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Art Review

Celebrity Heads

Scott Fife at Bodybuilder & Sportsman

by Lara Bullock

The human head. It is the core of the measure of our being and intelligence. It is usually the first thing we notice upon meeting someone. Having a “good one” on one’s shoulders is often a determinant of date-worthiness. It weighs 8 pounds. Freud said the decapitated head implied castration. Even worse than that, without one, we would be dead.

All of these connotations, especially the issue of mortaility, are interesting in terms of Scott Fife’s exhibition, Geronimo!, the first at Tony Wight/Bodybuilder & Sportsman Gallery’s new space. The show consists of five larger-than-life sculptural heads -- part of a larger series -- and three ink-wash drawings that feature such personalities as Mies van der Rohe, Kurt Cobain, Lily St. Cyr, Che Guevara, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe, and of course, Geronimo. The heads are made out of pieces of grey archival cardboard, held together with visible screws and glue. They are subtly embellished with pink and yellow pencil markings, which animate the heads in an uncannily, life-like fashion.

Fife’s work contains an obvious reference to Roman portrait statuary. However, unlike the Greeks who idealized the entire human form, and unlike Roman portraits in which the individualized heads of wealthy Romans were placed atop stock, pre-made torsos, here, the heads remain severed. The result is that renowned celebrities (granted they are all deceased) are reduced to beheaded, gravity-defying paper (itself the remains of a once living tree), as the heads variously protrude from the walls, on their sides, and upright on pedestals.

The material used in the works is highly significant. It will eventually biodegrade, leaving only the nuts-and-bolts remnants of construction, highlighting the vestigial associations attached to the infamous persons they are meant to portray. To many, Geronimo is merely a token Indian name that one remembers from history class. Che Guevara is known more for his exorbitant appearances on T-shirts, flags, and blacklight posters than for his revolutionary cause. Even Kurt Cobain who died only 12 years ago, is slowly becoming but a familiar face in an ever expansive universe of unremarkable stars. When I asked my sister if she knew anything about him, she hesitantly replied, “Wasn’t he a guy in that band . . . Nirvana . . . who killed himself?”

The gray pallor of Fife’s heads suggests the inevitable disintegration of a colorful memory to a faded black and white recognition. Even the ink wash portraits seem to suffer with their gangrenous green ink oozing downward along the pink page.

These various portraits are also a reminder of the transitory nature and superficiality of a capitalist culture, as philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach would say, that “…prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence.” Like our purchases, our celebrities become mere shells of human existence, embodiments of ideas rather than actual bodies.

The juxtaposition of such a motley crew of characters (exotic dancer, architect, Indian Chief, musician, Cuban guerrilla fighter, Apache revolutionary) is at first somewhat perplexing, then amusing, and eventually makes total sense. As Fife says himself: “They were shapers of the 20th century.” Overall, I was extremely impressed with Geronimo! It is conceptually and visually flawless, and most importantly, it makes you think. Maybe his next artistic endeavor should be the late Steve Irwin, Croc Hunter? Or perhaps not.