In a new exhibit, “Fantasy Composites,” the Meatpacking District’s Fort Gansevoort is displaying a series of facial composite sketches in authentic police detective style. But instead of real suspects, the sketches bring to life a fictional cohort of criminals conjured up by New York Police Department forensic sketch artist Jason Harvey.
Harvey has worked for 10 years in the NYPD’s Forensic Investigation Division. As a result, he has had extensive experience drawing faces of criminal suspects solely based on verbal descriptions from victims and witnesses. Branching out from this experience, he now has fanciful visages from his own imagination on display.
“Drawing what’s in Jason’s head, which is what he did for ‘Fantasy Composites,’ would be a big faux pas if he were to do that on the job with the NYPD, because he’s not drawing what’s in his head—it’s actually the opposite. He’s drawing what’s in someone else’s head, [someone] that is describing a certain person to him. I think he came at [the exhibit] from a completely different angle—more of an artistic angle—whereas he doesn’t really consider what he does during the day with the police department to be art because it’s so regimented [and] so structured. There are so many rules applied to what he can and cannot do,” curator and gallery owner Adam Shopkorn said.
Harvey certainly does not discriminate which types of characters to depict in his fictional ensemble of criminals. His faces represent all walks of life, ranging from bespectacled hipsters and well-groomed businessmen to men with ponytails and dragon neck tattoos. In an homage to Harvey’s daytime job, all 26 portraits share the same neutral, unsmiling expressions one would find in real-life criminal sketches.
“[The drawings are] rooted in reality in the sense that he takes bits and pieces of things he has heard over the years in real life and applies those tidbits of information to the drawings, but these 26 characters at Fort Gansevoort are made up, so there’s a bit more creator’s freedom in what he can do with the fantasy composites ... Some are a bit more fantasy, some are a bit more rooted in reality, but there’s a nice cross section of work,” Shopkorn said.
Shopkorn explained that Harvey usually begins his works with a specific feature and builds on the feature with imaginary facial structures and hairstyles. In the process, he develops a unique narrative for each character. Although Harvey rarely articulates the imaginary narratives on which he bases his characters, both he and Shopkorn are interested in another kind of narrative—one that the viewer subconsciously constructs upon viewing each portrait. Sometimes, the viewer’s responses to the portraits are more telling than the works of art themselves.
“The interesting thing is that the public creates their own narratives for these characters when they’re looking at them. You [would be] watching the show and someone would say, ‘Oh, that person looks like David such.’ Jason finds that quite interesting. People are creating their own narratives primarily based on past experiences,” Shopkorn said.
Although Harvey’s whimsical portraits bear an undeniable resemblance to his real-life criminal sketches for the NYPD, Shopkorn noted that his composite portraits often straddle the border between reality and fantasy and therefore raise intriguing questions about the plausibility of each face.
“In terms of technical precision, [Harvey’s artworks] are similar [to his work for the NYPD]—similar feel, similar medium, same size paper, same size drawing, graphite on paper, very similar technique—but there are some hairstyles [that make] you wonder, does anyone actually wear their hair like that? Or does anyone’s nose look like that?”
“Fantasy Composites” opened Nov. 11, 2015, and runs until Jan. 10, 2016 at Fort Gansevoort.