Ann Preston's sculptures and drawings at Rosamund Felsen Gallery push their dissection of Expressionism (in the visual arts) to such an extreme pitch that they initiate a philosophical meditation on the simplest forms of human communication. This fiendish exhibition compels viewers to entertain the idea that our most basic facial expressions are not self-evident representations of inner states but inscrutable masks that conceal far more than they reveal.
The first half of Preston's quietly horrifying show consists of nine larger-than-life-size self-portraits: disembodied heads sculpted in wax, cast in fleshy polyurethane and set on tall pedestals. Like monuments to a megalomaniac who can't decide if she's terrified, heartbroken, furious, gleeful, asleep or dead, these abbreviated busts run the expressive gamut, portraying emotional states.
But there's something creepy about Preston's magnificent heads. You wonder if their expressions are connected to underlying feelings or if they're just eerie exercises, hollow shells hiding inner emptiness.
The second half of the exhibition--made up of four obsessive drawings, an even more obsessive wall sculpture and a series of photo-booth portraits--suggests a disturbing answer.
Diagraming propagation and extinction studies, Preston's chart-like drawings and modular sculpture trace the ways in which contagious diseases or genetic characteristics travel from one cell, or person, to the next. Despite mathematical probability, dumb luck ultimately determines whether one unit will pass its attributes onto those in its immediate proximity.
Preston's photo-booth self-portraits reinforce this notion. Inner sentiments and outer expressions are linked by nothing more than blind chance or theatrical manipulation. In 12 sets of four photos, Preston repeatedly goes through the motions of expressing glee, heartbreak, fury and terror--in a couple of minutes.
Viewers easily read these fraudulent documents as records of deception. From here, it's clear that Preston's three-dimensional self-portraits are also facades. Just where their treachery lies, however, is never clarified by this powerfully unsettling show of unreadable emotions.
* Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station B4, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through July 1. Closed Sundays and Mondays.