When digitally editing an image, quests for improvement can cause more damage than good, whether saving a JPG so much that it distorts through compression or sharpening the photo until it pixelates. Michelle Vaughan uses this loss to consider a similar attempt at perfection that resulted in absolute destruction: the inbreeding of the Spanish-Austrian Habsburg royal family.
In Generations at Theodore: Art in Bushwick, the New York-based artist and occasional Hyperallergic contributor blurs, through drawing and digital art, the faces of two uncles who married their nieces, first cousins who were also stepmother and stepdaughter, and half-sisters who doubled as second cousins. Gregor Mendel, widely considered the father of modern genetics, only started experimenting with pea plants in the mid-19th century, so the impact of inbreeding was still widely unrecognized during the House of Habsburg’s glory years from the 15th to 18th centuries.
The last of the male Spanish Habsburgs was infamously Charles II, who reigned from 1665 until his death in 1700. In Charles, the protruding “Habsburg jaw” reached such an extreme that he had trouble chewing and speaking, the dynasty’s unusually elongated skull was as warped as a Paracas cranium. And that’s just a couple of the mental and physical ailments that culminated in his body, including infertility, which ironically ended the line because of its strange quest for purity.
Vaughan includes Charles II morphing into Emperor Leopold I among her GIFs, which she used as the basis for drawings that further soften the already flat features of their faces, so that gender, age, and identity break down in the copies. Vaughan writes that the “Spanish and Austrian royals look so similar that sometimes art historians cannot tell them apart.”
Framing the gallery are two banners for a 2010–11 exhibition on Diego Velázquez’s 1644 portrait of King Philip IV of Spain at the Frick Collection. Except here, his head is overlapped with the face and bouffant hair of second wife Mariana, who also happened to be his niece. The goal, like the marriages arranged to consolidate power, was to affirm their rule that was considered a divine right. Instead, it twisted their identities until they blurred into one indistinguishable and monstrous face of power gone wrong.
Michelle Vaughan: Generations continues through April 3 at Theodore: Art (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn).