Cover Story

The Emperor's New Clothes?

by Mary Tutwiler

Herman Mhire’s new work is a head turner, and a head scratcher. Rare is the occasion when one is confronted with something entirely new. No criticism telling us what we should think. No track record helping us decide how we feel. We are left with our own shaky judgment, and by choosing thumbs up or thumbs down, we may find ourselves in the camp of stuffy blinkered conservatism or appallingly, naively duped. 
It’s quite distressing. We are so often absolutely sure of ourselves and positive those on the opposing side are idiots. I could be talking about politics, but this essay is about the other realm of the possible, the arts. 
Herman Mhire, Lafayette native, artist, teacher, curator, critic, instigator and perhaps merry prankster, has managed to pull off the near impossible. He has mounted a major art exhibit at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, with a satellite show at Gallerie Eclaireuse, that has stirred up the arts community in this town to such a degree that few have attempted to write about it much less offer their public opinion. (The Independent Weekly tried to contact multiple artists whose portraits are in the show. The response was a resounding silence.) Mhire’s stature in the community, the scale of his work, the content of each image, and most of all his medium, a digital photo-manipulation program, have rendered the chattering classes mum. Is it art? Is it trash? Are we being tricked? Has Mhire fooled himself? One thing is for certain: Mhire has nudged us out of complacency and into a potential intellectual and aesthetic minefield. And that is the most powerful aspect of art. 
The large gallery at the Acadiana Center for the Arts comprises a 5,000-square-foot room, with ceilings 20 feet high. Mhire is not the first person to have a one-man show in the vast white space. But most of the past exhibits have been retrospectives, accumulations of a lifetime of work. Mhire is certainly the only artist who has managed to generate enough images in the space of 18 months to fill the walls right up to the ceiling with art. 
The pieces are huge, 7.5 feet tall by 5 feet wide framed digital giclée prints. (Giclée prints are images generated from high resolution digital scans and printed with archival quality inks onto various substrates including canvas, fine art-, and photo-base paper.) There are several straightforward photographic portraits. The greater part of the exhibit, generated from Mhire’s photographic portrait work, is a set of altered photographs — which begets the name of the show — Altered States.

Mhire participates in a gallery talk with UL photography professor Lynda Frese’s senior art students.

Photo by Robin May

These huge images were created by Mhire from his portraits of local artists and neighbors by tugging and twirling flesh and hair into spirals, diamonds and honeycombs using the swirl, stained glass, poster edges and smudge tools of Photoshop. The portraits read like fun-house mirrors or cartoons, simultaneously amusing, threatening and repulsive. 
“The room is a kind of fantasia experience,” says painter David Alpha, one of Mhire’s subjects. “Some of it’s moribund, some of it’s macabre. It’s easily accessible, some of it is almost rooted in television experience,” Alpha adds. “There’s something really common about it. It’s not classical, it’s technopop. It’s in the aesthetic of the now generation.”
That’s not actually the opinion of a group of UL senior photography students, who attended a joint lecture by Mhire and UL photography professor Lynda Frese. The students are intimately familiar with Photoshop (they call it Photoslop). They grew up turning photo images on their computers into the kind of swirly horned devils and sheep-eyed satyrs that Mhire is exhibiting. The general consensus from the group was that any kid with access to a computer could do what Mhire has done. One student told Mhire that she didn’t think he knew what Photoshop was all about. 
Mhire responded by describing the reaction of art critics to Jackson Pollock’s drip and splatter paintings of the 1950s, when viewers repudiated the work, saying any child could do it. “But no child does it,” Mhire said, certainly not on the scale of Pollock or Mhire. 
After listening to another student’s comment about how clichéd it is to use Photoshop in making art, Mhire replied to the group, “He dismisses it because he understands the technical aspect of the work.” Mhire went on to quote the venerable art history text used in every college classroom for generations, Janson’s History of Art: “‘Skill alone is not an effective measure to determine the value of art.’” Parsing the difference between the medium and the message, Mhire continues, “The impact comes from the content of the image you make.”

