Speaking for Humanity
Essay by Peter Frank, Former Senior Curator Riverside Art Museum and Art Critic, Angeleno Magazine and L.A. Weekly
Throughout her oeuvre, Sigal Bussel has employed the human head as a visual leitmotif. Bussel’s focus on this powerful image, however, is complicated by ambiguity. The head -- in particular the face, but the whole human skull and its attendant organs -- is probably the most potent image in art, indeed in all image-making, as it reflects all our social, psychological, sexual and somatic sensations back at us. But Bussel presents us not with portraits, not with fully fleshed out humans, but with highly stylized, nearly identical renditions of nearly featureless heads, invariably seen in profile. These ciphers are empty enough to contain us and full enough to exclude us, full enough to represent us and empty enough to confound our associations. They do not speak about humanity or even to humanity, they speak for humanity.
In their almost diagrammatic abstraction, Bussel’s heads determine a kind of social choreography. In the absence of other markers, their positioning takes on a telling dynamic, as if they were visages on a totem. Their coloration, their situation on the canvas, their repetitive frequency in any one painting or sculpture and throughout all the works in the series, all these normally bland considerations become crucial components of our reading of them. In the absence of identity, the heads become vessels for our own anxieties. While continuing a modern tradition of the anonymous figure, a tradition going back to cubism and the Bauhaus, Bussel allows her faceless faces to inhere a post-modern – or perhaps neo-modern – sense of displacement.
Do these heads, then, exist in a vacuum? Are they without context, without meaning? Bussel accompanies them with various abstract markings, and often found objects, all of which bespeak an intuition-driven process of decision making. But, however informed by intuition, even spontaneity, Bussel’s process is not gratuitous. It serves to flesh out, as it were, the human references. It gives depth to the heads without burdening them with specific characteristics. It thrusts the profiles to the foreground but does not cast them in any distinct drama. Bussel’s renditions remain abstract. Indeed, involved in pictorial (rather than theatrical) structures as they are, the heads have been abstracted that much further from their human associations.
Of course, they never lose those associations. Such associations remain the primary factor in our comprehension of the works, no matter whether painted, sculpted, or installed. For some of us, these associations give an imagined particularity to these thoroughly generalized visages. For others, the heads absorb and diffuse all the associations thrown at them. However stable their position on the canvas, in the room, or anywhere in real or fictive space, the non- or anti-faces with which Sigal Bussel populates her art exploit our need to endow them with meaning, even as they elude that meaning.