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Suzanne Opton's "Soldier's Face": After the billboards

September 15, 2008 |  8:28 am

Opton_mickelson_am Last month, a group of photographic portraits set to adorn billboards in the Twin Cities during the Republican National Convention was yanked by the billboard company, reportedly because of nervousness over their military subjects. Suzanne Opton's "Soldier's Face" series (left) shows individual heads resting on a flat surface. News reports said that CBS Outdoor abruptly refused to post the billboards in Minneapolis -- as well as in Miami, Fla., and Houston, Texas -- citing concerns that pedestrians and motorists would mistake them for images of war dead. The billboard images were displayed in Denver during the Democratic National Convention.

A selection of Opton's photographs is currently on view in "Witness: Casualties of War," a group show at Stephen Cohen Gallery on Beverly Boulevard. (The other artists are Nina Berman, Farah Nosh and Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Times photographer Carolyn Cole.) Among them are examples from the billboard project.

Opton's heads obviously derive from Constanin Brancusi's emblematic "Sleeping Muse" series of sculptures (below right), begun in 1909 when the Romanian-born French artist (1876-1957) carved a quasi-portrait  of the Baroness Renee Frachon in pristine white marble. Just over 10 inches long, the  Sleepingmuse_3 asymmetrical little oval head reclines on its side. Between 1909 and 1924, Brancusi made 14 known works on the theme, varying the sizes, abstracted facial features and materials (including wood and polished bronze).

A number of Brancusi's sculptures evoke a child's head, a subject that represented a state of pure creativity to the artist, while others merge child and adult, creating an image he titled "Prometheus." These are the works that seem closest in spirit to Opton's photographs. Her vulnerable images depict the always shocking youth of soldiers who, like the Greek Titan who stole fire from the gods in Brancusi's title, have witnessed devastating power up close. They seem almost shell-shocked, caught between the fragile beauty of youth and the desperate gravity of adulthood.

--Christopher Knight

Photos: Suzanne Opton, "Soldier Mickelson, Fort Drum, NY: Length of Service Unknown," 2005; Stephen Cohen Gallery

Constantin Brancusi, "Sleeping Muse I,: 1909-10, marble; Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.