“Elemore 2” 2008, giclée print, 90” x 60”

Mhire comes to the Photoshop tool set 18 years after it was released by Adobe Systems. The standard software for commercial graphics image manipulating, Photoshop is so ubiquitous its name has become the verb for tweaking photos, ie, “He photoshopped the picture.” The term implies falsifying an image in the photojournalism world. 
Compared to 20-year-old students, who grew up Photoshopping their buddies into space aliens, Mhire, 61, is a neophyte in the world of graphics manipulation. 
As a teacher of art history, drawing and print making at UL in the 1980s, Mhire worked on hand-drawn portraits, heavily influenced by both photorealism and the work of British painter David Hockney. Nearly 30 years later, the same urge for realism prompted Mhire to buy a Nikon D80 digital camera. While taking thousands of travel photos in the museums of Paris in 2007, he began snapping Greek, Roman and southeast Asian portrait heads. “The clarity of the pictures was amazing,” he says. Some of the images he had printed on a large scale, 5 feet tall. “Thinking about those portraits of 1980, it occurred to me I should turn that camera on human faces that have lots of character,” he says. 
The first portraits Mhire shot, in 2007, were of the late landscape painter Elemore Morgan Jr., and retired UL art professor and printmaker Tom Secrest. “I [had] no idea where this is going,” Mhire says. “I just [had] this compulsion to take their pictures. I’m just going on instinct and intuition.”
Mhire took his digital files to Pixus, a local printing company, which was able to generate the 7.5-foot by 5-foot photos. “That Friday, I picked them up, took them to my studio and put them up,” says Mhire. “I wasn’t really sure how I felt about them. I was impressed by the scale and the amount of resolution. You can see every pore, every freckle, every hair on Elemore and Tom’s heads. It was Elemore who encouraged me to go forward and do more of these.”
Mhire embarked on a project to do a series of full color portraits of Louisiana artists, including Acadiana locals Francis Pavy, David Alpha, Philip Gould, Lynda Frese, Shawne Major, Brian Guidry, New Orleans artist George Dureau, and collectors Roger Odgen and Paul Hilliard. 
In February 2008, glancing through a photo magazine, Mhire saw a portrait that was sepia toned. “I was curious about altering the color,” he says. “I had had very little experience with Photoshop. I suspected there might have been a tool of some sort that would allow me to adjust the color. I pick one of the photos at random, the portrait of Ralph Bourque, and open it in Photoshop. I’m looking for a way to adjust the color. I never actually found that magic tool. But in the process of looking for it, I come across other tools in Photoshop. Because I’ve never used them before, I try this and try that, and am initially really stunned by what is happening to that portrait and the way that I can manipulate the surface of the face, almost as if it is made of clay. It’s like you’re literally sculpting the form, you’re able to push and pull and stretch. At this point, I’m really like a kid in a candy shop, stunned by what I’m seeing. I can’t believe what I can make. I’ve never taken a photography class, and I’ve never taken a computer class. What I’ve learned has been self taught. I look back now, I suppose I did 20 to 30 versions of Ralph’s face. I wanted to see how far this thing could go. When I would arrive at an image that satisfied me, that spoke to me and had a strong presence, I’d save it and start all over again.”

“Francis 3” 2008, giclée print, 90” x 60”

