Stephen Wirtz Gallery is pleased to present dead men don’t look like me, an exhibition of new photographs by Paul Schiek.
Presented are 15 portraits of men re-photographed from 1950s-era mug shots found by the artist’s friend Mike Brodie in an abandoned Georgia prison. Brodie gifted the mug shots to Schiek, who then edited the original cache of hundreds down to a select few, cropped the images to remove all official documentary references while leaving stains, staple marks, tears and other signs of age, and enlarged the prints on highly reflective chromogenic paper to imbue them with personal and cultural meaning beyond their original purpose.
Mug shots are compelling by nature, and Schiek was particularly struck by his subjects’ brutally glamorous attractiveness, a blood-and-guts charm he describes as “the American male stench.” Like young actors posing for a Hollywood headshot, they smirk and leer at the camera with palpable defiance, collars popped on their standard issue prison shirts. These are haunting and seductive images that reveal the interplay between cinematic fantasy and real-life criminality in the concept of the American antihero—from the iconic movie rebel James Dean, to the mass murderer Charles Starkweather, who infamously resembled Dean, to Martin Sheen, whose character in Terrence Malick’s film Badlands was itself based on Starkweather.
Schiek also drew inspiration from Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, a 1973 cult publication recounting the violent and eerie history of a small, Victorian-era Midwestern town through historical photographs and documents. A formative artistic influence on Wisconsin native Schiek, Lesy’s book asserts "the pictures you are about to see are of people that were once actually alive," an assertion Schiek echoes in his comments on his own work. “The truth in the photos is these men died. Like all men die. Like I will die.” Recognizing the thin line that connects and separates these men from him, Schiek worked reductively to organize the photographs according to certain obvious visual cues—age, race, hairstyle, bearing—arriving at a group that drew a passing visual resemblance to himself, though the lives portrayed played out differently than his own.
In romanticizing and repurposing these images, enshrining them as icons of dark impulses, Schiek resurrects them as art objects. By utilizing them to wrestle with notions of the self, he stares smack in the face of his own mortality. What results is something rich and unwieldy in its dichotomies—a self-portrait created from typology, fiction created from history, and optimism gleaned from morbidity.
Paul Shiek was born and raised in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He attended California College of the Arts and currently lives in Oakland, California. In 2011, his work was included in the California Biennial, at the Orange County Museum of Art, and Hauntology, at the Berkeley Art Museum, curated by Scott Hewicker and Lawrence Rinder. Schiek is the founder of TBW Books, a publishing imprint that has produced books of his images and those of other photographers. His work is included in the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum, as well as many private collections.