Reviews of Deadpan

Shamanistic forces probably accounted for my encounter with USA artist Paul Hertz. His exhibiting artwork, "The Holy Toast," brought to mind a toast, offered with a libation of mead, to the astral plane in Mark Pesce's San Francisco performance, "CyberSamhain," a Celtic celebration of the dead. Hertz's presentation consisted of seventeen (apparently the Cabalistic number in this series) square images of bitten-into-toast floating over wave motifs symbolic of growth and decay. Jam-like silhouettes of islands such as Cuba, Crete, and Ireland were smeared on the toast and highlighted by text pastiches from a Buddhist scripture, of the Anarchist's Manual, and of an 18th century Romantic novel about the colonization of the Americas, Orinokoo, or, the Royal Slave by British novelist Mrs. Aphra Behn. I wonder if Hertz is implanting the divine in cyberspace with this dizzying array of bitten toast, Uroboric swirling and Dionysian text as a solution to colonization and consumption.

Sonya Rapoport
from Leonardo Digital Reviews, 1995

Abandoned Beauty

(The title refers to work by Aaron Siskind, a review of which leads the essay.)

I ran across the 17 digitally generated photographs of Paul Hertz's series "Deadpan, or the Holy Toast" on the same day I saw the Siskind show for a second time and was struck by a superficial resemblance; Hertz's pictures are dark, intense, and a bit cluttered, and they seem to have relatively minimal subject matter. But in actuality his work is the polar opposite of Siskind's--as different as, say, postmodernism is from modernism.

Each revolves around a piece of toast, whose surface is the only thing "photographed"--Hertz scans the toast textures into a computer from a photo and creates the rest of the piece digitally, finally making photographic prints with Fujix printer. Each piece of toast has one or more bites out of it, an at first the series seems like a formal study in bite shape. But within each piece of toast there's also a lighter area in the shape of an island--Iceland, Cuba, Long Island--and within that are almost illegible text fragments printed over one another.

Hertz identifies the sources of these texts in his statement, but one doesn't have to know where they're from to guess that these digital photographs are loaded with content. The similarity between the island shapes and the toast bites suggests a connection between land and food, making it seem as if the islands too could be consumed. I wasn't surprised to learn that Hertz identifies colonialism as one of his themes.

Hertz, 47, a Chicagoan who lived in Spain during the transition from dictatorship to democracy and who's studied painting and music, has been working with digital imagery for more than a decade. He feels that with this series his technique is maturing, and the work does have a formal consistency and strong geographical-political focus. It also eschews the kind of unity once common in Western art. The harder one looks, the more open these pictures become--the more the islands seem like rips in the surface, like windows onto the world of references the texts invoke and which "formalist" photography is assumed to exclude. In his statement Hertz explains the "deadpan" of his title as "a Spanish/English pun for 'dead bread.' Being dead, it's toast. Being bitten, it's holey. You may expand the halo of associations at leisure."

Such references suggest an antiformalist position. The world's objects, Hertz seems to say, do not come to us magically; they're created by history, or human labor, and their consumption is part of that history. Eating toast is not innocent--consuming anything invokes the whole history of human conquest. The fissures his islands introduce are the rips in the aesthetic fabric of the best postmodern art, suggesting that there's more to the world than can be told through the language of form. Hertz's series evokes these ideas rather powerfully. But when I went back to look at the pictures a second and third time I found that, while Siskind's photographs seemed to grow in depth and resonance, Hertz's became flatter: their interest comes from the ideas behind them.

Fred Camper, The Chicago Reader,
December 20, 1996, Chicago
Copyright © Fred Camper, <> 1996,
Used by permission of the author, all rights reserved

Toast for a Voyage with Appetite

... The indolence of a slice of toast as the first mouthful of the day is converted by Paul Hertz's digital manipulation into a strange image. The pieces of toast have become portions of the earth, islands with names and surnames. The artist works with this image, providing it with an agitated metaphorical character. The nutritious nibbles have been transformed into voracious bites, sketching the defenseless profile of a series of islands with a servile past and an uncertain future. These islands, fished from a database of the CIA, appear decontextualized in a simulated tablecloth which undulates like a an ocean spread for obscure transactions. The waves of the cloth, drawn with the symmetry relations of designs of different cultures in mind, reveal the subordination of decorative motifs to mercantile interests.

The islands emphasize their accidental history by means of texts taken from Buddhist scriptures and other documents of the seventeenth century, texts which indicate and describe the complex cultural topography which has gone into forming a history of the history of contemporary avatars and ancient conflicts. A work which shows, definitively, one part of a daring process of creation whose significance expands into the screen of any cybernaut inclined to go beyond the placid voyage offered by cyber travel agencies.

José Luis Clemente, Levante (daily newspaper),
Valencia, Spain, May 17, 1996
translation by Paul Hertz