Mhire casts a long shadow in the arts community of Acadiana. A 1969 visual arts graduate of UL who became a professor in the college of arts, he went on to teach many of the working artists in the area. He became the curator of the university’s art museum and developed its permanent collection. Another aspect of his free-ranging imagination is the conception of Festival International de Louisiane. Mhire is the chief architect of the festival and was its founding president. From 2000 to 2004, Mhire was the moving force behind the design and construction of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum. While his vision and achievements are in a league of their own within this small community, Mhire’s 20-year career at the university was often tumultuous, finally ending acrimoniously in 2005, just months after the museum, which received six architectural design awards, opened its doors. 
What followed, says Mhire, was a period of rage and disappointment, made even more traumatic by the death of his mother. Finding an artistic outlet opened a new door in his life. “All of a sudden,” he says, “what’s happening, the anger, rage and depression are being replaced by an excitement. It’s important to understand that what I call the ‘Ralph variations’ have nothing to do with Ralph. They’re completely autobiographical. All of the altered portraits are autobiographical. They in no way reflect my feelings about the people I photographed.” 
What Mhire sees in his altered photographs is annotated by 40 years of looking at art, 40 years of looking at portraiture that goes back to ancient cultures. “I’ve taught art history, painting, print making, drawing, design. I’ve been to museums all over the world. I’ve looked at hundreds of thousands of images. When the tradition of portraiture comes into the 20th century, painters like Picasso really had to look for new ways to represent the human figure. Photography in the middle of the 19th century had a profound influence on the history of painting. Photography could capture the reality and the exterior of a human face with great accuracy. [At that point, portrait] painting starts to go in a more expressive direction.”
At the opening on Aug. 8, painter Alpha says a thousand people filled the big gallery at the ACA, enjoying the surreal quality of the amorphosized images of their friends. “I was honored as one of the people to be included,” he says. “I got a laugh out of it. Francis [Pavy] out of focus was an interesting spacial experience. I thought it was a transcendental piece, because you sat there and it implied time. You thought it was going to come into focus. Now, it could be devastating to see your portrait transformed into these monstrous things. But I don’t think it mattered to anybody. It’s a playful thing. The whole room was a fantastic effect. Kids sitting on their laptop doing this...none of the rest of us have that experience. Some people worry, is this serious enough? All art shouldn’t be serious. [Robert] Rauschenberg is super playful about everything.”
One of Mhire’s colleagues from the UL College of the Arts, professor emeritus Robert Russett, who taught media, and who is a world renowned filmmaker, wrote to The Independent about the significance of Mhire’s “extraordinary” show. Russett says, “the visual arts in South Louisiana, unlike music and literature, have never ascended to national prominence. Long mired in prosaic approaches largely consisting of timid attempts at modernism, imitations of 19th century impressionism and worse, forms of pseudo-Cajun folk art, the visual arts have languished unable to awaken from its provincial daze and to address fresh ideas, contemporary issues and new spheres of expression. Herman Mhire has taken up this challenge with evident relish.” Russett champions Mhire’s use of computer software and digital processing as contemporary tools of the artist’s trade. The huge faces, “warp-headed demonic cartoon characters,” are humorous, he writes. “The humor here is not wit but rather slapstick on the verge of mania, at once funny and frightening.” Mhire has managed to transcend the banality many artists fall prey to, says Russett, which leads artists into replication, sensationalism and predictability. “Out of known elements he has produced something inventive and compelling...the result certainly commands our attention.”

“David 2,” 2008, giclée print, 90” x 60”

And yet, the work leaves others cold. Painter, sculptor and gallery owner Don LeBlanc was a student of Mhire’s in the 1980s. Back then, says LeBlanc, Mhire was certain the opportunity to pursue was the handmade gesture, drawing with crayon, pencil or paintbrush. “When I look at this installation now, he’s gotten away from that. He’s been completely seduced by this technology,” LeBlanc says. There is a significant expense in mounting such a show; producing a large number of huge photographic prints costs tens of thousands of dollars. The cost, the scale of the individual pieces and the gallery, filled from end to end, is overwhelming, LeBlanc says. What is lacking is content. “What else are you left with, the magical qualities of the manipulation? The distortions? Is he making a statement of our place in the technological world?” Ultimately, LeBlanc says he is not moved by Mhire’s show. 
Mhire says he spent time with the work of mid-century painter Francis Bacon as he was thinking about his altered portraits. The difference between Bacon’s and Mhire’s portraits is that Francis Bacon’s work matters, says LeBlanc. “Bacon’s portraits affect you in ways that continue the tradition of looking at ourselves. The history of portraiture, the history of representation of the human being, the human condition, the human race, the human face. Does Herman’s work matter in that way? Francis Bacon’s work is moving, they’re disturbing, full of frightening aspects of my own experience, but is that the same impression you are left with when you see Herman’s grotesqueries?”
Not liking the art, however, is not grounds for dismissal. “It’s easy as a general rule,” LeBlanc continues, “to go into an exhibition like that and dismiss it because it’s cold or it’s impossible to gain access to the images and understand it. Maybe it’s too early to comprehend it. Because it’s so forward thinking and challenging, exorbitant in a way, we need more time to fully understand it and digest it.”