Spectral faces: Probing the human face and form

Collage of substance “at the table,” by Martha Miller. Collage of substance “at the table,” by Martha Miller.

Images of the human face surround us everywhere for every sort of purpose from social networking to commercial advertising. Most interaction with the world happens through our faces which makes it a central point of contact. But it is also for good reason that the word self-effacement contains “face,” the part of our body we cannot see ourselves, because even in a mirror we only encounter an untruthful representation. The face is where we are at our most vulnerable, least controlled, most expressive.

The group exhibition “Ghosts 3” at Mayo Street Arts is based on Abby Shahn’s idea that every image of a person is actually a specter. A specter denotes a visible but incorporeal spirit usually of a terrifying nature and that latter part of the definition explains the haunting character of many images. In concept and execution the work ranges from slightly sophomoric to expressing deeply-felt truths. It embodies the show’s concept to varying degrees but even the more whimsical works exude a certain gravitas.

This third iteration of “Ghosts” contains painting, shaped fresco, collage, needlepoint, sculpture, and mixed media work by ten artists. While the works’ focus oscillates between face and figure, between the symbolic and the specific, the aim to reach beyond the surface is felt throughout.

Abbeth Russell’s drawings just play with ideas but her paintings impress with their sophisticated imagery and material realization. Working with iridescence and a lot of medium, a set of netherworldly characters emerge from the paint, tortured by Edvard Munch’s existential angst.

Martha Miller’s large drawings and collage are by far the most complex and accomplished works in the show. Drawn from her “Giant Journal” series, they refer to important points in the artist’s life and her various roles. With the scale and palette of the Mexican muralists, Miller embraces connections between cosmic and private, mixing myth and personal story by using her own iconography and symbolism to captivate us with mystery.

Michael Jackson, spectral in his elusiveness, may be the perfect subject for this show and for Susan Bickford’s collaborative approach. Assembled of squares created by several artists and abstract artworks in themselves, the work ingeniously acknowledges how we each contribute to the kaleidoscope that makes up celebrity, identity, and reality.

Alan Crichton’s charcoal grid of trees and male faces looks like an enlarged page from a sketchbook. One suspects that it comments on an evolutionary connection between sylvan ancients and modern man, especially since the drawing style is extremely dense at one end of the spectrum making one man look suspiciously hirsute.

Women are the subject of Barbara Sullivan’s shaped frescoes. Like attributes of saints, the forehead of one contains an actual nest, another head precariously balances an overflowing coffee cup. Suggesting the busyness of constant creation, these heads also address what sustains us, occupies us, and where we can find rest — in our minds alone.

Wally Warren’s witty assemblage sculptures explore what elements constitute a face, what animation. Like masks of a post-apocalyptic civilization that is rebuilding meaning from detritus, his sculptures embody the human impulse to create totems, effigies, and icons of worship.

James Fangbone’s contributions are disconcerting reorganizations of the human face drawn from ads and magazines. Extremely unsettling in their convincingness, they do not just disrupt the integrity of humanity but suggest a new species occupying familiar ground.

Inasmuch as any representation is always an afterimage it is ghostly in character. “Ghosts 3” points out that this quality becomes more pronounced when the subject is a living being. When do we read a shape as a figure, a face? When does portrait become memorial? What deep-seated responses are triggered by faces looking back at us, even those hardly recognizable as our cousins? The artists’ answers are more or less profound, but these questions always remain worth asking.

Britta Konau can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“Ghosts 3” | Runs through Oct. 31 | At Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland | 207.879.4629 | mayostreetarts.org