Peter Harris’s startling Physiognomy series unmasks the extent to which any coherent notion of a permanent and stable, let alone essential, identity is little more than a consoling and controlling fiction. In basing his self-portraits on other people’s remembered perceptions of him, the face becomes the site of a dynamic transaction, an interface between the self and the other. Notions of inside and outside are abolished as the psychic erupts into the carnal fabric. The disturbing abstract amorphousness of the face and head shifts the register of the image away from external reality to the plane of psychical reality, suggesting the inchoate, the anomalous and unmeasurable experiences and tangled feelings that have no name or image. Resisting identification, the shadowed face insinuates a destabilised self, creating the need to assume various masks and disguises, whose effect is to emphasise that identity flows rather than resides, so that a person becomes little more than an assemblage of identities, or a succession of faces, none of which is inherently any truer than another.

The very malleability of the clay masks from which Harris maps the topography of the unseen, emphasises the fragility and infinite extension of the self, and can be read in a kind of negative theology as an ironic comment on God’s construction of Adam from clay. Attempts to trace the divine image or imprint have given way to a notion of identity as a social construct, hinted at in the fingerprints imprinted on the clay. Thanks to Francis Galton’s interest in physiognomy in the last century, which led him to develop the foundations of modern criminology, not only by producing a taxonomy of criminal and racial types through his ‘composite portraits’, but also by pioneering the technique of fingerprinting, modern identity has been reconfigured in material terms as synonymous with the fingerprint, and as indelibly associated with the criminal as Adam is with original sin. The criminal, like the artist in these portraits, offers a brutal reassessment of the romantic conception of the artist as outsider and his heroic pretensions to transcendental truth.

Just as the mask, like the caricature, fixes the fluid field of the face and denies outright the traditional promise of fullness, so Harris uses more formal means to shape the subject as similacrum rather than as origin. Whereas traditionally virtuoso brushwork was taken as an index of the artist’s genius, expressive of the sitter’s inner spirit as much as the artist’s insights, in the Physiognomy series all traces of the artist’s hand have been effaced. The image is almost photographic in its objectivity, and reflects both the artist’s use of the photograph to create his portraits as well as an honesty, in terms of the artist’s superb technical ability as much as his determination to confront fully the implications of Rimbaud’s gnomic phrase ‘je est un autre’. The heavy gloss of the thickly varnished surface which insistently pulls the viewer’s eye back to the surface of the image denies any illusion of access through depth, suggesting that all we can ever know of a person is the superficial appearance. Similarly, though isolated and tightly framed, the heads imply a proximity, rather than an intimacy or revelation of character. The various facial expressions, their sometimes cropped composition, and the directly confrontational nature of some of the expressions, which seek to engage and challenge the viewer rather than open themselves up as objects of contemplation, are all expressive of social interaction. All this draws attention to the fact that whilst we tend to reduce other people’s bodies to appearance, our perception of our own body is inextricably linked to a perception of it in action, as performative rather than as mere form.

The monochromatic background and the strong shadows of the portraits, suggesting an actor caught in a spotlight on stage, underscore the idea of performance. Thus, whilst the mask becomes an essential means to emphasise an awareness that identity is always constructed according to the distanced gaze of the other, the mask also serves as a cover, allowing Harris the opportunity and excuse to explore those darker aspects of the psyche which are normally repressed or marginalised. Like the actor, projective images of self are sanctioned under the guise of having ceded control of his own identity. Rather than a source of anguish, Harris celebrates the freedom that an elusive identity confers, much as his own art demonstrably celebrates the potential of painting at a time when it, by contrast, has been thought to be known too well.

Shown at:

Multiple Selves, James Hyman Gallery, London
29 January – 21 February 2004

Insanity Benefit, Vilma Gold, London
28 April – 28 May 2000

Nylon Gallery, London
27 February – 23 March 1999