Don't be Fooled by the Faces I Wear
15.07.2021 - 14.08.2021
Ben Rak, Face, HD video (compressed for web display)
Shown and Obscured: The Layered Faces of Ben Rak
You have walked into an exhibition that asks you not to believe the faces ‘worn’ by the artist. I’m here to help unpack this warning. Let’s see what is being shown, and obscured, at the same time.
The history of photography and screen-printing are shared, for they are efforts to capture the elusive shadow. Both the photographic negative and the printed positive are required to create the image. Ben Rak’s work offers an emulsion that allows these two forms to blend into one thing.
Here we are seeing a printmaker translate their practice into a context that is best known for contemporary photography. Like most translations, subtle meanings will be lost in the exchange between languages. Some of these are arcane connotations, some may be idiomatic and challenging to convey. But I’d like to bring your attention to a lingering and vexed problem of interpretation, because it’s the key to understanding what is going on here. In a sense, these are all self-portraits.
This exhibition uses the processes of printmaking as metaphors for the performance of self.
This is an extension of themes raised in Ben Rak’s previous exhibition The Masks I Wear to Pass, (Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, 2020).1 In both exhibitions we see Rak’s pursuit of printmaking processes as a layered metaphor, in which each
mark-making gesture is also a mask-making gesture.
The performance of self, as espoused by the theorist Irving Goffman in 1956 and many others since then, is a mutable and dynamic proposition.2 It may involve a lifetime of decisions for the person concerned, a continuous state of ‘impression management’. But it only takes a fraction of a moment for another person to interpret how that self is being performed – that brief encounter is an instantaneous impression, like a still from a video. In this sense the ‘photographic’ self is based on recognition, but the ‘printed’ self is based on expression. Whilst the photograph’s relationship between negative and positive offers potential for differences in scale, a screen print is far more literal – it can only be reproduced at the same size it started from. For Goffman and Rak, the objective of the performed self is to ‘pass’, and for a print maker the objective is very similar: to be seen as intended.
Rak’s recent practice has been centred on the performed self, and specifically the problems of ‘passing’ as a public persona. But a persona and a person are not quite the same thing. A person may adopt roles, these are persona – taken from the Latin for ‘mask’. But a persona without a specific role is a façade, a tabula rasa or blank slate, or empty page. It is a point from which we start, infinitely mutable into other things. It could be protective, assertive, a decoy or a defence.
One of the really interesting things about this exhibition is that Ben Rak has taken the ‘mask’ as an increasingly figurative device. On my first viewing, I mistook the blank ‘eyes’ of Second Nature (one of the largest prints in this exhibition) as actual holes, whereas they are painted grey surfaces – there are no voids here, only deliberate gestures. This reminds us that no-one needs a figurative mask to wear a performative mask. Wearing a mask simultaneously erases the self, and offers an alternative self in exchange.
Knowing that these complex prints are self-portraits leads us to search for the face of the artist within them. This engages the concept of pareidolia, which is our tendency to recognise faces in abstract settings. These fictional faces are coincidences that our gaze exaggerates, given their importance within our ability to communicate. An abstraction can thus ‘pass’, albeit briefly or imperfectly, as a human face. Just as a few words might be sufficient for us to recall a song or a film, a few basic shapes call to mind some of the most elaborate communication systems we possess – gesture, facial expression, cultural cues, and non-verbal syntax (as simple and nuanced as a glance, a motion, or a twitch). Facial cues are sufficient to trigger an impression of a certain type of person.
In a new video installation, Skins (2021), Ben Rak’s screen prints find and fix us with a returned gaze. It is characteristic of portraiture to unerringly follow you around the room, but have we ever asked ourselves ‘what does the portrait want?’ Skins reminds me of the historian Ali A. Olomi’s recent quip; “If you’re feeling ugly today, just remember that the djinn that watches you from your mirror thinks you’re pretty.”3 The public performance of self, after all, can be a discomforting process.
A mask is a façade, or a temporary layer over a more substantial foundation. Over the past two years, we have all become intimately familiar with masks in daily life. But Rak’s research regarding masks is invested in the quotidian behaviours associated with the performed self as a form of role play, rather than the character itself (unlike commedia dell arte or noh theatre, for example).
Screen-printing creates a series of overlapping masks. Each stencil provides a new mask, and their accumulation creates a complex persona. Prints are all layers, but painting may or may not be layered, as it consists of an accretion of separate and individual parts (brushstrokes). An analogue photograph is a definitive layer, though it can be divided in post-production, such as montage and collage. When using Photoshop, the digital use of layers is one of the first things we learn.
Layering a print with multiple registers seems so casual we might scarcely notice. Yet note the implications of the verb ‘to register’ – through this term we take notice, recall or display. In a linguistic context the register evokes a person’s voice and vocabulary, all means by which they ‘pass’. The layering of the precise with the imperfect also evokes the calligraphic practice of siyāh mashq or ‘black work’.4 In this process, a series of letters are written in ink over and over each other, building complexity through repetition, yet obscuring the original words. Though such practice is impossible to read, the calligrapher seeks to become legible over time, when a specific message is desired.
