PENELOPE UMBRICO As Isby Patricia Milder
LMAK Projects | May 13 – June 20, 2010
It would be easy to dismiss the overly explicit art historical references in Penelope Umbrico’s work as defensive; the actual material is composed of images pulled from Craigslist and eBay, so intellectual weight needs to come from somewhere, right? But that would be a knee-jerk reaction to press release language—“Judd-like” for example—that’s no worse than average. Minimalism does add context to Umbrico’s series of photographs, as does appropriation art (though the photographic series seem more directly related to Dara Birnbaum’s video art repetitions of TV images). Point is: art historical recontextualization of online advertisements isn’t such a bad technique for adding to our understanding of consumption-based representations. The aesthetic success of Umbrico’s re-representations, however, stands on much less solid—less Judd-like—ground.
The majority of Umbrico’s show As Is, on view at LMAK Projects in the Lower East Side, is made up of a series of work called “Broken Sets (eBay)” (2009-2010). It consists of cropped images of broken LCD TV screens enlarged to 30 inches by 40 inches and printed on metallic paper. The artist culled the images from ads posted by eBay sellers trying to unload televisions with broken screens to people who could use them for parts. Since the TV’s were on when the sellers shot the initial pictures, accidental digital color patterns result from the particular cracks in each screen. Despite Umbrico’s much-appreciated elucidation of the failures of technology and the beauty of the accident in this series, the pieces have a hard time functioning on their own. Alone, each seems as empty as the outdated technological hardware it presents. This is explained, at least in part, by the size of the images; in consideration of the grid formations also on view, it’s clear that each set of photographs only functions if presented as a unit. Unfortunately, the small gallery makes it hard to see more than one at a time.
“Broken Sets (eBay)” was recently on view at P.S. 1. Here, the gallery’s decision to show it with two other series—“Zenith Replacement Parts” (2009) and “Desk Trajectories (As Is)” (2010)—was a good one. “Desk Trajectories (As Is)” is composed of a grid of individually framed 8.5 by 11 black-and-white Risograph prints on paper. The blurry images show used office desks posted for sale on Craigslist and eBay. The cheap copy paper and the bad image quality are surprisingly effective means of eliciting the Minimalist aesthetic toward which Umbrico strives. Each featured desk is only a right angle or a curve when taken out of its original context, yet viewed together the old desks are also emotional and literal in a depressing, corporate, wasted-nine-to-five-life kind of way.
The grid is mirrored in “Zenith Replacement Parts,” a small series (13 inches by 13 inches overall) made up of little pictures of cardboard boxes containing eponymous objects. A playful jab at sellers who post images of cardboard boxes instead of their products, this series comes off most of all as funny. In the past, Umbrico has been very critical of consumer imagery. She has appropriated pictures, for example, from mail-order catalogues, pointing out the viewer’s projection into the image and the manipulation of desire. In “Zenith Replacement Parts” especially, and in each of these series on view, her criticism of consumerism is softened as she features the outliers and the runts of the sales game. The poor guy who wants to sell his used office desk isn’t a very effective villainous representative for the poison of unchecked consumerism. Continuity with her older work remains, however, in the viewer’s essential projection of himself into this stripped down version of monotonous online buying and selling.
Reconstructing the most ridiculous of Craigslist and eBay ads through an art historical filter is a welcome comment on the unbearable idea that this—old desks and broken TV’s—is all there is. But comments don’t stand alone in art works, and when your raw material is from consumer culture, the dance to obtain that just-right aesthetic is doubly tricky. The grids come closer to success than the larger images shown side by side.
PATRICIA MILDER is an art and performance writer based in Brooklyn. She was a former Managing Art Editor at the Brooklyn Rail.