Visual Arts

Instant Immortality

No matter how hard we attempt to extend life, impermanence just isn't in the cards. The jury's out on cryogenics, and all the vitamins in the world won't stop you from eventually becoming worm food (personally, I'll skip that and get cremated instead). But most of us will live on in family photographs — and some will even be worth a museum exhibition.

Just look at Stéphane Janssen and R. Michael Johns.

In 1983, Janssen, a lifelong art collector from Belgium (he settled in Scottsdale in 1988), commissioned Belgian photographer Stefan De Jaeger to shoot Polaroid portrait collages of his family. Among the upbeat, conversational and beautiful works were separate and dual portraits of Janssen and his partner, Johns. The lineup eventually grew to include extraordinary portraits of heavy-hitting artists like the master of creep, Joel-Peter Witkin, and European CoBrA avant-gardists Pierre Alechinsky and Karel Appel.

Then Johns was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1988. Portraits of the dying man continued. Five years later, Johns died. Janssen was obviously crushed (he continues to mourn deeply, more than a decade later) but thankful for the deeply personal imprints of what was life.

The essence of art's immortality drives the ASU Art Museum's wonderfully curated "Connivences: Stefan De Jaeger/Stéphane Janssen: A History of Art, Family and Friends," a collection of De Jaeger portraits spanning 20 years, as well as other art owned by Janssen.

The trippy collages provoke an unspoken dialogue that encouraged me to gaze a little longer. Scales are skewed. Focal lengths changed. Angles altered with avant-garde perspectives. Most importantly, there are no filler images. Each individual picture serves the important purpose of rendering the sitter's entire likeness.

The exhibit demands patience and is best interpreted with a Where's Waldo? viewing approach, because the collages contain anywhere from 30 to 238 Polaroids. Traditional portraiture's most important aspect, the face, is often purposely out of focus. This is especially true in the haunting depiction of painter Fred Bervoets in his Antwerp studio. Bervoets, who looks like Grizzly Adams, is wonderfully captured by De Jaeger, who used intelligent indoor lighting and covered his subject from neck to ankle in mud-colored paints.

The show also celebrates Janssen's life as an art collector, with works by 16 artists, including Witkin, narrative photographer Duane Michals and the late Native American painter Fritz Scholder, who spent most of his career in Scottsdale. The first instance of a Janssen-purchased work that hangs next to a De Jaeger collage portrait of that particular artist is Smoke Signals by Anthony Giocolea. The mixed-media work on Mylar by the openly gay, Cuban-American artist explores the theme of child sexuality with abstract nude boys dancing around a fire filled with luminescent faux diamonds.

De Jaeger's understanding of his subjects and their personas is again evident in his portrait of Giocolea. In the middle of the saturated, sexy, red collage, an open-mouthed, wig-wearing Giocolea clutches a banana with his right hand. His left hand perversely drapes a cluster of grapes over a young boy who is lying down. The boy is actually Giocolea, whose natural babyface gives him the appearance of a minor. The work is made more perverse because the "adult" Giocolea is posed in a nod to Caravaggio's controversial and homoerotic Baroque-era painting, Il Fruttaiuolo/Boy with a Basket of Fruit.

The individual and dual portraits of Janssen and Johns shot during the five-year period between diagnosis and death are especially stirring. One of the last portraits of Johns, Stéphane and Michael in Their House in Santa Fe, is the only instance in the show where De Jaeger mixes the two faces together. The abstract portrait shows Janssen and a bare-chested Johns with a background-encompassing Jean Dubuffet painting. I felt especially moved by this work and the idea that the two truly are one and will remain together as long as the photographs exist.

As the exhibit continues upstairs in the Top Gallery, a wall of black-and-white facsimiles greets visitors. In the spirit of "Connivences," the museum created an interactive display where viewers can leave behind proof of their visits by generating a printout using a flatbed scanner. Though the execution of the cheesy-looking paper copies showing keys, cell phones and eyeglasses doesn't quite work, the idea of provoking an interactive dialogue is fantastic.

Despite this hiccup, the rock star lineup of artists and De Jaeger's riveting Polaroid patchworks make this show well worth a lengthy visit.