Musing over mugs

Updated: March 13, 2009 - 3:53 pm

In terms of insta-soul-searching, there may not be a better funhouse mirror of one’s own failings than someone else’s mug shot in the daily newspaper: There sits the accused, caught in the act of something outside the bounds of society; there sit we, with our morning coffee and our morbid curiosity ramping up to poor-SOB-glad-it-ain’t-me levels.

Few are so intimately acquainted with the prurient nature of the mug shot as Minneapolis artist Mary Gibney, whose exhibit "Head Shots & Found Faces: Mug Shot Paintings & Weegee Street Portraits" recently opened at the One on One Bicycle Studio on Washington. But it’s not just rubbernecking that inspired Gibney to paint these 30 portraits of obscure mug shots; it’s the idea that everyone can see something of themselves in the frowns, downcast eyes, and quiet end-of-the-line desperation.

"I’ve been painting anonymous faces for a while," says Gibney, whose mug shot project was inspired by her friend, songwriter Lianne Smith, who introduced Gibney to Mark Michaelson’s 2006 book "Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots." "It’s the perfect source for anonymous faces, because they have all this personality. They’re not hidden, they’re not putting on a public face like old magazine ads or models, they’re just captured at this pretty rough time and they’re looking straight at the camera with this huge range of expression.

"Some look defiant, some look sad or ashamed. Some look almost bored, in a way. Some are sorrowful, or angry, and some are cut off, like, ‘I’m not gonna give anything to you. I’m not gonna show anything. I’m hiding this.’"

The result is an anti-rogue’s gallery that recasts the harshly lit black and white photos as haunting mini-masterpieces full of color and warmth. For the artist ("You can get as much out of pain as you do joy," she says), there was a certain amount of communing with the dead, even though all the photos Gibney worked from were taken from 1920 to 1960.

"It was almost like having the person in the room with you," she says. "And something I didn’t expect was I identify with them. You spend so much time looking at their faces, you can’t help but imagine why they’re there, or what happened. You make up these scenarios for them, but then you realize that most of them were arrested, but they’re not criminals. Some were vagrants, some were drug users, and then you start talking to people who say, ‘I’ve got a mug shot,’ and then you know it could be us, it could be anybody. We could be there, we just didn’t get caught."

Jim Walsh also writes for the Southwest Journal.