Elia Alba: Busts at Black & White Gallery
December 10 – January 17, 2010n
636 West 28th Street, between 11th and 12th avenues
New York City, (212) 244-3007
Elia Alba’s busts consist of photo transfers of people’s faces and upper torsos, clothed and naked, printed on fabric that is wrapped around metal armatures and held together by laced pieces of large and visible thread. The color of the fabric, fleshy with a grey/tan pallor, adds a morbid twist to an age-old genre. Shrouding the armature with photo-tattooed fabric tilts two-dimensional surfaces towards the third dimension, but the busts never sit comfortably in the round. There is constant flickering or vacillation between the two kinds of space. The photographic imagery would be flat if the fabric was not wrapped, creating odd illusions; because it is not revealed all at once, as it would be if the fabric was flattened out, the imagery is animated and feels holographic even though it is not.
Formally speaking, Alba’s work relates more to the busts of Matisse and Picasso than classic Roman busts, in the sense that it is impossible to take in the personas portrayed by the artist in one glance. The confident sense of self captured by classic Roman busts is missing here; instead of achieving a state of vulnerability and individuality, the viewer is tripped up by gimmicky technique. The neatly cut segments of fabric are dented, creased and stretched by the supporting armatures as well as the artist’s hand. No face is entirely visible when the bust is viewed from one position. These surface irregularities distort the images of the faces.
The fabric manages to be simultaneously suggestive of flayed skin and brown grocery bags. In some of the busts the models are wearing tops and in others they are bare-chested. So the fabric is a metaphorical stand-in for flesh and clothing. The use of the same construction technique for each work leads to a sense of monotony that contradicts the artist’s desire to make unique and idiosyncratic portraits. The colors in the photo transfers themselves are washed out, the lips becoming the most colorful parts of the faces, so one wonders what the artist wanted to achieve with this limited use of color. We are able to distinguish the race and gender of the subjects, but there is no subtlety or richness of tone. These busts exist on an uncomfortable middle ground, somewhere between photograph and sculpture, but the repetitive gestalts make them weak sculptures, and the identification the viewer might have with the photographed subjects is undermined by a repetitive technique that leaves little room for surprise, beyond the initial piquing of the viewer’s interest.
In James & Rocio, (2009) an image of a big ear is placed on the back of a male bust that in turn is connected to a female bust. This odd placement disrupts the not necessarily desirous sense of continuity the viewer experiences when viewing all of these busts in one go, and brings to mind the serial killer Ed Gein (inspiration for “Psycho,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Silence of the Lambs”) who performed weird rituals wearing the skin and body parts of people he murdered or dug up at the local cemetery. The surprising appearance of this ear, all the more powerful because it is an exception to Alba’s formula, hints at mysterious undercurrents of the human psyche, transcending the merely informational. It suggests that were the artist to probe a sense of psychological interiority it would force her to be more adventurous with the formal qualities of her work.