Head Spaces: Bonzai
I had dolls as a child. Of course I played with them, mostly by taking them on imaginary journeys, introducing them to magical and monstrous creatures of all kinds and telling them all kinds of stories. I loved to play with them this way, but always there was a part of me that felt sorry for them. See, their faces were blank no matter what, their eyes forever frozen in their zoned-out stare. I knew they were ‘my’ dolls, but
No matter what the adventure, no matter what funny or serious thing they were told, my dolls’ expressions never changed. They could show no awareness of the world we shared, nor contribute anything to it that I didn’t. I knew instinctively that in truth, they were secret agents: a bride doll, a baby doll, a red-lipped doll with feminine clothing, each forever an expression of her or his creator’s intent (this was pre- gender-neutral wording, though the dolls, genital neutral, were seemingly way ahead of their time).
Looking at art as my aesthetic sense awakened, I saw this same kind of facial neutrality in many of the represented people, at least in those that were given defined features. I looked at faces in painting and sculpture that were for the most part at rest, the people expressed emotion more through the attitude of their heads and the direction of their gaze than through the changes in their facial musculature. Women especially were mostly represented as if what they felt did not (could not) mar their well-rendered physiognomy in any way. They were meant to be not individuals but representations of humanity, and facial expressions are too expressive of a specific personality.
It’s since I became a figurative artist myself, and worked extensively with models and created both two and tree-dimensional works that I understood something more about expression-neutral faces in art. 1) Models can’t hold smiles or frowns or feel strong, face-altering emotions during extended poses. 2) By their nature, artists working from photographs can lose the feeling of immediacy and spontaneity of the face-altering emotion; 3) Expressions are very difficult to render, even living, real gazes are difficult to capture in works that aim to express ideas or concepts; better neutral than uncontrollably grotesque, comical or comic-book in ‘serious’ art; 4) representing a face mid-emotion often individualizes the subject and runs the risk of fixing the action in a specific moment rather than representing it as eternal.
So, to a figurative artist, the challenge becomes to be able to express emotion through facial expression without losing the feeling of a person in a moment while simultaneously expressing a universal human state.