Beautiful faces are not like beautiful objects. Helen Wright is known for
her beautiful depictions of familiar objects made strange. The resonance
of the dream world, the uncanny and the surreal are features of earlier
work like the pastel paintings of impossible flowers, for example, and the
digital prints that work from dressmakers’ dummies.
Her works have intimated mystery, and have been prepared to intrigue or
seduce. However, in Nobody Knows Anything, despite explicit objects
of seduction the peach-perfect breasts and porcelain faces the mystery now
resists us in a significant sense.
The impassivity of beautiful faces that, as the artist has said, are
‘people I don’t know and some of them don’t exist’, leave us questioning
the protocols of realism that are embedded in the photographic. The blank
faces of models chosen for their generic beauty and exemplary perfection
are clichés we are swamped by everywhere in magazines and advertisements.
The face, indeed, has become our ubiquitous mystery, since we are so
often given a likeness only of commodified virtue. Strangely enough, the
veracity of photographs has not allowed the portrait finally to attain its
inner aim, the capture of the soul of the sitter in the artist’s image of
Wright is interested to challenge this possibility, that an authentic
communication of character can be the goal of portraiture after
photography. Her photographic faces, morphed from material sourced from
fashion photography et al, serve only to demonstrate an irony – nobody
knows anything about the character behind these faces, despite seeing them
in photographic detail. We could go so far as to say that their
photographic verisimilitude is the disguise of their character, an
important obstruction to knowing them from their likeness.
The face is unlike other objects because it represents other people for
us. In the highflown preciosity of phenomenology, the face is said to be
the Other, an ethical demand made of us just in the face’s appeal. An
interesting effect of Wright’s ‘portraits’ is their disturbing refusal to
be a face in this sense, to offer and accord recognition of likeness we
share. This is especially problematic in a feminine face, which raises the
expectation of love and care. We feel rebuffed.
Other images in Nobody knows anything reinforce the sense that
knowing is not possible; the dark stairs, the doorway and especially the
keyhole, convey the impression of a secret darkness elsewhere, but also
seem to question our motive for looking.
Wright has adopted the use of white more extensively in her recent work;
although the colour of light, the strange effect of it in these pictures
is to cast shadows. The most redolent in this regard are the images of the
bed and pillows. They suggest the vulnerability of the dreamer, the
sleepers who, while perhaps a married couple, are never more alone than in
sleep. Wright’s images capture the anxiety of beds and dreams, of the
pathos of the other, who shares one’s bed but lies inscrutable in sleep.