The Face of Evil is a developing series of three suites of paintings: Mug Shots, Evil in Disguise and Gangsters. The series explores the power of media photos of “bad guys” to provoke our fears and and reflects on the way they trigger our innate survival skills.
ARTIST STATEMENT by David Haughton, August 2016
We love mug shots. The newspapers show us the faces of “bad guys”: serial killers and wife-beaters, terrorists and animal abusers, pederast priests and gang-bangers, rapacious corporate scam-artists and nasty racist small-town sheriffs. We are absorbed in seeing the faces of the accused; we search in the bone structure, the expression of the eyes, the skin color, or the facial hair for patterns we can recognize as dangerous, trying to discover some clue that would reliably identify and warn of the evil within.
And what if we are told the next day that the face of the BAD GUY printed in the evening news feed, the mugshot of whose features we had mapped out in our minds moral GPS as the clear markers of evil, had been (we’re so sorry) printed in error; that “the face displayed had been a harmless citizen with a similar name – no, this face (see new photograph) is the real bad guy”?
And what if a BAD GUY went about dressed in disguise as a different type of “bad guy”; one group’s evil doer as the other group’s folk-hero? It is all very complicated. Our brains are hardwired for life on the African plain many millennia ago. The humanoid walking up the hill – is he a threat or a potential ally? The gestures of friendship he’s making – are they genuine, or is he trying to trick us into letting down our guard so that he can steal our caves, our families, our dreams or lives? Our minds have evolved in order to process these questions. The world has become much more intricate, but we ask the same questions every day.
I have been pondering how to make art that intersects and resonates this reality of both human suspicion and tribalism, and the all-too-human and all-too-real capacity for human evil. I have been collecting the faces of bad guys for a decade. I realize that no one series could articulate coherently all the facets of our reality that I want to consider. This will be a decade-long endeavor and will, I hope, result in several painting series or ‘cycles’ each looking at a different aspect of “The Face of Evil”.
Wilhelm Figueroa, director of the New York City Police Department’s photo unit, says there are three parts of a mug shot the NYPD takes after arresting someone: the front view and both side views. He estimates he has probably taken tens of thousands — and seen millions — of mug shots since he joined the department more than 30 years ago. “No one looks like a criminal per se. There’s nothing about a person’s face that says, ‘This person’s a criminal,’ ” he says. “We’re all capable of great good. We’re all capable of being bad people.”
— NPR, Hansi Lo Wang, March 8, 2016
Such is the enduring power of the mug shot to transfix, upset, tantalize. Is that winsomeness in his expression, head tilted as if wronged, pleading eyes, begging for understanding? Or are they the eyes of a lethal seducer, heavy with gang ink and ready to break your heart? Is he a common criminal or a living reminder of a larger societal crisis? For all those whose past experiences led them to see regret or misjudgment in [a particular convict’s] face, there were others whose tangled histories made them see only abuse, manipulation, loss. Mug shots permit us to project our own desires and fears onto an image that can’t talk back.
— Sunday Review | Opinion – Our Love Affair With the Mug Shot, New York Times, Megan Abbott, July 19, 2014