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"Artists' Hands Grid Continuum",
silver gelatin prints (each 20 x 16").


by Elenore Welles

(Robert Berman Gallery, D-5 Projects, Santa Monica) The use of hands as an iconic signature goes as far back as prehistoric cave paintings. Fast forward to contemporary photographer Rena Small who portrays artists’ hands as signatory icons. Hands can be a meaningful way to judge character as through a caress, a handshake or a gesture. The blind see through their hands and palmists foresee the future. Hands can also reveal occupation. In that vein, think of the peasant’s gnarled fingers in Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters. There is no question they held the hoe that harvested their meal.

For Small, hands are the pipeline to the unconscious. Viewing them as compelling indicators of human emotion, she finds them more eloquent than traditional portraits. Since 1985, she has chosen to photograph the hands of hundreds of noted American artists. Arranged into Grid Continuums she pays tribute to the tools of the creator. Her current exhibition, Artists’ Hands Grid Continuum, includes one large grid featuring 102 silver gelatin prints, plus some smaller grids.

Small has long been fascinated with series based on a singular subject, starting with self-portraits of her back to photographic grids of herself garbed in the flags of many countries. She started photographing artists’ hands as a tribute to admired mentors as well as to convey a community of hands that contribute to our culture. After these many years and hundreds of portraits it appears to have become an obsession and a formulaic ritual.

When seen collectively in grid form, the aesthetic becomes a tapestry of pattern and design, and individuality suffers. Perhaps that is the general idea, to divert attention from the cult of artist as celebrity. Nevertheless, while the grid suggests the communal spirit of the art world, it remains the individual that clarifies the mystique of the artist. Look for the truth of persona in the details of individual hands because it is not only where the clues are, but where the interest lies. A telling example is the veins and callouses in Ed Ruscha’s hands, a revelation of toil and years.

Small surrounds the hands with black cloth, forcing the focus on the delineation of character traits. Isolated in this way, they take on an intimate power. Occupation is not always self- evident, however, except when the artists fall back on props. Andy Warhol, for instance, is signing a Campbell’s soup can. Robert Rauschenberg’s hands are set against his signature white suit. Chris Burden cradles a tiny truck. I would have preferred to see those hands in the process of creation rather than promotion. The impact of working hands is illustrated by Roy Lichtenstein printing his famous Ben Day dot. However, it is Chuck Arnoldi’s ink-stained hands from a print run that most eloquently conveys the tools of his trade.

"Grid Continuum: Roy
Lichtenstein", silver gelatin
print, 20 x 16", 1996.

"Grid Continuum: Alexis
Smith", silver gelatin
print, 20 x 16", 1986.

"Grid Continuum: Andy
Warhol", silver gelatin
print, 20 x 16", 1985.

There are hands that posture comically, namely John Baldessari’s whose fingers point in different directions, or Mike Kelley’s pointing to an age spot. Others appropriately emulate their painting styles. The operatic gesture of Kathryn Jacobi and the large space between Sam Francis’ hands are notable examples. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe reveals his identity beyond that of artist. He evokes his role as father by showing his hands holding those of his small child. Then there are those that exhibit an eerie prescient quality. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s hands, for example, appear to be imploring, as if asking for help. He died of a drug overdose soon after the shoot. Carl Andre’s hands are portrayed in a pushing motion. The following year he was accused of shoving his wife, artist Ana Mendieta, out of a window.

Small collected quotes from each of the artists she photographed. Gilbert-Rolfe’s sums up her sensibility most cogently when he states, “Repetition is a very important idea.”