Deborah Aschheim explores the tension between personal and collective memory

Dawn-Michelle Baude

Four stars

Kennedy Obsession Through June 6; Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, noon-5 p.m. UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum, 702-895-3381.

“Memory” is a tough sell in a city that constantly reinvents itself and obliterates its former identity. Yet it’s the subject of the peculiar and haunting Kennedy Obsession show at the Marjorie Barrick Museum. New media artist (and current UNLV artist-in-residence) Deborah Aschheim—known for her elegant installations exploring the science/art divide—has turned her attention to the game-changing era of JFK’s presidency. Although the exhibition has a finished feel, Kennedy Obsession is a work-in-progress glimpse of Aschheim’s larger project exploring tensions between personal and collective memories.

Hyperrealism emanates from the suite of 13 medium-format drawings. Sourced from photographic archives at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the black-and-white images seem to be accurate copies from a day in the life of the president.

Uh … no. Aschheim deforms the originals throughout. First, she blows up the photographs. Then she traces them onto Dura-Lar, a translucent medium that blurs everything that’s not high-contrast. When a particular face falls in shadow—a youngster, say, from a group of Canadian Girl Guides propping up their Chucky-esque doll on the White House lawn—Aschheim uses related photographs and/or films to fill in the obscured part of the original image. When that falls short, she uses imagination.

And this is where it gets interesting: In the process of “copying” images—the crowd awaiting JFK’s Dallas motorcade; the adoring female coterie in Costa Rica—Aschheim reinvents them. It is almost as if Aschheim is depicting that old saw from neuroscience—“every act of retrieval is an act of encoding”—which is science-speak for the fact that every time we recall a memory, we change it. Aschheim’s images are so insistently crisp that they’re suspect, in the way that dementia sufferers insist they know something they don’t.

The strangeness is in the marks themselves. In “November 21, 1963 (San Antonio),” for example, Aschheim outlines, but does not fully trace, Jackie Kennedy; parts of the drawing mimic photorealism, other parts are expressionistic, hovering on the verge of disappearing or coming into view. Upon closer inspection, a minute strategy of erasure emerges: Once the figure is modeled on Dura-Lar, Aschheim goes back in and removes bits. The omissions suggest top-shelf skills in draftsmanship as much as they do the dilemma of filling in or losing memories.

In Kennedy Obsession, Aschheim deliberately portrays events seared into witnesses’ memories—I saw JFK!—that were humdrum public duties for the Cold War president who narrowly averted nuclear warfare and produced civil rights legislation. Although JFK was the first president to consciously engineer his public image, he is absent in most of Aschheim’s works. Yet his presence is felt in the gaps or just outside the frame, looming large and imperfectly encoded in the collective memory of history.

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