Striking Distance

Posted on: August 19, 2020

By Amy Scott, Executive Vice President of Research and Interpretation and Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Curator of Visual Arts

In this second series of pandemic-inspired portraits, the LA-born Chicano artist and activist  Harry Gamboa Jr. explores how the wearing of masks—a necessary facet of public life in the time of Covid-19—affects how we express ourselves and relate to one another during a crisis; how we communicate without speaking and perceive those we cannot fully see.

These nineteen portraits feature students, friends, colleagues, and collaborators of the artist wearing masks both commonplace and customized. Though a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, age, and gender, the images share a certain uniformity, made against the same non-descript, white-washed brick wall and at close range, or within “striking distance.” As such, they collectively exude a sense of intimacy that is both rare and somewhat uncomfortable in an era of social-distancing protocols, where six-feet of separation is mandatory and anything less could lead to sickness, even death. Although visually close to us as viewers, the real people behind the masks remain aloof, most of their faces shrouded in cloth, paper, or nylon. This in effect forces our attention to other visual clues as to their identity such as clothing, hair and makeup choices, and tattoos. And then there are the eyes: looking back directly or out of the frame, between furrowed brows and crinkled lines, shaded by dark glasses or filled with what might be anxiety, anger, hope.

In Striking Distance, each individual gaze operates as an imagined emotional state, a shared human experience that transcends the other, more superficial visual cues we so often rely upon in forming our opinions of others. Yet if there is intimacy in these images, there is also an implied violence in their inscrutability and the ways in which the presence of a mask forces us to search for information about the individuals elsewhere, often in unreliable places and assumptions. Here, aspects of race, gender, and perceived social and economic status come into play, creating layers of difference or familiarity, empathy or disdain, that speaks more to how we read others than the people themselves.

Visually uniform, strikingly individual, and inherently unknowable, the nineteen portraits in Striking Distance speak to our desire for physical closeness and emotional intimacy during a time when that is both dangerous and difficult. Equal parts relatable and abstract, we are close to but also distant from those pictured in ways that suggest our perceptions of others stem not from those individuals but the biases we carry within ourselves.