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Nancy Burson
First and Second Beauty Composite
at Grey Art Gallery

Baby Elvis


Warhead I

from the 'Jesus' series

Etan Patz Update (Age 6 to Age 13)
Morphed Universe
by Ilka Scobie

"Seeing and Believing: The Art of Nancy Burson," Feb. 12-Apr. 20, 2002, at Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 100 Washington Square East, New York, N.Y. 10003.

Botox be damned. At the Grey Art Gallery in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, a curious crowd of people, myself included, couldn't wait to subject themselves to instant aging via Nancy Burson's The Age Machine. The celebrated 1990 interactive computer installation allows viewers to scan their faces and digitally alter their ages, ethnicities and (dis)abilities. Thanks to the artist's alchemy, you can view yourself as . . . someone else.

Welcome to the morphed universe of Nancy Burson, a pioneering conceptual artist who uses photography to explore racism, religion, health and beauty. One of the first artists to use digitial technologies, Burson's early focus upon faces led to hauntingly altered portraits. First and Second Beauty Composite (1984) combines silver screen stars Bette Davis, Monroe, Loren, Hepburn and Grace Kelly into an amalgamated lush beauty. The "Second" is a more angular and androgynous mix of Jane Fonda, Brooke Shields, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton and Jacqueline Bisset.

Baby Marilyn and Baby Elvis, photolithographs on silk, portray the infantile icons as delicate shadows upon pink or blue backgrounds. Burson's Aged Barbie (1984) humanizes the American trademark with "crows feet" at the corners of her eyes.

Untitled is part of the series Burson created of craniofacial conditions, including portraits of a friend's son who has a rare bone-structure disorder. Burson blurs what could be deemed as exploititive images with an unsettling beauty.

Warhead I is shown with a disturbingly similar companion piece, Evolution. The composition -- 55 percent Reagan, 45 percent Brezhnev, and 1 percent Deng, Thatcher and Mitterand -- is still chilling, 20 years after its creation.

In the last decade, Burson has often made photographs without using computer enhancements. The "Guys Who Look Like Jesus" and the "He/She" series, for instance, empower her subjects and challenge long-held perceptions about gender typing.

The recent chromogenic color prints of healers are not about traditional portraiture as much as about capturing the transmission of healing energy. The sincerity of this series is stunning. Outstretched hands and fleeting auras reveal an energy that represents the possibilities of hands-on healing.

Burson's 1984 piece, Etan Patz, uses her aging software to turn the missing SoHo child into a teenager. Still in use by the FBI, her computer program -- which she patented in 1981 -- helps to locate kidnap victims.

One hundred photos and multimedia works are included in this 20-year survey, which is organized by Grey Art Gallery director Lynn Gumpert with Terrie Sultan, director of the Blaffer Gallery in Houston. The show is slated to appear at the Blaffer, June 22-Sept. 16, 2002, and at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery in Greensboro, N.C., Feb. 9-Apr. 20, 2003.

From her earliest pieces, including the 1976 Self Portrait that depicts the artist at ages ranging from a wide-eyed young beauty to a 70-year-old wise woman, to her latest high-tech combinations of genes, immune cells and DNA, Burson combines the paradox of science and spirituality with mesmerizing results.

Burson infuses technology with hope and optimism in works that transcend photography to become beautiful, profound and provocative images.

ILKA SCOBIE is a native New Yorker who writes poetry and art criticism.