Presidential Wax


Table of Contents:
1. The Presidential Portraits 1985-1986
2. The Presidential Disappearance 1990
3. “The Presidential Portraits” text by Susan Martin
    with excerpts from Edit DeAk’s unpublished notes on image-making in the 80’s

4. “Icons” text by Donald Kuspit
5. The Original Wax Sculptures

The Portraits 1985-86
Perforated laser print collages
89” x 72” each

Collection; MOCA, Los Angeles.
Wax statuettes were photographed against a red backdrop in resemblance of the Gilbert Stewart presidential portrait of George Washington. Black paper “tuxedos” were then collaged into each photograph. The resulting collage was then perforated into a veil-like mesh.
(catalog published by Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1990)
presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin
( click images for larger view)
The Disappearance 1990
Perforated laser print collages
89” x 72” each

Collection; Museum Moderner Kunst, Palais liechtenstein, Vienna.
presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin
Perforated laser print collages, 1990
89” x 72” each
private collections
presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin
presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin presidential portraits izhar patkin  

The Presidential Portraits by Susan Martin (Published in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam Catalog, 1990)
With excerpts from Edit DeAk’s unpublished notes on image-making in the 80’s

In 1982, Izhar Patkin began making wax sculptures which mystified most people, but, when cast as characters in his Presidential Portraits, revealed the complexity of their meaning. Rather than being romantic, nostalgic appropriations of Medardo Rosso’s waxes, for instance, they signaled the beginning of a lengthy investigation into icons, image making, and representation.

In his Black Paintings of 1985-1986, Patkin makes it clear that people cannot separate their presentation of blackness and the color’s formal attributes from racial associations with ‘black’. In the same way the grisaille-like whiteness of the wax sculptures he has been making, function as metaphors fro white male power in America. Is there a more powerful symbol of WASP America than George Washington? And, is there a more powerful image of this mythic American figure than the dignified oil portrait by Gilbert Stuart? An icon of an icon. I say, it is definitely summed up on the face of the mighty Dollar bill.

For Patkin, the stage for The Presidential Portraits was set by Stuart’s ubiquitous achievement as he adopted for his grotesque portraits the same traditional modulated red background and exaggerated rouged cheeks.

Authentically subversive stuff never looked so bizarre than when it is passed off as ordinary (Edit DeAk).

Image-making in America is a critical issue, as television and media create the pictures which have become our day-to-day reality. As an artist, however, Patkin refuses to accept the anonymity of the force behind these ‘factual’ images. The Presidency, as an American institution, is a constructed image which is projected onto the public. In a culture enslaved by ‘fiction’ created by the machinery of public relations, I say the ultimate challenge would be to get out the vote for this goopy wax figure!

America is the youngest, it doesn’t have to have the morality of methodology. In Europe a person becomes a government leader not because people like him, but because of this methodology. In America, people vote for the President according to personality. Yet the idea of order and methodology is ultimately going to tip the scale.

They can take millions of pictures, but which one is the image? In Hollywood, studio photographers used every possible technique: careful lighting, highlighting, certain angles, deep shadows, soft focus, special sets as backgrounds, a carefully produced and orchestrated method, much like drawing to idealize, to promote certain looks, i.e. the sultry look, the girl next door, exotic ‘seductive’ vamp cruelty, sentimentality, etc. The decree and dogma of artifice. Hollywood glamour was largely the art of concealment where it was not the figure nor the photography, but a third entity, ‘glamour’ that appeared.

I see so many dwarfed self images going out into the city, their creators will never know or think that they have a chance to create a better image for themselves. In fact, image and self are the same. The idea during modern times was the flight from the horrifying sense of the loss of tradition and how that floats, locates, appoints and defines the person, his culture, the flight through the fascinating vehicle of the image.

Patkin is saying that whether you create your own image, or the image of your work, you have both the right and responsibility to use your inner authority as narrator, thus claiming your story. This powerful notion of inner authority cannot be satisfied through ironic appropriation, simulation or any form of melodramatic pastiche. To invent new icons, Patkin avails himself of all the tricks of image making – he creates wax models, applies special make-up, carefully lights them, uses a red stage set, photographs, crops and enlarges beyond grand style portraiture. Then collages flat black paper for their formal attire, all of which conjures up the dignity of office.

However, image alone is not enough. Patkin goes further to invent an entirely new medium: the perforated photograph. This device is a translation to paper of the technique developed for his oil paintings in which traditional support structure of canvas was replaced with the open weave of aluminum wire mesh. By so doing, he throws photography into an entirely new physical realm. In these Presidential Portraits, Patkin literally punches holes in the photographs making the authoritative, monolithic icon lighter than air. The picture now takes on a ghostly, veil-like quality evoking the sublime.

