Absorbing Self-Absorption

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Steiner Stares at Humanity with Contemplative Portraits

Sometimes a portrait is just a portrait. Sometimes that person in the picture really gets to the other people outside staring in. At the Austrian Embassy, the exhibition “Peter Steiner: Portraits and Self-Portraits” does just that and gets you thinking — not to mention scratching your head in confusion, contemplating the infinite variety of human beings, and wondering what lurks behind the outward bearing of the human face.

Even in repose, you think, or in a casket, people’s faces could be lying to you, misdirecting and impossible to read, except as a recognition of self.

That’s a lot of thinking to do at a relatively small embassy exhibition that roams tightly around a well-lit room in neat rows of rough, expressive portraits.

It’s also a lot of thinking for a cartoonist, but Peter Steiner’s work is meant for contemplation. The son of Austrian parents who immigrated to the United States in 1938, Steiner had an early interest in art that eventually translated itself into a position at the New Yorker as a cartoonist — a position, interestingly enough, that recently deceased novelist John Updike once aspired to, though he instead wrote about 800 articles for the high-minded magazine over the years.

Steiner made at least that many cartoons, if not more, for the New Yorker, several of which became iconic and made him famous. He was seen as prescient in the mid-1990s when he pictured two dogs staring at a computer. The caption read: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

If you follow the Internet and Google Steiner’s name, it comes up under many guises, many of which are actually his: Steiner the artist and portraitist, Steiner the writer of taut, critically praised mystery novels, but most often Steiner the man who made the Internet cartoon about the dogs. Many online bloggers found mystic meaning and prophecy in the cartoon about loneliness and anonymity in the modern age. Steiner basically contended he was just doing a cartoon.

Lighthearted and witty, his cartoons are sharply and swiftly drawn and come right to the point, like the man he drew at the concert ticket counter asking for “two Rolling Stones tickets, senior discount.”

But there’s no discounting his portraits, sectioned off here into four parts, two of them focusing on portraits of Steiner himself. All of the works are done from photographs taken by Steiner and fixed to an easel. The first group of nearly 40 acrylic paintings are dead-on portraits, beginning with one of himself, a middle-age man with an edgy face, untamed hair and a quizzical expression. All of these portraits, identified only by a first name, become an accumulative mosaic if you look at them more than once. Just as the names for the most part seem ordinary, the faces are not: George, Mick, Jane, Kent, Bill, Bob, Mary Rachel, Ann, Janet, another Bob, Joe, Bud and so on.

Steiner makes them unique with color, light and thick, bold strokes. Also, in all of his portraits, the background, or complete lack of it, seems to be significant. As a result, the colors on the subject almost seem odd, as if they describe a state of mind, a state of being, a time of day. They are not a natural part of the facial skin, but rather strange additions, gifts or jokes.

In the second section, it’s Steiner in front of a mirror making faces — i.e. Steiner multiplied. At first, his exaggerated lips, high eyebrows, tousled hair, and expressions of delight, surprise and stumped-ness resemble a clown practicing his craft. But after a while, the portraits give off other little frissons: What would happen if you stared at yourself long enough, say for hours on end, like a model, hoping to be thin? What could you say about yourself if your self-absorption had turned into complete frustration? It all seems serious, but funny, and after a time familiar.

Steiner almost inhabits his writer’s mode when he ponders this outward identity of self. He takes it yet another step further by taking one portrait, then adding another on top of it, and changing the whole physical structure of the face. There’s nothing abstract or absurd or surreal going on here, but the strange facial mash-ups raise even more questions about identity.

In fact, all of his pieces do that, but it’s more than that. You get the idea that in all of these ordinary folks, great changes are taking place, nakedly or subtly, and that their stories are being told or hidden. It’s disquieting but at the same time full of the artist’s deep love for the possibility of people.

The last section is a series of self-portraits made on wood and other rough materials on the theme of torture — raw, terrifying, incongruous and eerie pieces. One presumes Steiner is picturing a man undergoing torture, contortion, pain, anticipation, flat-out fear and terror.

And at the end of all that comes across this notion of self-imagination, not self-absorption, of finding yourself in others. Like a dog on the Internet, perhaps. Both anonymous, yet naked for all to see.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014