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Filling an entire gallery with the repeated face of Osama Bin Laden might sound like a bit of Warholian task for an artist interested in interrogating politics: an international criminal turned celebrity. But James Esber’s exhibition You, Me and Everybody Else at Pierogi in Williamsburg actually aims to do exactly the opposite. By repeating Osama’s image so many times, Esber seeks to remove the political content from the image, simplifying into just a visual work of art. The real trick? The Osama portraits aren’t even drawn by the artist.
Esber’s Osama piece, “This is not a portrait,” is an obvious pun on Magritte, but the process that Esber uses to estrange viewers from the perceived meaning of Osama’s image is interesting. The artist asked friends of all shapes and sizes, artists and non-artists, young and old, to copy a drawing that he himself had done of Osama in 2005. The result are gallery-spanning grids of framed Osama portraits, each with their own unique spin on Esber’s contorted, calligraphic original. The frames come in a variety of colors to visually separate the drawings, which are more alike than they are different (duh, considering they are copies, but each is also very unique).
What’s funny is how not overwhelming this set up is. The soft pastel colors of the frames and the goofily (or cruelly, depending on your view) grinning Osama aren’t really creepy or threatening, they just exist. Almost like the endless pages of a coloring book or paint-by-number set, the terrorist becomes just another confluence of visual tics, a nose, an eye. I began to notice a certain passage of flowing beard hair and took care to look for the ways the artists interpreted it from Esber’s original. The subject of the portraits doesn’t matter; it’s just attempted to death. The wavering approximations of the face destabilize it into irrelevancy.
Like Francis Alys’ collection of vernacular images of Saint Fabiola or Spencer Finch’s attempts to realize the color of Jackie Kennedy’s hat, we are overwhelmed in the diversity of the approach towards a single aesthetic object. An infinite number of tiny artistic decisions vary, and we get so caught up in the details of those decisions and their consequences that the larger significance of the image-as-sign is lost. It’s just a picture; of what barely matters.
James Esber’s other work dots the grids of Osama paintings, wall-hanging sculptures that look like mounded up rounds of sculpy clay that form into lumpy faces and cartoonily surreal works on canvas and paper. Though it is Esber’s original drawing provided the impetus for the Osama portraits, I much prefer that work as a conceptual whole to the artist’s other 2D works. The sculptures are pretty cool, meant to react to changing light conditions and gradually reveal the faces of “figures who have accidentally stumbled into the media spotlight.” What makes them cool are their ambivalence to figuration. Much like the symbolic content of the Osama portraits, the face is only there if you seek it out. What is immediately visible is a playful pleasure in material and process.
James Esber’s You, Me and Everybody Else at Pierogi Gallery in Williamsburg through December 23rd.