What’s interesting to me about the wax characters in these photographs is the way in which Patkin uses them as actors. They are his stars! And like studio contract players, they may have many personas, but you can always recognize them. Like the stencils which enable him to repeatedly paint the same figure, but in ever changing configurations, these wax figures play the lead in many other Patkin productions.

They were first seen in Before the Law Stands a Doorkeeper, 1985, as bits of Americana, Frederic Remington’s cowboys and indians and, grouped atop a white piano in Patkin’s performance, Alibis, 1985, mimicking the showmanship of Liberace. In Stairway to Paradise, an installation of 1987, he transformed them into the showgirls from An American in Paris, in which Georges Guetary danced and sang: ‘I’ll build a stairway to paradise with a new step e everyday!’ Their latest appearance to date, was in the 1989 Florence exhibition, Palagonia, where they become the notorious Baroque grotesques of Sicily’s Villa Palagonia.

stairway to paradise izhar patkin alibis izhar patkin

To me, through their grotesqueness, these portraits speak of a forbidden and formidable, ‘Other’. When I first saw these portraits in the artist’s studio, I was touched by their tenderness and vulnerability. As they simultaneously attract and repulse, they can make you laugh or they can make you cry. Patkin effectively empowers the predicament of ‘Difference’, with respect and dignity. In Jewish mythology, when men discovered the secret of creation, they fashioned the Golem, a humanoid sophisticated enough to protect and defend their community. However, they could not breath a soul into it. I remembered this tale when looking at the Presidential Portraits and was astonished by their sublime presence, in spite of their outward appearance. Forgetting all my ideas about savvy image making au courant, dissecting elusive processes, or searching for cultural significance, I thought: is it possible that something so pathetic could have no soul?

I spoke to the artist before he began the series, The Perfect Existence in the Rose Garden. The paintings were in response to a friend, who having just lost a loved one, thought he too might soon die from aids, and having to deal with the ramifications of being a social outcast, asked whether he would ever be happy. It’s radical to want paradise in a world that constantly mirrors its own impoverished idea of the everyday. The courage to move forward in this state of paralysis, is like the difference between images that are verbs and images that are nouns.

The avant-garde is the concurrent spark of any moment, neither art, nor cultural or social life, but what the two of them in their entanglement catalyzes. Avant-garde is when it is a verb and not a noun. It is a split second, a catalyzed phenomenon.

In Kim Levin’s review (The Village Voice, May 23, 1989) Patkin is quoted: It is so strange that we have this double standard as culture. As art people we are not very supportive of invention and hope. As people, we are hoping a scientist will go into the lab and invent a cure for cancer and aids. We really aren’t nourishing that. I think it is important to support hope, imagination, invention and progress.

As outrageous or naive as it may sound, Patkin – against all odds - incites us to lay claim to paradise now.

Icons By Donald Kuspit
catalog published by Holly Solomon Gallery, 1992

  Izhar Patkin loves profaning the sacrosanct, for its own inner good.  Thus, in 1987, in his series of Presidential Portraits, he turned Gilbert Stuart’s 1795 portrait of George Washington inside out, as it were.  Washington became amorphous mush – no longer the hard, impenetrable father of our country, a monument to manhood, but a soft, malleable, whimsical substance.  In Patkin’s playful hands, the untouchable became touched with a kind of madness.  Where Washington was once solid if inert, Patkin shows him as an insubstantial yet insidious atmosphere.  Washington is in fact a ghost, about whom we know next to nothing: he has long since become a myth.  Thus, Patkin does not so much cancel him, as show him in the cancelled form in which he exists in our psyche.  For Patkin, the issue is the subliminal meaning Washington’s ghostly presence has for us.  We cannot resurrect his reality, which has become completely academic, only understand why he remains attractive to us, continues to haunt us, even if he has become a blur.  Thus, where Stuart showed Washington in the posture of posterity, as the bedrock of our country’s beginning, Patkin shows him in the living emotional form in which he has come to rest in our unconscious: his Washington is the symbol of the repressed need for a supportive, loving father.  The wonderfully soft atmosphere of Patkin’s Presidential Portraits, with their ingenious mix of gray and red, bespeaks gentle but insistent desire.  Behind Patkin’s transgression of Washington’s officially heroic identity is profound tender feeling for fatherliness.

