Who, Me? James Esber and the Megolomania of the Group Portrait
For his fourth show at Pierogi, James Esber invited around a hundred friends to retrace — crosshatch-by-crosshatch — one of his masterfully Byzantine convolutions of caricature. The results, colorfully framed, are hung en masse and interspersed with Esber’s own radiantly garish drawings, paintings, and Plasticene wall pieces, the latter achieving a new bulbous physicality. In the group project, Esber tests the limits of the art world’s prevailing social contract, since a curmudgeon might see his shackling of others’ hands to his own inimitable rhythms as an enactment of a passive-aggressive fantasy (most participants being working artists – though not all, as if to sweeten the sting). In this view, Esber salivates over total world domination from his impregnable artistic bunker while making claims to higher purpose – perhaps tellingly, Osama Bin Laden’s grotesquely contorted portrait is Esber’s chosen graphic for slavish replication.
Speaking as a participant, I did find the task irksome; deprived of spontaneity, one could only come off worse than Esber’s freely-stroked prototype, yet how sophomorically predictable – and time consuming! – it was to subvert the draw-by-number rules with some cleverness. To have refused would have been unsportsmanlike. Perhaps others felt the same sense of coerced duty, yet plenty of participants, pro and amateur alike, acquit themselves nicely: Tom Burckhardt, Phong Bui, Darina Karpov, E.H. Gery, and Fiorenzo Borghi, among other standouts, rise to the occasion with ingenuity, enthusiasm, and a spirit of collaboration. The effect of the piece as a whole – the collective recitation of the sacred text –comes down optimistically on the side of artistic individualism adapted to communal purpose. And yet, Esber’s “Who, Me?” megalomania is the fly in the ointment that keeps the group portrait intriguingly corrosive, less about world politics than the art world variety.
James Esber: You, Me & Everyone Else is at Pierogi Gallery, November 14 to December 23, 177 North 9th Street, between Bedford and Driggs avenues, Brooklyn, 718.599.2144.