters in my works here. If you look closely, they are really just abbreviated shapes. Any of the plain ground in the background is clear space, the parts that I see are the black shaded spaces and they dance around and one morphs into the other, sexless, genderless…”
Szabo notes “Of course, I am not a scientist, but from my experience, I would suggest that Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, for me is less about vision, and more about memory. When I look at a person, I can see all the details, so the eyes are working, and bringing the data in. It is in recalling that information later to verify someone’s identity that things go haywire. As I am more aware of my condition now, I force myself to look intensely, to study wrinkles, or other details, in hopes this information will help me identify a person later. Many people are unaware of my condition, as I have created so many substitutes to identify a person, from hair style, ways of dressing, body language and how one walks, to tone of voice. That seems to work quite well, until the person changes their hair style, or I see them out of context, or dressed much differently than usual.”
Szabo’s series in this exhibit, Sense of Self: Gridding the Space was a work of self- portraiture exploring “my need to control my environment, and the ultimate collapse of my self-imposed order, or gridded structure. This exploration is a study of my place in the world in a symbolic way.”
Initially, curator Meyer invited Szabo to exhibit works from the series Reconstructing Self, a body of work that consists of photographs of dresses she fabricated from familiar objects. She says these works intrigued Meyer as they were essentially bodies without a head.
“I considered that series a self-portraiture project – which ties into my sense that I identify people by what they wear, or how they present themselves. In further discussion, I suggested to Ted, that work from the series Sense of Self might better illustrate the condition of face blindness. I see the face, but the details are essentially irrelevant.”
In these works, the camera blur technique the artists uses turns the face into a smear.
“Interestingly enough, in the course of planning this exhibit, I was introduced to a neuroscientist, who gave me some tests, and conclusively determined that I do have prosopagnosia. It was a term I had never heard before. In doing further searching, I came across an example of what a face might look like to some people with extreme cases, and it was essentially a smeared-out face.”
For May, the pieces included at the Keck exhibition have been born from his cyanotype process. “The process is also known as an iron print. I scan the cyanotype, so I can use it as a working plate, and then I can bring that image in, with the work essentially creating its own character through the process. That is kind of the translator that I use to bring the digital image to life. That’s my thing… bringing an image to life, but I have never done it that way before,” he reports. “This has been really chasing the process. I was going where the process took me. I had never worked with cyanotype before or any alternative process to any extent.”
Now, however, May enjoys that process. “I am really kind of enchanted by it, and plan to do art through that as a translator. I also bleached these works, and dyed them with different colored herbal teas.” He notes that the photographs here are the first in a series titled Apparitions: Postcards from Eye See You.
“That’s a pun,” he laughs, “a lot of people don’t get it, even if I have been working with them.”
There are 18 works in all, and all of the images here are of faces, or rather an almost abstract and entirely ethereal series of shapes that resolve into faces.
Szabo says that while she had not made her work here with the intention of discussing face blindness or tying the narrative into a scientific understanding, Meyer’s own astute understanding made a connection between Szabo’s condition and her work.
“As an artist, I think of myself as a conceptual storyteller. I make work that is heavily based on narrative, addressing issues of identity, self and family. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if my new-found knowledge is incorporated into future projects. Participating in this exhibit at USC, and having the honor of being a part of a panel discussion with Helena Chang Chui, department chair and professor of neurology, has given me a much greater understanding of my place in the world,” she says.
For May, “Everything is new to me as I go, it’s very important that I envision a project and bring that to fruition as a three-dimensional object. Using all your faculties, that is the best way after a stroke to increase neuro-plasticity. It’s the best way to retrain your mind to fill in the parts that were hurt by the stroke.” That said, he reveals that his work here is a continuation of his artistic narrative. “The show at Keck is a step in the process,” he says. “My next show, coming up in Portland this month, will feature giant 44 x 44 water color prints that I have drawn around, penciling in drawings that are an extension of how I mark the cyanotype up when I am about to develop it. That segues into my next show at Bergamont Station, Month of Photography LA, sponsored by the Lucy Foundation. For that exhibition, I submitted a proposal to do canvas prints mounted on panel. In fact, I just built six 44 by 44 panels. It is all a process.”
Join both Szabo and May for an art viewing and closing reception for Compromised Perception April 19th, from 5 – 8 p.m.
Watch the video of the Dr/Artist discussion we held at Keck-USC last week with Jane Szabo, J Fredric May, Dr. Helena Chui, Pamela Schaff.
Hoyt Gallery – Keith Administration Building, 1975 Zonal Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca 90033