            Something similar occurs in Patkin’s new Suprematist icons, which could be perverse portraits of Malevich – but are in effect an homage to him.  Indeed, like Washington, Malevich is perversely melted into wax, which is the tenderhearted form in which he exists in our emotions – suggests the soft place for him we have in our hearts.  Just as Washington is the father of our country, and so a symbol through which we can renew our faith in art.  The former belongs to the collective unconscious of modern art history.  Patkin’s metamorphosis of these bedrock, father figures into fluid, indeterminate presences makes them into highly personal property.  The “unbelievable” appearance he gives them makes them emotionally believable.  He takes a figure who has become prosaic, historical, and mythical all at once, and makes him into a living, mysterious poetry, supportive of Patkin’s own art. 

            Patkin also atmosphericizes Malevich’s sacred geometry – a geometry which has become so mythical it no longer seems simple, as if to acknowledge the obviousness with which it exists would be to defeat the powerful emotions it arouses.  Softened by Patkin’s treatment, Malevich’s hard-edged geometry becomes a hypnagogic hallucination.  Multiplied with implicit infinity, it becomes even more hallucinatory and obsessive – emotionally haunting and inescapable.  Indeed, the five “Suprematist” icons, which acknowledge the synthesis of the human and the abstract that Malevich tried to effect later in his career, function like the panels of a grand altarpiece, unfolded for true believers to worship.  Three images of Malevich’s lava-like figure alternate with two electrically charged – “juiced up” – geometrical grids, as if suggesting Malevich’s wizardry.  The images and grids are essentially iconic, the wax figures aniconic, to use a distinction important to Patkin’s self-understanding. 

            Malevich’s late synthesis is usually regarded as a failure, and beside the point of his original Suprematist achievement, elevated as his avant-garde breakthrough.  In contrast to it, his late work seems regressive and decadent.  It is supposedly a sign of exhaustion and disillusionment, as though Malevich turned to the figure to rescue himself from what had become the limbo of geometry.  He apparently could not do anything more creative with it after having used it to renew and deepen – simultaneously modernize and “primitivize” – art.  Also, geometry ultimately proved too indifferent by reason of its axiomatic, eternal truthfulness to sustain the emotional, profoundly human point Malevich originally wanted to make with it.  I am referring to his use of it to make non-objective emotion, as he called it – the most inward, pure emotion, unattached to any object and as such “representing” nothing but itself – visible.   But for Patkin, working in the postmodern situation, where the idea of the avant-garde has become passé if not entirely discredited and invalidated, synthesis and cross-fertilization – the reconciliation of aesthetics – has become the way to creativity.  It has become the way out of decadence, if decadent to purists.  This is why Patkin turns to late rather than early Malevich – impure rather than pure Suprematism – the Malevich who mixed figure and pure geometrical form, which also functioned as expressive figure for him.  Patkin in fact makes clear that Malevich’s geometrical figures can be used to even more radically subjective effect than Malevich realized. 

            Patkin’s material, subjective extravagance makes his postmodernism distinctive.  For him, postmodernism does not mean enviously demystifying modernism through the ironical, impersonal (and in the end simplistic) appropriation of it, but rather re-personalizing it by resensualizing it.  Malevich’s Suprematism may no longer seem like a remarkable personal achievement, because he has become a standard fixture in the pantheon of modern masters (as Washington has become in the pantheon of American Presidents).  But Patkin’s treatment of Suprematism suggests its profound personal significance – its continued suggestive power – for him.  However indirectly, Patkin re-mystifies Suprematism, making it seem freshly visionary. 

            Patkin’s sensuality – the haptic power of his surfaces, especially of his wax – is also the source of the so-called “baroque” quality of his art.  “Baroque” once meant rough pearl – a pearl which because of its irregularity was more valuable and intriguing than one which was regular.  Its irregularity made it seem particularly personal, and a more genuine manifestation of the oyster’s creativity.  Also, genuine, deep emotion seems to express itself in an eccentric way.  Patkin classicizes visionary irregularity, making its absurdity seem fated and universal. 

            Patkin’s postmodernism shows itself with epigrammatic brevity in his perforation of the medium, making it poetic – an airy space.  Paradoxically, such postmodernization enhances rather than undermines its purity.  The plane on which Patkin paints his pictures becomes a deceptively simple stencil grid, letting the wall’s whiteness shine through to make the already ghostly image even more mysterious, precious, and evanescent.  In the last analysis, it is the eccentric luminosity of Patkin’s images that makes them truly iconic, that is, semblances of the idea of the sacred, which always seems about to vanish from the world yet remains inwardly intact in the sanctuary of art. 

The Original Wax Sculptures 1984
Wax and Plaster
Collections; MOCA, Los Angeles, the artist
presidential portraits izhar patkin
presidential portraits izhar patkin
presidential portraits izhar patkin