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The question is not, who are you; but what are you in Brian Robertson’s newest body of work. We are, despite all our efforts to conceal it, animals. Animals, whose behaviors are determined, in large part, by a complex series of chemical reactions. “We’re blind to our blindness,” says psychologist Daniel Kahneman on the difficulty of knowing ourselves. Feels attempts to shed light on this condition by depicting the chemicals and proteins responsible for many of our reactions, impressions, and feelings. The eleven hyper-realist, black-and-white portraits in this exhibition feature the artist’s friends wearing their regular clothes against a solid black backdrop. The primary difference between these portraits and those of the 15th-century masters? The subject’s heads are replaced by scientifically accurate renderings of various chemical compounds. Helixes of estrogen, orbs of dopamine, and spiraling strands of testosterone emerge from the collars of leather jackets, white T-shirts, and sweatshirts.

Rendered at this scale and in Robertson’s signature photorealist style, the organic structures appear alien, monstrous, and artificial. An effect that echoes sociologist George Simmel’s observation that “coming closer to things often only shows us how far away from us they still are.” That the weave of the sweater, the fuzziness of the fleece, and the folds of the cotton, appear more organic and human than the molecules that make up the building blocks of life underscores the earlier assertion that we are mostly ignorant of what’s happening inside ourselves and others. 

The disconnect between exterior and interior, reality and appearances, is dramatized by the subversion of expectations and the scope and scale of the contrasting elements. In Gut Feeling and Cold Feet, sinister systems of nerves emerge from a sweater with an embroidered happy face and buttoned-up dress shirt, respectively. The uncanny juxtaposition of familiar and foreign throws the limits of appearance to reflect truth into stark relief. In a society that privileges sight over every other sense, it’s easy to forget that what we see is neither the whole picture nor objective reality. In externalizing otherwise hidden processes, the possibility of incongruity between presentation and substance becomes apparent and, along with it, the difficulty of discerning between the two.  

Replacing the brain, the organ primarily associated with consciousness and rational thought, with various organic structures, Robertson challenges the assumption that we are entirely in control of our thoughts and actions. In privileging chemical compounds and proteins, the viewer is asked to reckon with the biological fact that, similarly to animals, many of our behaviors are automated, instinctual, and unconscious. “Chemicals and proteins, reacting to their environment without our knowledge or consent, determine what we feel,” explains the artist. In other words, the decisions we make, what we say, do, and decide, even on the level of the clothes we wear, are byproducts of an infinite number of chemical reactions we not only can’t control but can’t understand.

That the people who sat for these portraits are friends of the artist incites the question: if we can’t see ourselves, then how can we see others? While the compounds appear to belong to the person sitting for the portrait, they were, in fact, assigned by Robertson. That he chose estrogen to represent the friend featured in All Wound Up or a serotonin carrier protein for the friend in Hedone tells us more about the artist than it does the subject. In Hug Dealer, a female in a paint-covered sweatshirt sits with her body angled toward the artist, poised above her shoulders a bulbous neurotransmitter, one responsible for reducing nerve activity associated with stress and fear. Whether the neurotransmitter’s role as a calming agent reveals something about the artist’s estimation of the subject’s interior world, the artist’s feelings about them, or their relationship is impossible to discern. In this way, the paintings function as quasi-self-portraits or perhaps renderings of the center of a Venn diagram, the space where one subjective projection overlaps with another.

While we may not be able to trust appearances, it’s abundantly clear that the technical precision employed in the production of these paintings could only have come from a masterful hand and the ambition of the ideas from a carefully cultivated mind. That eleven medium-sized works could incite so many questions about human nature is a testament to Robertson’s remarkable ability to synthesize complex concepts and render them in paint. When asked if he’s found answers to the questions he posed, he says he’s only found more questions. Echoing Simmel’s earlier sentiment, Robertson affirms that, “new insights always lead to greater mysteries.”