The face in "Boxer Jude, 2000," by Geoffrey Chadsey, is taken from "Judith I," by the Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt. The haughty seductiveness of the femme fatale reads quite differently on a young man's half-clothed body.
‘I’m interested in how people get read’
Geoffrey Chadsey explores the point where perceptions of identity are jumbled by reality
They don't look like much at first glance, especially from a distance. But there's something about Geoffrey Chadsey's pencil drawings of ordinary people in ordinary settings: It feels as though the faces are familiar somehow, even though they're clearly not.
'Boys in the Band'
"Geoffrey Chadsey Drawings 1998-2006"
» On view: Through March 18
» Place: The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Drive
» Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; noon to 4 p.m. Sundays
» Admission: $5; $3 students and seniors; children free
» Call: 526-1322 or visit www.tchmi.org
The fiction extends to the way the paper looks, which on closer inspection is 8-by-11-inch sheets -- the earliest ones on actual notebook paper -- taped together at the edges. It's adolescent doodling by a talented adolescent, except that there's an intensity to the expressions that leads to not only tip-of-the-tongue recognition, but the eerie sense that these people also recognize you.
With the "Portrait" series, further down the time line of the Contemporary Museum exhibit, the game is up: Here are the iconic faces of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, lifted from greenbacks and redrawn on the bodies of shirtless young men. Immediately it becomes clear why we don't recognize them right away, despite their familiarity: We never think of those heads as being attached to bodies, and certainly not bodies as pale, fleshy, hairy, adolescent -- in a word, physical -- as these.
It soon becomes clear, if someone has not already clued in the viewer, that everything Chadsey draws is a mash-up -- sampled like musical riffs or downloaded jpegs, stolen from fashion photographs, album covers, Old Master art reproductions and online blogs, then redrawn piece by piece onto the bodies of the artist, his family and friends -- a Weekly World News tabloid joke that is enjoyable to the extent that it is both utterly believable and obviously faked.
But more is going on in Chadsey's drawings than the ubiquitous copying, borrowing and collage that is the cliché of contemporary culture. Beneath the adolescent joke, the campy delight in mounting the swagger of Snoop Dogg onto the flowing mane and pert exhibitionism of the fashion model, lingers a nagging doubt: Is this joke for us or on us?
"Drunk, 2005," borrows optic tricks from Diego Velazquez's 17th-century painting "Las Meninas": Chadsey adds the shooter of the source photograph in the mirror.
What's unsettling about drawings like "Boxer-Juvenile," the eponymous rapper's face on a friend's fleshy body, or "Boxer-Jude," Gustav Klimt's Art Nouveau painting of the biblical heroine Judith as a young man reclining in a rumpled bed, is an uncertainty about where the artist situates himself in terms of the copying, the subjects, the viewer and himself.
On the one hand we sense the cool detachment of the collector, browsing snapshots on MySpace or gay Web sites (his current source of material) to morph with his sister's face and his own body, for example.
But when it comes to combining those parts, we see none of the cynical flawlessness of magazine close-ups or the Photoshopped e-mail joke. Chadsey's bodies are carved with contour lines that ritualistically trace the curves, folds, bulges and surfaces of the skin, almost as if the artist were shaping those flat renditions into breathing, sweating, gesturing life.
Chadsey admits to a certain "hostility" in his act of choosing photos and a "vengeance" in distorting them. In selecting source material, he said, "I'm interested in how people get 'read'" -- meaning the cues of gesture, appearance and attitude that announce a certain species of identity, and increasingly appear in awkward online snapshots that attempt to advertise an ideal image.
In the universe of Chadsey's drawings -- that of gay men and rappers -- that ideal is all about projecting an "authentic" masculinity that says pure, plain, tough, real -- and relies entirely on being looked at.
"It's where that performance fails that I'm really fascinated in," he says.
A "portrait" of Ben Franklin.
The issue is personal to him as a gay man, as he was always being made conscious of how his behavior looked to others -- "effeminate" -- as if there were some kind of basic, natural, "real" masculinity on top of which the excessive "frill" of gesture or tone would give him away.
"Notions of 'passing' (for mainstream) have resonance for both people of color and gay people," he notes of his subjects. "That point where someone's 'passing' or not 'passing' because they're failing to act in a certain way -- like their body is somehow giving them up -- is somehow inherently fascinating to me."
In the self-portraits that form the context for Chadsey's drawings, the attitude of the subjects shows their awareness of being looked at against "this kind of idealized notion they have in their head about who they're talking with," he says.
Filtered through his three-dimensional treatment of the bodies, the effect is both intimate and alien, not as easily glossed over as the seamless juxtapositions of commercial advertising.
His more recent drawings, on single sheets of vellum or Mylar, push harder against the limits of believability as they grow more colorful and wild. The sober two- or three-color palette of the early work flourishes now in purples and greens (for the flesh tones) and backgrounds that have evolved from rigorous studies of rumpled bedsheets or wallpaper patterns to oceans of color that include paintlike drips -- from wetting and brushing the watercolor pencil -- and the ghost of redrawn lines.
The perspective, too, grows dizzying and surreal, while the bodies continue their bold three-dimensionality on a separate, realist track. The drawings thus toy with our feelings both intellectually -- by altering the degree of abstraction and realism on the same page -- and physically, in exciting attraction or recoil toward the natural artificiality of the hermaphrodite.
In "A Sure Thing, 2000," the fleshiness of the chin, nose, belly and arms of the figure form a stark contrast to the softness of the background, playing with our investments in the sense of touch and vision.
Chadsey laughed last week as he walked into the Contemporary Museum show for the first time and noted the "viewer discretion" warning sign -- increasingly common at art galleries around town -- implying that male genitalia are somehow dangerous to view. But he later acknowledged that what scandalizes is not so much the anatomy, which is seen in the most staid art museums, but the way it is rendered.
There's a sense of transgression in Chadsey's work that goes beyond ordinary sex or nudity, and which led David Goldberg, in the exhibition catalog, to dub the artist a "22nd Century Pornographer."
It is not only that Chadsey makes of gender, race and identity something "put on," a cut-and-paste trompe l'oeuil, but that he does this by exploiting our faith in what we see with our own eyes: the natural instinct for who is friend and foe, fake or real, whether it is the person we desire or the one in the mirror.
"Snoop, 2005" mixes rap posing with gay male markers of masculinity, a "peacockery" that Chadsey sees as similar to what bloggers do on MySpace: trade in photographic signs of "the idealized other." His drawings attempt to highlight the modern dilemma of identity -- a failure to match that ideal image to the one in the mirror.