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A New Portraiture

Daniel Lee: Juror Number 6 (Leopard Spirit), from the series Judgment, 1994; digital C-print; 25 x 37 in.; courtesy the artist and O.K. Harris Works of Art, New York.

Several of the artists in Gene(sis) have chosen to work in the time-honored and familiar genre of portraiture—except the portraits they have created are anything but conventional. Abstract painting is referenced in the DNA maps of Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and the Hemograms (enlarged photographic representations of blood specimens) of Joan Fontcuberta. Manglano-Ovalle created the forty-eight softly colored panels of the Garden of Delights using autoradiography, the technology scientists use to image DNA samples. By grouping the paintings in sets of three, the artist suggests families that are not biologically related. Fontcuberta’s translucent red fields are not merely photographic depictions of scientific samples, but intimate information about family members and friends, so identified by their initials. These images raise disturbing issues: not only is blood a charged subject in the age of AIDS, but many people are concerned about how DNA information might be used in the future.

Racial stereotyping is the subject of Kori Newkirk’s Assumption (Full Court 1). As a tall African American man, Newkirk is frequently, erroneously assumed to have basketball skills. His pseudo self-portraits, scaled to his size, depict molecules whose atoms have been replaced by basketballs.

Twins, by Margi Geerlinks, depicts two women, the younger appearing to wipe away the wrinkles of the older. Who are these women—clones of one another, a mirror image of the same person, mother and daughter? This arresting image plays on both our fears of what a genetically modified world might be like and our hopes for eternal youth and perhaps immortality.

In her Genetic Mice series, Catherine Chalmers uses the conventions of stylish portrait photography—large scale, color, and neutral backgrounds—to gain sympathy for these animals. Although produced at the rate of fifty million a year in order to be injected with diseases, such research mice until recently were not protected by animal welfare laws. In a larger sense, Chalmers is drawing attention to the lack of scrutiny that is common in the fast-growing field of genomics.

Daniel Lee digitally fuses human and animal characteristics in a series titled Judgment, a reference to the Buddhist mythological court that determines one’s afterlife. Geneticists have already been able to create transgenic primates by introducing one organism’s gene into that of a different type of organism. Lee’s fantastic beings may one day seem not so strange.

Constance Lewallen
Senior Curator for Exhibitions

Visit the Gene(sis) Exhibition Website.

The exhibition was organized by the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, in affiliation with the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The exhibition is curated by the Henry Art Gallery’s Associate Curator Robin Held and, for the Berkeley presentation, BAM/PFA Senior Curator for Exhibitions Constance Lewallen and Associate Curator Alla Efimova.

The exhibition and related programs are made possible with generous support from the Animating Democracy Initiative, a program of Americans for the Arts, funded by the Ford Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; The Rockefeller Foundation; The Allen Foundation for the Arts; PONCHO; The Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities; SAFECO; King County Arts Commission Special Projects Program; ZymoGenetics, Inc.; and The University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences, as well as in-kind support from Carl Zeiss, Inc.; The Grand Hyatt Seattle; Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media; KUOW Public Radio; WRQ, Inc.; New Concepts Prototyping; Speakeasy Network; Northwest Mannequin; University of Washington Division of Genetic Pathology; and University Bookstore Computer and Electronics Center.

The BAM/PFA presentation of Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics is supported by the Consortium for the Arts, the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, and UC Extension at UC Berkeley, and by The Harold and Alma White Memorial Fund. The exclusive media sponsor for Gene(sis) is San Francisco Bay Guardian.