Multiple layers of looking

One beautiful head and another's questions
By BRITTA KONAU  |  August 31, 2011

WIDE-ANGLE VIEW Installation shot of Dan Dowd’s “Anna Hepler’s Head.”

If you have often wondered what goes on inside an artist's head, now you can find out by slipping into one. Sort of. Dan Dowd's installation "Anna Hepler's Head" fills the cavernous space of the Coleman Burke Gallery with photographs and three-dimensional objects that light-heartedly ask serious questions about artistic observation and the transmission of visual information in general.

A Massachusetts native who moved to Maine in 2001, Dowd is predominantly an assemblage artist who finds his raw material at "the transfer station" and imbues it with humor and elegiac sentiments. This installation is a departure into more conceptual terrain, yet Anna Hepler's head too is a found object. Dowd took a series of black-and-white photographs while walking with Hepler over the Bowdoin College quad. He shot from behind her what she was looking at, placing the back of Hepler's head in the immediate foreground and center of each image. There are some amusing shots, like when her head appears to be under a carved lion's paw or paired with the shiny, bald head of a random passerby.

The first of four installation components is a row of 14 of these framed photographs. Adjacent to this group are seven banners of enlargements of some of the same images suspended from the ceiling in a half-circle. At its center is a gargantuan gray fake-fur hat that resembles the bit of head visible in the photographs. The third component consists of three low shelves in front of the gallery's windows that support a group of human-size fake-fur hats. And the last, easily overlooked part is a small black box on the floor which contains a frontal photograph of Hepler like a reverse shot to the other images.

Visitors are encouraged to don one of the many fur hats supplied at the entrance and with this participation the rollercoaster ride of seeing really starts. Multiple layers of looking intersect and overlap, shifting in scale as well. From temporarily assuming the identity of Hepler by wearing a simulacrum of her beautiful hair and looking at the images of her looking at a scene, scale steps up a notch and we add another layer of reality in the presence of the giant "head" and banners, only to come back to our size with the multiple surrogates looking at a live scene outside the windows. Like a narrative within a narrative, or a mise en abyme of an image containing a smaller version of itself, looking and representation are always mediated, never without an antecedent. To view the actual portrait of Hepler though, requires proximity and intimacy — a different kind of observational act that remains singular. Is this the kind of looking we need to be doing?

Why Hepler? It isn't just her beautiful hair and shapely head that would justify her role as surrogate, guide, and curator of views. She is one of the best-known and respected artists in Maine, and her energy, curiosity, and continuously surprising artwork are an inspiration to many fellow artists. Her presence thus is not just an homage but also serves as a stand-in for visual artists in general, which occasions questions like the following: How do viewers inhabit the space once occupied by the artist? Who determines what we look at? Is unmediated observation possible? What is an artist's responsibility to share his or her observations? What can we learn from artists? "Anna Hepler's Head" does not answer any of these questions but smartly and almost casually asks a lot. As this is a new direction for Dowd, I am curious to see where he is going from here.

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Related: Treasure trove, Review: Be more Curious at SPACE Gallery, Traveling critic seeks art to review, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Museums, Bowdoin College, Anna Hepler,  More more >
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