by Joyce Beckenstein
Curated by Sasha Rudensky and Jeffrey Schiff
Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery
Wesleyan University, Middletown Connecticut
January 27 – March 1, 2015
The 10 artists featured in Picture/Thing, an exhibition exploring the relationships between photography and sculpture, unleash art history’s most beguiling trickster: The Photograph. Master of deception, distortion, and spot-on accuracy, it has spent decades as high art’s unwanted stepchild. As late as 1981, Peter Bunnell wrote, “There is not a single survey art history text available today that includes photography.”* Although the smartphone has exacerbated the egalitarian accessibility and self-multiplying capabilities that have kept photography a lesser art, the medium has triumphed in this third millennium. This intriguing exhibition shows us why.
Curators Sasha Rudensky and Jeffrey Schiff chose artists whose works reflect the photograph’s remarkable technology-enhanced transmutability. They challenge traditional spatial assumptions, wondering, “What happens when the photograph’s flattening of three-dimensional space into two is wedded to sculpture’s multiple perspectives viewed in the round?” For Isidro Blasco the result is a Cubist-like cacophony of angles and planes. His “Stairs” (2012) consists of a fragmented photograph of a stairwell, blown up into large and small segments then reassembled as sculpture on slabs of museum board. Pitting elements of the original photograph’s smaller scale against the real-life scale of the sculpture it sired disorients viewers as they shift between these two very different interpretations of space. Erin Shirreff’s “Monograph (no.4)” (2014), a series of five archival pigment prints, works in reverse, translating sculptural form into photography. Shirreff first makes painted cardboard maquettes recalling mid-20th-century metal sculpture and photographs them. After disassembling and recombining them by computer, she arranges the flattened images, halved down the middle as they would present in a glossy art volume, the “open pages” more sculptural than the fictional form they pretend to represent.
Anouk Kruithof adds psychic discomfort to the spatial mix in “Facade” (2014). Her translucent panels of plexiglass intersecting solid polystyrene boxes wrapped in plastic are grounds for a peculiar collection of photographic images: rows of men’s suits packed tight on racks; a man with a briefcase, a background figure pointing towards him with strange antennae; an African-like sculpture. There is no comprehensive narrative here, just an unsettling fourth dimension that psychologically builds on the disorienting translation of photography’s two dimensions into sculpture’s three.
Such hybrid forms aren’t new. Dadaists, Surrealists, and later artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg, were intuitively drawn to the equivocal relationships between photography and sculpture. And Bunnell’s 1970 MoMA exhibition, Photography Into Sculpture, introduced 23 artists, including Robert Heinecken who early on challenged art’s categorical genres. What is new here owes to the artist’s willingness to test almost any surface as substrate, and to the digital wizardry that allows photography’s materials and processes to drive the work of art. Consider Mariah Robertson’s “113” (2012), a continuous 64-foot roll of chromogenic paper. Suspended from the gallery’s soaring 24-foot ceiling like a reel of film hung out to dry, it amasses in undulating folds on the floor. Filled with Robertson’s Abstract-Expressionist-like drips, globs, and spills of photo-chemicals, it suggests a breathtaking filmic landscape, its implied flora and water forms bathed by shifting permutations of light streaming through gallery windows.
Jon Kessler exposes his process with a tangle of cords, motors, monitors, cameras, and manipulated images. In “Welcome to the Terrordome” (2012)a group of small cut-out figures set against a resort advertisement are positioned on a stand before the eye of the camera. It captures the unwitting viewer as well. On a nearby wall a live video feed of a grim Chinese subway tunnel gradually opens to a view of the fake Alpine landscape. The cut-out figures along with the viewer re-emerge in the film—a mash-up of digitally manufactured scenes. Other artists working along similar hybrid and process-oriented lines include Kendall Baker, Rachel Harrison, Leslie Hewitt, Marlo Pascual, and Letha Wilson.
The double take-away from this exhibition questions the veracity of what we see. It celebrates the creativity of a generation filtering ever-new technologies through the cultural realities handed to them. Today’s seamless hybridization of art forms in many ways echoes the hybridization of contemporary life: the blurring of racial and gender identity, the genetic and chemical altering of our food, even our DNA, and the lightning speed that mixes today’s (mis)information with yesterday’s news. These seismic shifts have us experiencing relationships and the world in the moment. Visual memory stored as visual media slithers off to a cyber-cloud as quickly as it proliferated on the Internet, memory lost—if we let it get away. The artists here do not. However confused, conflicted, or challenged one’s grip on reality may now be, they insist on the materiality of the image as a celebration of our being, an expression of our existence in time and our sense of place.
- Bunnell, Peter, “The Current Acceptance of Photography,” American Federation of Arts Newsletter (October 1981): 2, 6-7.