Elizabeth King’s Hyperreal Sculptural Portraits Confront Selfhood

Elizabeth King’s sculptural installations address a lifelong interest in prosthesis, clockwork automata, and mannequins—and the notion that an object (or part of an object) can represent something larger. Her current show “Compass” at Chelsea’s DANESE/COREY comprises two distinct bodies of work: a group of exquisitely sculpted faces from the 1980s and ‘90s, many of which are self-portraits, and more recent small-scale wooden limbs displayed alongside stop-motion videos that show the forms coming to life. The two series come together to resemble a kind of cabinet of curiosities where individual parts of the body, isolated and stripped of adornment, serve as studies of a fragmented selfhood. 

Upon entering the gallery, viewers are immediately confronted by King’s bald, mannequin-like portrait busts. Their expressive faces and diminutive scale encourage close observation. In Myself with Other Eyes (1987-88), forehead creases, neck wrinkles, and glass eyes are eerily realistic. On the other hand, the figure’s hairless, porcelain surface and hollow backside (which reveals the interior armatures that hold the piece together), reinforce its artificiality. The figure’s eyes—wide-open and piercing blue, the only agent of color—are the mesmerizing focal point. They are clearly foreign to the face, implants, of sorts, and bring to mind aspects of physical manipulation and cyborg technology. 

King’s multimedia works position her sculpted body parts as actors, revealing the potential for movement within the inanimate objects on view. The five-minute stop-motion video Bartlett’s Hand (2005), is made from 7,500 still images, and displayed next to a set of similar wooden hands resembling those used as models for artists. 

The show’s pièce de résistance is its namesake artwork: Compass (1999–2004), which consists of two carved wooden hands reaching for each other.  One of the hands is connected to a rod with a magnet at its base, which is repelled by spinning magnets below. The magnetic force causes the rod to vibrate, creating subtle movements in the hand. Like the hands in King’s stop-motion videos, these hands are disembodied and artificial yet take on a life of their own. 

Named for the navigational instrument that never stops moving, as the artist has explained, Compass brings together themes that King has long explored—namely, the isolation, iteration, and animation of body parts. Part self-portrait, part cyborg, each piece becomes a universal stand-in for the contemporary idea of “self”—one that fuses the the human body with its ability to be transformed by machines and technology.


Emily Singer



Compass” is on view at DANESE/COREY, New York, Sept. 11–Oct. 10, 2015.


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