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Photographer Ben Gest digitally distorts human proportions to turn portraiture into psychological mirrors

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Ben Gest’s “Ben and Dawn”


Commissure

Through Jan. 23, 2011, at the Contemporary Museum

A couple stands over a shiny wooden counter preparing parts of a meal in the photograph titled “Ben and Dawn.” Ben is looking down at the lump of hamburger meat in his hands, which hovers above a plate that sits at an impossible angle on the countertop. The inconsistent perspective makes the meat look foreign, nauseating. Dawn stands close to Ben chopping vegetables. In her right hand she holds the knife to the side of the diced pieces; her left arm extends an inordinate length, making her appear lopsided, and her left hand lays awkwardly on the cutting board. With a vacant expression on her face, Dawn doesn’t appear present in the activity. Her hair is unfixed, and falls over her left eye. Her dress is brightly patterned, and she isn’t wearing makeup. Ben and Dawn look like they might be getting ready to entertain, but they express no pleasure or excitement. And at its large scale—45 inches by 40 inches—this otherwise ordinary scene becomes uncomfortable, the figures trapped in the close-cropped composition.

The images in Commissure, Chicago-trained photographer Ben Gest’s solo exhibition of digital portraits, are pieced together and manipulated from multiple images of the same subject. In some cases, hundreds of photos are combined to make the final image. As in mannerist paintings, scale, perspective, and focus change slightly across the portraits’ compositions. Body parts are subtly elongated, an extended arm is disproportionately long, a floor appears vertical. The distortions are meant to call attention to the psychological unease and physical discomfort of familial relationships and day-to-day interactions, but they are not particularly jarring and in some cases barely noticeable. The process for creating these works is careful, meticulous, and precise, but the imagery remains cold and often bland.

Gest’s photographs here are easy to dislike, not for their lack of skill, but because Gest has a knack for making life look worse. Large-scale, formulaic portraits of the artist’s family and acquaintances overwhelm the gallery, allowing no visual pauses. Despite the high ceilings, the photographs are hung low, echoing their pedestrian imagery. The figures dice onions, unnervingly adjust earrings, contemplate laundry, and climb stairs. The extremely ordinary moments that Gest captures feel forced, emphasized in his subjects’ forlorn looks in every direction but at the lens. Poses appear awkward and false, and the resultant images rest somewhere between familiarity and spectacle.

Despite photographing his near and dear, Gest is unapologetic in his portrayals of them. Gray hairs, wrinkles, and unflattering facial expressions are exploited for thematic purposes: Subjects are frozen in their discomfort. The children he photographs appear similarly bored and anxious. Posed in normal settings, resting on couches and playing with pets or toys, child subjects come off as slovenly, lazy, even cranky. Fashions and household objects are commonplace and current, untested by potential nostalgia—which benefits photographers who work in a similar vein, such as William Eggleston. Unlike Eggleston, though, who also makes work investigating the mundane, Gest appears to find no poignancy in his subjects or their universal struggles: loneliness, aging, etc. Eggleston’s most iconic images, shot on film, have a warm, super-saturated quality that brings style and a small sense of glamour to even the most banal of images. Gest’s digital portraits favor cold light, cloudy skies, and florescent interiors. This overwhelming visual sigh means Gest’s more stunning images—“Tara Searching,” “Jennifer in Her Rooftop Garden,” and “William”—get lost in the abundance of similar photos. Mostly vertical compositions and tightly cropped portraits, the lack of diversity is purposely monotonous: Everywhere you look you’re confronted with the awkward routines of contemporary living.

Although slightly heavy-handed, Commissure is an exhibition that is worth seeing in person. The technical confidence and proficiency demonstrated in the production of each image becomes even more apparent at the prints’ significant scale. Peering into the often larger-than-life faces of figures caught in moments of self-awareness in life’s most average situations, you may remember the weight of your own obligations and inevitable behaviors. The photos become psychological mirrors, large, bold, and crisp. Gest illustrates, with unsettling frankness, the despondency of the human condition.

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