To carry the photographic metaphor further, Ben Rak notes that to be ‘exposed’ is the nemesis of passing. It implies the failure to ‘pass’, as the exposure of an underlying self has superseded the façade. Thus, passing relies on withholding information as well as revealing, sharing or using it.
It is true that the disembodied faces Ben Rak has created for us are not to be believed. They are tools made of layers and evocations, to be worn just as masks are worn: only as needed, for a specific moment, and removed when that moment has passed.
Dr. Sam Bowker
Dr Sam Bowker is the Senior Lecturer in Art History & Visual Culture at the Charles Sturt University, where he teaches the principles of semiotics, the history of design, and Islamic art from Australian perspectives.
He lives on Wiradjuri country in Wagga Wagga.
1. Jane O’Sullivan, ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ for The Masks I Wear to Pass. Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, 2020.
2. Irving Goffman, The Performance of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday, 1956.
3. Ali A. Olomi, 26 June 2021 - https://mobile.twitter.com/aaolomi/status/1408474965406531585
4. Maryam Ekhtiar. "Practice Makes Perfect: The Art of Calligraphy Exercises (Siyāh Mashq) in Iran." Muqarnas 23 (2006): 107-30
Ben Rak | About
An artist, educator, and independent curator, Ben Rak was born in California, in the United States, and grew up in Israel. He is presently working and living in Sydney, Australia, where he lectures at the University of New South Wales Art & Design.
Rak holds a BFA in printmaking (2008) with first-class honours (2009) and an MFA (2013), both from the University of New South Wales. Rak has also curated touring exhibitions themed around the use of print process as metaphor, as well as exchange exhibitions with institutions such as The School of The Art institute of Chicage (USA) and Indus Valley School of Art & Design (Pakistan).
Rak is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of New South Wales, where he is examining the phenomenon of ‘passing’ as a condition in both social life and art practice. He is interested in the capacity for the print to act as metaphor for contested identities and the agency afforded to the print when it passes as another medium.
Public Program | Megalo x PhotoAccess: Masking the Process
Saturday August 14th, 12pm – 4pm, at PhotoAccess & Sunday August 15th, 10am – 4pm, at Megalo Print Studio
Megalo x PhotoAccess: Masking the Process is an exciting cross-disciplinary workshop run by artist Ben Rak, hosted at both PhotoAccess and Megalo Print Studio. Take the rare opportunity to discover two Canberra arts institutions in one go whilst unpacking the concepts and processes behind Ben Rak’s exhibition, Don’t be Fooled by the Faces I Wear.
Exploring the idea of masks, in this workshop you’ll utilise both photography and screen-printing methods to create your own innovative ‘masked’ image. Learn to prepare your photographs for screen-printing, expose your photos to a screen, and learn to print them as either monotone or multi-colour artworks. No prior screen-printing experience necessary, but some understanding of basic photoshop is required.
Denise Ferris - Opening Speech
To begin this evening’s opening, I acknowledge the Wiradjuri to the west, the Yuin to the South East and the Ngunnawal, Ngambri and Ngarigo peoples of this region.
I acknowledge their elders past present and future, as well as any other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.
It is a privilege to work and live on this country ⎯Dhawra to the Ngunnawal people.
Here we have three different artists and apparently three disparate practIces but as you move through the gallery space I suggest you will see their formal and conceptual connections.
These links acknowledge the curatorial insights by the PhotoAccess team, bringing together these three bodies of works, which offer a coherence at first perhaps not obvious.
Let’s first consider their alignments:
Process is revealed, and process is the work’s evidence and its meaning; pulling apart and on the other hand pushing much together; the use of colour is minimal (not loads of what I call “eye lolly”) and toned monochrome, thus as viewers we can concentrate on the essence of the work. A very obvious note here, making something that is implicit quite explicit. All these artists harness the power of photography, its indexical nature, where the referent / “reality” is apparently directly transmitted, that is seen when we immediately identify eyes in Ben’s work, when we recognise the documentary (though usurped) of Catherine’s images and the self-evident pull of Chris’ intention for his manifestly “attention seeking” (literally) installation.
In the work of Catherine Evans, the depiction of interference revealing the rupture in our memories; and drawing a connection between Ben Rak’s work, I see again the instability of representation. But while the way in which this instability, the flux, is visualised is different in a formal sense-one adding detail (Ben) the other obliterating detail (Catherine) they are aligned.
The layers in Ben Rak’s prints that reveal and conceal, build a personage to face life and build it materially through his practice of printmaking, working the image and the surface to construct.
