‘On the Face and Presence’ Essay by Robert Tilley

kristone capistrano he bridegroom his eyes looketh exhibition art


In the Torah it is forbidden to make an image of God, and yet in the first chapter of Genesis this is exactly what God does, He makes an Image of Himself, male and female, and this is humanity – it is us. Through the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, the words translated into English which denote being “in the presence of” God are, in Hebrew, literally “to be before the face of” God. God, face, and person all come together and define what it is to be present; presence is person. When we admire a landscape, or talk to animals, or speak to plants, or trace out the pattern of the stars into mythological shapes, we personify them, we give them a face, and thereby we and what we see become truly present to each other. 

One of the major trajectories in the history of art in the twentieth century was one in which the attempt was made to reach a state of pure formal abstraction. A work devoid of representation and personality. Not surprisingly the accompanying critical focus came to be on absence. But in more recent years, alongside the rise of a more socially and politically engaged populace, there has been a growing return to the person in all their social, political, cultural, and religious peculiarities and circumstances. Presence has returned and, all of sudden, we turn and find ourselves ‘before the face’ of those we might otherwise have never really seen.

It is here that the significance of Kristone Capistrano’s work makes itself felt. The focus is on the face and often the work is so large that the face overwhelms us, imposes itself upon us, and if we stay a while and do not recoil, then, as the artist puts it, the work immerses us. We are truly in its presence. 

There can be no neutrality before the face, for such neutrality is usually the beginning of injustice, and it is this neutrality that Capistrano’s works have no truck with. It would be wrong to say that his work challenges this neutrality, rather does it ignore it, or perhaps better still, is simply oblivious to it. When you see his work you know you have seen a face, you have met a person, even if you do not particularly like that person. You have stood in the presence of someone who in some manner images God, and like it or not you respond. Ultimately, all art is theological and, be it at a tangent or directly so, when we are in the presence of a person there is present as well something of the face of God.

Now, take a closer look at the drawing and soon enough you see it breathe, the contours of the face pulse and the features shift, an expectation forms and you feel that look any longer and that face is going to lay claim to you, worse still demand of you something you cannot begin to guess at. 

It is not so much that art has become once again political, that it now transcends both pure formalism and its opposite the baroque excesses of postmodern and hypermodern art, rather that art has once again become personal, with all the discomfort that implies.