‘Matrix 268:’ Impressionistic obituaries from Veronica De Jesus at BAMPFA

Veronica De Jesus/Courtesy

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Those who find written newspaper obituaries too cold and unemotional may appreciate “Matrix 268,” a collection of 239 postmortem portraits by artist Veronica De Jesus, whose exhibit at BAMPFA will be on display until Feb. 26, 2018.

The drawings attempt to inject color and personality into memorial celebrations of artists, cultural icons and activists, whose level of fame vary from local community member to international celebrity. The portraits, drawn between 2004 and 2016, try to transcend literal portrayals of the figures and instead express their personal ethos through abstract color and shape.

In one drawing, David Bowie sits cross-legged, wearing a bright blue jacket and orange pants, perfectly capturing the flamboyant clothing and eccentric attitude he’s known for. Another portrait is entirely devoted to his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, who sports classic bright red hair and an eye patch.

Perhaps the best drawing is of Lou Reed, whose persona is perfectly evoked through the portrait’s shading, font type, and choice of song lyrics. He appears at once relaxed and chaotic, intense and shadowy — and of course, donning his iconic sunglasses.

But descriptions of these pieces can’t fully explain their effectiveness. The best portraits in “Matrix 268” are evocative and touching because they can’t be reduced to a set of words the way an obituary can — the drawings capture the feelings of the figures visually.

About 40 of De Jesus’ portraits achieve their goal in attempting to express the personality of the figure. Many of the drawings, however, strain to connect. For every colorful and abstract portrait, there is a simple black and white outline of a face below a name, showing us nothing about who the person was or how they affected popular culture.

Other portraits seem superficial. For many figures, we only get their surface layer: the commercial image. Dennis Hopper appears on his “Easy Rider” motorcycle, Michael Jackson wears a jacket reading “15 Number One Singles” and Elizabeth Taylor’s portrait mentions only the fact that she was very famous. It’s unclear at times whether we’re appreciating the artists themselves or merely their celebrity.

In other words, what we see are stage personas and acting roles, not personal lives. The exhibit shows us more about our interpretations and perceptions of figures than the figures themselves.

Furthermore, the exhibit has been mawkishly and inaccurately billed by BAMPFA as a testament “to the fact that each life is equally valuable and worthy of reflection and recognition.” But De Jesus does not reflect equally — some figures get much more detail than others, and in order to even make the collection, a person would need to have lived a very public life.

The collection’s penchant for celebrity-appraisal is most evident in the section devoted to “Community Members, Leaders & Activists.” This is not an exhibit about the equality of all persons — above an image of presidential assistant and social justice advocate Midge Costanza is a drawing, perhaps an inch or two larger, noting that 100,000 Haitians died in the 2010 earthquake.

The fact that 100,000 Haitians could occupy the same amount of space as a single activist shows our inability to comprehend suffering in mass numbers, especially when it’s inflicted in foreign countries, as well as the media’s imbalance in coverage of death.

On Oct. 14 this year in Mogadishu, Somalia, more than 270 people died after a double truck bombing. De Jesus’ exhibit shows the lives of 239 celebrities who died over the span of 12 years, maintaining a myopic focus on American popular culture. The inclusion of Haitians isn’t equality. It’s tokenism.

The collection has more to say about the modes through which we learn about figures than the figures themselves.

De Jesus’s collection of drawings will be on display at BAMPFA until February 26, 2018.

Contact Jack Wareham at [email protected].