• the dispersed fragments of Chris Bowes installation (it could be on one screen but is not) pull apart representation rather than, as Ben does, consolidates, building and layering the image we encounter. Nevertheless, as a viewer we are confronted with the entirety of an image disbanded; dissolved; destabilised.
We can enjoy three practitioners who are keen to show us ⎯ on our careful reflection ⎯ how they visualise “destabilise”, “disrupt”, “dislocate”, cleverly subverting representation when revelation from photography’s realism is expected and indeed assumed.
In Catherine Evans’ work, disruptions and interventions draw attention to and metaphorically replicate our own interventions into the “history” “reality” of events. Catherine concentrates her imagery on an event, her memory of the Royal Canberra Hospital implosion. (Weirdly it happened on 13th July the day I am writing this but many years ago.) This was an event that was an engineering necessity making the space for progress, a spectacle for some, and as it happened a human tragedy for others. One person, Katie Bender who was twelve, died and others were injured. Like many events that figure in public and thus in the public imagination, the facts of the event live on in many memories, a multitude and a multiplicity of memories. While Catherine mobilises digital interference and shows us its warp on memory, she also demonstrates to us the array of ‘positions’ of what we see and what we don’t see in the obliterated images.
Catherine visualises rupture….interference literally…the interference between what happens and what we think happens…both time interferes and our perspective interferes…and effects what is retained…she every eloquently encapsulates her underlying intention in this work that memory’s exploded 3 pieces fall between what happens and what we remember happens, what makes an impression on us and what are the buried considerations.
I truly cannot say it more elegantly or economically than Catherine. In her work she calls the stable narrative of personal and collective memory into question, and makes the answer to that question quite clear when she says, quote:
Memory, it is a choice.
I recall Chris’ work The Cowboy, which manipulated footage that was captured from several Times Square webcams, recording a lone cowboy, naked but for his white boots, white belt (?) and big hat, playing his white guitar to a deserted urban scene. amid the height of the New York COVID-19 pandemic. This lone figure strolls through the urban space performing and with no audience but we watchers - it is eery, especially when you think about previous Times Square and the new reality of this empty place. I mention this work to draw attention to Chris’ ongoing concerns about surveillance, and where previously he got us to think about our pervasive fears of isolation, now the sense of “breaking-up” (literally) leaks into the work you will see in the gallery.
The work Monitor I think of as “watching me, watching you”. Mesmerising in its capture of the viewer but also unsettling in its fragmented delivery of a very up close and personal reality. I really enjoyed the documentation photographs too where you see the subject and their pieced together self in the one image, allowing you to really take time to look (and without being seen looking!...). For different to the many surveillance cameras that have watched and recorded all of us today ⎯ inevitable I assure you⎯ this work allows you to acknowledge and rather uncomfortably wallow in that scrutiny.
Ben Rak’s work Don’t Be Fooled By The Face I Wear again foregrounds the instability of representation but the way in which this instability, the flux, is visualised is hand wrought through process. In his malleable prints Ben works up an array of perceptions and postures of what we can readily see and maybe don’t see. Leaning on what is a “real” and what is imaginary, using photography and the hand mark in concert and in opposition. Ben lends also the weight of meaning to his ideas with the titles of his work, Pulling the Wool; Masks; Facets; he offers us variable options and suggest there are choices about identity even if obscured. I also like the title Unhinged very much…though it refers to the movement of a screen when printing I understand but it works well as a title to suggest psychological undercurrents. (and we’ve all felt like that!)
The photographic eyes that look out at us anchor the work’s representational claim but are overwhelmed by the instability of the other marks, which are foregrounded and dominate and at the very least challenging the photographic (THE REAL) that often steals our gaze, that offers us the “certainty” we often seek in figuration. This impasse between the so called abstract and the photographic has a history in printmaking and to this viewer and I think others, remains a source of fascination. There but not there.
My congratulations to these three artists⎯I really enjoyed experiencing your work in installation and commend other viewers to take time experiencing the entire exhibition.
Emeritus Professor Denise Ferris
Former Head of School, School of Art & Design
College of Arts and Social Sciences
List of Works
2. Ben Rak, Second Nature, 2021, Acrylic and silkscreen on un-stretched canvas, 140cm x 110cm, $2800
3. Ben Rak, I Know You Know Who I Am, 2021, Laser-cut dye-sublimation prints on aluminium and papier mache masks, various sizes, POA
4. Ben Rak, The Masks I Wear to Pass, 2020, Acrylic and silkscreen on un-stretched canvas, 140 x 110cm, $2800
5. Ben Rak, Facets (1), 2020, Archival inkjet print on fibre-based paper, 106 x 76cm, Edition 1 of 4, $1400 framed
6. Ben Rak, Facets (2), 2020, Archival inkjet print on fibre-based paper, 106 x 76cm , Edition 1 of 4, $1400 framed
7. Ben Rak, Skins, 2021, single channel video, 19 minutes, Edition 1 of 4, $800