Shown at La Luz de Jesus Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. April, 2017.
“Muzzlers” is a series of oil portraits Houston undertook over the last year, based on original black and white photographs from police records archived at the San Francisco Public Library, where the artist has long held a day job. She discovered the images in mug books titled “Prostitution” and “Muzzlers” – slang for sex crimes. Each portrait is a diptych – front and side views – with the accused’s name and alleged violation burned into the side panels. Although the series harks to a time when sex workers were “low women” and gay men could be charged with “crimes against nature,” Houston’s light and sensuous impasto treatment performs a kind of literary time travel, drawing these individuals forward to a contemporary sensitivity, revealing and in a sense returning to them what the original arrest documentation took away – their essential humanness. Mixing subtle shadings of emotion – melancholy, remorse, shame, even defiance – with direct looks almost painful to meet, Houston creates a reckoning between subject and viewer: who’s judging whom?
“One hundred years before the selfie,” says Houston, “photography was an elaborate proposition and the demeanor of the suspects at that significant but unwelcome moment of the policeman’s shutter click is uniquely unmasking. I was struck by the difference in expressions in the frontal shots – pleading or defiant – and the more withdrawn introspection in the profile shots. I took pleasure in painting them, and in the process of discovering and getting to know these individuals. But more than that, I felt a sense of obligation.”
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All oil on panel, 30 x 30 x 4 cm, 2016/2017.