The Austin Chronicle

Them There Eyes

Stargazing with Jason Edmiston

By Richard Whittaker, March 13, 2015, Screens

People visit galleries to stare at the art. With the new Mondo Gallery show from Jason Edmiston, the art will stare back with 150 life-sized portraits of eyes. It's an experience the artist calls, "paring down a portrait to its bare minimum."

The idea for "Eyes Without a Face" struck Edmiston during his first exhibition for the Austin gallery in 2013. "I wanted to do a series of small paintings that were more affordable," he says. Then one day he was driving with his wife when he caught the reflection of his own eyes in the rearview mirror. "I thought, 'Wow, that would be a great cropping of a portrait.'" It was a far from arbitrary decision. "There's a reason why, in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, they chose to show a super-close-up of the characters looking at each other. It really is the most expressive part of a human."

The couple quickly came up with 300 fictional characters and pop-culture figures, then whittled down that roster to a still mind-boggling list of 150. Quickly discarded were characters who are instantly recognizable, but for a different body part, like Bruce Campbell's chin or Voldemort's nose. "Perfect example," offers Edmiston: "Maybe I should throw in Billy Idol, just as a joke. He's popular, and it's a riff. But Billy Idol isn't known by his eyes. He's known by his hair, or his sneer."

With only "the distance that would fit through a mailbox" to identify each subject, the key is recognizability. Case in point, one character that didn't make the show is Marvel's Spider-Man. "Just showing his eyes in the costume, he's immediately recognizable, so things like that are a slam dunk. But then you get into actors from movies where it's all about their physicality, like a Steve Buscemi or a Sylvester Stallone. They've got very distinctive eyes."

Edmiston is coy about who made the cut, simply saying that most subjects come from movies, although others come from "toys, video games, celebrities in the news." His real challenge is to render each immediately recognizable from that thin slice, using his distinctive style. He calls it "ideal realism," which means that even though he "render[s] everything in saturated colors, high contrast, real details ... you wouldn't be fooled that they're a photograph." He attributes his superdetailed approach to the influence of popular artists like Norman Rockwell, and movie poster legends like Drew Struzan, Bob Peak, and the Hildebrandt brothers. He also tips his hat to fantasy king Frank Frazetta, whose work will be the subject of a major retrospective hosted by director Robert Rodriguez during SXSW (see "Frazetta Up Close," p.34). "They were all the golden age of illustration. Basically, the last 100 years of art was my schooling, all that kind of clean, poppy colors, strong contrast – things that would jump off the page. It's not meek or mild in any sense."

With two weeks until showtime, Edmiston still had 35 paintings left to finish. "I didn't go to bed until 5:30 in the morning yesterday, so I'm working kinda crazy hours to keep up my schedule." Fortunately, since each is depicted 1:1 scale, these aren't all his normal big canvases: While the biggest life-sized portrait is seven and a half feet wide, the smallest are only half an inch across. "I still had to do some guessing," he admits. "How big is a Disney character in reality?"

"Eyes Without a Face," March 13-April 4, Mondo Gallery, 4115 Guadalupe;

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