Gregg Louis’s Rorschach-like Paintings Challenge Memory and Perception

  • Installation view of “Gregg Louis: Likeness,” at Nohra Haime Gallery. Courtesy of Nohra Haime Gallery and the artist.

There’s art, and there’s science. And then there are the places where they intersect—this is where the latest works by Gregg Louis might be best understood. If these colorful ink-on-canvas paintings, each one depicting a distorted, semi-abstract version of the human head, remind you of Rorschach tests, it’s not by coincidence.

After all, while it was a scientist, the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, who developed the test, his famous inkblots were actually miniature paintings. Moreover, his system—meant to analyze an individual’s personality through his or her perception of ambiguously shaped images—was based on concepts previously explored by Renaissance masters like Leonardo da Vinci. (As contemporary scholars point out, da Vinci was a champion of the idea that human perception is the root of knowledge.)

In seeking out the meeting points between art and science, Louis investigates similar themes. It seems particularly fitting that the current show of his Rorschach-like works, “Likeness” at Nohra Haime Gallery, is described by the gallery as a “creative experiment.” Like the famous psychological test, Louis’s works explore the boundary between representation and abstraction, posing questions about how the human brain responds to images that are, at once, familiar and disorienting. Some pieces, like Blind Self Portrait 13 (2015), feature forms that are fairly easily recognizable as human faces. But other works aren’t as clearly representational. The faces are, it seems safe to say, less easily distinguished in Blind Self Portrait 2 and Blind Self Portrait 4 (both 2015).

  • Installation view of “Gregg Louis: Likeness,” at Nohra Haime Gallery. Courtesy of Nohra Haime Gallery and the artist.

The use of ambiguous imagery isn’t the only element of Louis’s works that’s scientifically minded; if you’ve ever taken a statistics course, these titles will jump out at you. “Likeness” features “Blind Self Portraits” and “Double Blind Self Portraits,” achieved using drawing techniques that art students have long employed to hone their observational skills. For the “blind” portraits, Louis stares at his reflection in the mirror, sketching his own likeness without ever looking down at the paper. In the “double blind” works, he looks only at the blind portrait to create a second portrait, which he then paints onto the wall from a projection. For the exhibition, these larger “double blind” pieces serve as backdrops for the smaller portraits. 

Looking up at the portraits, you wonder how much one’s perception of his or her own self is based on fixed ideas—and, in turn, how much our perception of others is based on memory. Maybe Louis’s face reminds you of someone you know. Maybe some of the faces are more easily distinguishable to you than to the person standing next to you, or maybe it’s the other way around. Who can say definitively? That’s the whole point of Rorschach testing—and of “Likeness.”

Bridget Gleeson

Gregg Louis: Likeness” is on view at Nohra Haime Gallery, New York, Nov. 17–Dec. 31, 2015.

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