Facing West 

Essay by Michael T. Davis, Adjunct Professor, Westminster School of the Arts, Rider University

The unlikely inspiration for this series is the mugshot. The mugshot is made to freeze the subject’s face into an image fixing the identity of the prisoner, rendering him or her immediately identifiable under the gaze of authority. This particular type of image also emphasizes the prisoners’ helplessness. They have no choice but to stare into the camera and be photographed. The image created captures and confines the subject—it locks up the prisoner’s identity. But in this series Ostrowski radically subverts the nature and purpose of the mugshot while at the same time retaining it as a deep form in these new works. Creating dynamic images based on these intentionally static faces, he “liberates” the subject’s identity, revealing the multiple possibilities of shifting identities unfolding out of an “original” face. The result is a complete transformation, if not erasure, of the mugshot. It is replaced by a welter of faces combined as well with other images.

The works in the series were created by a complex process of digitally over-laying multiple photographic as well as painted and drawn images. This technique often involved more than 25 layers to produce the final image. The layering process, which continually and subtly shifts the center of the composition with each new level of design, gives a sense of motion to the overall picture.  It also leaves the observer wondering just what he or she is seeing. As one gazes at these faces various elements pop out and then recede as the observer’s attention is redirected. Cars, insect wings, animal images, abstract designs, shifting eyes and slow, blurring features dance across the prints. But, surprisingly, the compositions hold together and have a strange, but strong, wandering focus. One might not know precisely what is being seen, yet one is never lost in a confusing blur. This over-all sharpness of the image is an unexpected result of the careful collaging of the various layers of shifting images which produce a dynamic whole.

The emotional impact of the work is considerable. This stems from Ostrowski’s own deep involvement with the faces which inspired it. He has written: “I am interested in the person who is stressed, extraordinary, in despair. So the mugshots appealed to me…in a peculiar way I sympathized with their situation, with their transgression and guilt. This ultimately lead me to include my own face as a layer in each of the works of the series.”

But the mutability of identity, the malleability of the face are not the only themes of this series.  The disturbing nature of the dark images is manifest. The layering process overwhelms, distorts these faces, strangely focusing our attention upon what is left of the underlying face.  There arises a dark, uncanny coherence of drift and subtle fragmentation in which one catches glimpses of not only fleeting forms but also of half-told stories. The images maintain a coherence, but we also have the disturbing sense that the face before us is in the process of disintegration and decay. The stark skeletal structure of the subject’s face often peeks through. The fixed gaze of their eyes is the confrontational anchor of these haunting and haunted faces. The complex richness of the images paradoxically accomplishes the stripping away of the substance, the flesh of the faces revealing their most basic common identity or ground:  the skull. The skull and the skeleton have been an important element in the iconography of Ostrowski’s previous work such as in the painting Death and the Boy (2015).

Death and the Boy (2015)

The theme of this work is deeply rooted in the Western tradition of art: the memento mori. The skull is the token, the memento, reminding the artist, as well as the observer, of the ever present shadow of death even in the most intense moments of life. The emotional state that this brings about is melancholy.  This is not depression. It a profound sense of the reality of life as fleeting, constantly fading away. As Keats put it in his Ode to Melancholy:

          She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;

          And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

          Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

          Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

          Ay, in the very temple of Delight

          Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,

          Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue

          Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;

          His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,

          And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

In the Western tradition the memento mori tends to signify a full stop—the end of earthly, bodily things.  The decomposition and decay of the body, death itself, is the realm of sin and evil. So it is no wonder that a meditation upon these things might bring about a Keatsian melancholy. And yet, even in this tradition, Christianity can ultimately assert that this dark vision of death and decay can open out into the promise of transformation—physical transformation. At the end of time all the dead will receive new physical bodies—whether damned or saved. These bodies are understood to be bodies of a different, eternal nature that still preserve at core the individual’s identity and sensual nature. These will experience the terrors of the inferno or the eternal ecstasy in the presence of the divine. But regardless of one’s final state, it is understood that the decay and death of the body must be endured. It is an essential stage in the transformation that preserves a person’s physical existence, essential to one’s identity in a coming eternal life. The skull and skeleton then have a double significance. They point to death, but by doing so also point to the hope of transformation—indeed, transfiguration.  The progression towards this destination in many cultures is often presented as a journey to the West, the horizon behind which the sun sets. But this has a double significance. As the sun disappears and darkness gathers in the West, dawn is breaking at that same moment in some other opposite East.

As one moves through Ostrowski’s series, one begins to notice that the darkness of the images begins to subtly give way to color. In the beginning these incipient colors are dark. But gradually the color brightens and light begins to dominate the images so that the last four images come full circle from the initial dark haunting and haunted figures.  But look closely. Even in the images of light there lurks amid the layers the skull.   

In the end we all must face West.

All inquiries for Facing West including exhibition and representation can be made via email:  [email protected]

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