Stepping Blind
By Fereydoon Family
Flanders Art Gallery
18 Seaboard Ave., Suite 160, Raleigh, 834-5044
Through April 25

Fereydoon Family’s mellifluous name by default adds him to the ranks of artists, such as Odd Nerdrum and Not Vital, who possess names so rife with associative meaning that a resonance has begun before any of the work is even seen.

All of these names are real, not invented, and while an artist’s name would generally not deserve such attention, in this instance the idea of the name carries a certain weight. Family’s current show, Stepping Blind, at Flanders Gallery in Raleigh, is populated by people who are faceless and nameless.

The works on view are large-scale digital prints on various surfaces, including canvas, synthetic fabric and paper. In each instance, Family, who holds an endowed chair in physics at Emory University, takes found photographs of a person or group of people and overpaints their faces in white loose strokes, altering the images in discrete acts of creative vandalism. The effect is one of defacement, and Family’s people emerge as ghosts, maskers, skeletons, clowns or freehand renderings of Munch’s “The Scream.”

Family’s almost violent painterly style is at times suggestive of Willem de Kooning at his most aggressive or of Francis Bacon’s psychological vortices and gnarled figures. Family’s crude brushwork embodies an Abstract Expressionist sensibility, superimposing abstractions upon the figuration of the photographs. In this way, the works possess a dual function and generate tension in setting forth conflicting modalitiesabstraction and figurationin a single work.

In “Men and Women Conversing,” Family unleashes a brutish energy onto an otherwise cordial group exchange. The white substance serves as a fluid matrix that binds the figures together in the social space. “The Graduates” highlights the teeth of smiles contained in the mouths of young men in full graduation regalia, maniacally awash in white. Reflected in the mirror shades of one gleaming graduate is a repetition of white folding chairs, reinforcing an accumulation of white in smiling teeth, folding chairs and Family’s urgent overpainting. The single figure of “Man With An Open Collar Shirt” offers the most deleted figure of the works on view. The piece frames the upper torso of a man with an isolated maelstrom of white swirling above his shoulders that totally engulfs his head.

The gallery notes address Family’s attempt in these works to “recapture anonymity” lost in a culture where faces are perpetually recorded in an ever-growing infrastructure of surveillance. While Family’s masking of figures can be seen as a symbolic act of protection, the case can be made that it is an empty gesture, given that his source materials are primarily stock photos and found images and therefore inherently anonymous to begin with. On the other hand, Family’s work can be seen as a kind of performance, a theater of desperation in which he enacts the erasure of those he does not know in order to rescue them from overexposure, the opposite of identity theft, a form of identity restitution. The “paint” used by Family is, in fact, liquid paper. This choice drives the idea that his intention is to erase, neutralize or mask the identities of his subjects. The works are not portraits but anti-portraits, doubly so since the characters in Family’s pieces are unknown to the artist.

In this regard, the works in Stepping Blind follow the lineage of John Baldessari, whose work often incorporates geometric shapes to suppress the visual information of the human face. The masking of the face underscores its importance in communicating who a person is. Without the face, we are left to search Family’s surfaces for clues (hair, clothing, body language) to decipher who the people in his works might be. Family’s “masks” reposition the remaining pictorial elements as trappings of the theater. Clothing reads as costume; background reads as sets; and objects read as props. The artificiality of these elements is compounded by the fact that many of Family’s source materials appear to have been generated for the purposes of advertising and are therefore already constructed, controlled images whose every detail serves a narrative of desire and consumption. Another function of Family’s masking is a process of generalization. The severe delimitation of visual information forces the imagery into archetypal packets. A case in point is “Mother and Child,” whose simplified components coalesce in a casual universality.

Family’s super-blown-up images burst with pixels writ large, the presence of which creates a highly textured effect and an almost frenetic, pointillist feeling of action. The visceral properties of the white-out are also heightened by the outsized scale, scanning variously as shaving cream, hand lotion, toothpaste, ice cream or plaster. This effect is no doubt impacted by degrees of scale, depending on which version of the work one happens to see. It at this juncture in the work, in questions of scale, where there appears a certain degree of erosion of clarity and intention on Family’s part.

The pieces on view at Flanders are identified as “artist’s proofs” and range from 42 in. x 34 in. to 98 in. x 207 in., with smaller versions apparently for sale. Scale here, as handled by Family, becomes problematic. It is hard to gauge his choices. In this context, the displayed works take on the veneer of advertising, and potentially false advertising at that. The not-displayed smaller works for sale would necessarily communicate something different than those on view. Scale has meaning, and Family seems not to have parsed this clearly. Why show outsized, digital versions of his originals? Why not show the originals? Why sell (unseen) digital versions that exist in scale midway between his diminutive (unseen) originals and the relatively behemoth billboard-scale works on view? What is lost and what is gained in each iteration of scale here? These questions beg answers, and without those answers it is difficult not to see the work as somewhat tenuous or random.

Stepping Blind may have some blind spots of its own, but many of the questions raised by Family via his work are those of a high order and are certainly worth pondering, embedded in artwork that manages to both antagonize and seduce through sheer visual pleasure.