SARAH CHARLESWORTH Doubleworld
New Museum | June 24 – September 20, 2015
They descend from the sky, soaring—captured mid air—in oversize grisaille panels, caught in the brief moments before hitting ground. The clipped, cropped, and expanded newspaper cutouts of suicide and accident victims that comprise Sarah Charlesworth’s fourteen life-size “Stills” series (1980, printed in 2012) transcend time and penetrate a space beyond. Gravity pauses here. The posthumous retrospective exhibition Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld, nowat the New Museum, pools these and other photographs from the artist’s forty-year career that straddle the heady ethos of Conceptualism and the playful aesthetic of the Pictures Generation. She masterfully stages floating worlds, isolating objects on monochrome backgrounds to reveal tropes in contemporary visual culture and the systems of image construction. Her photographs are meticulously rendered, exuding a studied grace in their polished end result. The creation, or in some instances, the destruction, of the image is the artist’s ultimate task. Images duplicate reality, forming a false yet identical mirrored space. Charlesworth hones in on this reflection, beckoning viewers to peer in and gain knowledge about the real and the imagined in their world.
The fourteen “Stills” are just larger than human scale, enveloping the viewer in the simultaneous movement of the drop and the stillness of the captured moment. The panels present a particular choreography, as the subjects whirl, leap, and somersault toward death. Figures appear obscured by the motion of their falling, literally erasing their likenesses in these fatal descents. Charlesworth further blurs these anonymous characters in the gritty reproductions: the result of enlarging newspaper images to this scale. Some “Stills” resemble abstract brushstrokes rendered in grainy black and white. The works likewise call to mind Andy Warhol’s “Death” and “Disaster” series in their morbidity, cropping, and use of photojournalism. There is a perverseness in regarding, or enjoying, these moments of death, and there is also a certain helplessness in being cast as a powerless onlooker. The images are wholly emotional, and unnerving, especially in their resemblance to the headline images of the 9/11 victims jumping off the Twin Towers. With these works, Charlesworth eerily recalls a future moment.
The artist deconstructs time in print media in April 19, 20, 21, 1978 from her “Modern History” series (1979), where she presents a set of Italian newspapers from three consecutive dates. The first day’s paper reports the supposed assassination of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. In the next day’s paper Charlesworth redacts the print text and leaves only the picture of Moro holding the first day’s paper to prove he is still alive. In the third day’s paper she again redacts the text, which recounts the disproving of the rumor with an image of newspapers from both the previous days. This work challenges photography’s reputation as the embodiment of truth. Words are unnecessary. Charlesworth demonstrates the magnitude of mass media’s reliance on pictures. The blankness on the page is unsettling, but here the image recounts the entire narrative.
Newspaper mastheads and front-page images appear sans text in Arc of Total Eclipse, February 26, 1979, also from the “Modern History” series. The work documents the print media coverage of a solar eclipse as it travels north from the Pacific Northwest into Canada. On some of the twenty-nine covers, a crescent waxes and wanes, and on others a black orb emanates ethereal light. The blankness of the page frames the images, creating a space that resembles the vast darkness of the sky. Like “Stills,” this series documents motion, both of the moon moving through the sky and of the shifting vantage points of small towns from North Dakota to Ontario. Each individual image contributes to one total depiction of specific moments in the moon’s movement to partially block the sun. The opening and closing of the camera’s shutter repeats the movement of the planets in a solar eclipse, where the presence and absence of light form an image, be it the moon in the sky or its likeness in a mass-reproduced photograph.
Charlesworth toys with—and isolates—light in her own color photographs. In Half Bowl, part of her “Available Light” series (2012), shadow and sunlight dissect space in a photograph of a silver bowl of water. Light is her stylus. The half-lit magical tableau resembles a flag of clearly defined colors and lines. Even the reflection of the water is split into distinct sections by light and shade. The pieces from this series are defined by the rigorousness, approaching rigidity, of their tonal precision. This formality simulates the glossy finish of print advertising while at the same time revealing the oft-hidden process of their construction.
Other works are composed to create distance between background and foreground. In the forty small works that make up Figure Drawings (1998/2008), the backgrounds are white and the foregrounded human figures are dark gray. The universal characters are familiar: a Jesus figure bears a cross, a lithe belly dancer gyrates, an East Indian goddess statue nurses an infant, the chiseled Oscar motion picture award icon stands stoic, etc. Each figure carries out its subscribed, stereotypical role, where men are strong and women are seductive or maternal. Individually, these ingrained images are inoffensive. Depicted together, however, sexist and racist undertones emerge. In this grouping, Charlesworth asserts how images may assume unsuspected power.
The Renaissance-era reliance on iconography, wherein objects stand-in for more abstract ideas, is inherent in Charlesworth’s oeuvre as a whole, and especially in her “Objects of Desire” series (1983 – 88). The artist isolates a studded black leather dominatrix harness on a monochrome lacquered red background in Harness (1983 – 84). Though the prop stands alone, viewers may envision its wearer underneath the glint of the taut leather straps. The object, too, is loaded in its overt reference to sexuality and fetish. The diptych Figures (1983 – 1984) from this series utilizes almost the same image to recount two disparate narratives. In the image on the left, a shiny dress appears graceful when shown on a slender female form before a slick black background. In the image on the right, a female form appears bound in the same fabric, prostrate and helpless on a glossy red background. These juxtaposed depictions of the feminine are simultaneously vulnerable and disturbing, baring the layers of symbolism that often linger just below the surface in our contemporary visual culture.
Sarah Charlesworth’s appropriation and reconstruction unearth much about the way we see and how we (de)value images and image making. This show is timely for an audience that exists in a world saturated by images in the way it subverts our understanding of signs and symbols, which are fluid, moving, and always evolving. The world Sarah Charlesworth depicts is not simply a duplication of the world we know, but a separate world that insists upon the infinite complexity—and power—of pictures.