Interventionsby Millie Christie-Dervaux
YANCEY RICHARDSON | JULY 11 – AUGUST 24, 2018
One of the prints featured in the show is a photograph by John Baldessari of a parking lot in his hometown, National City, CA. A white circle covers roughly a quarter of the image, obscuring the rich blue sky and the paved asphalt that Baldessari originally photographed.
Baldessari is one of the twenty four artists featured in Interventions, an exhibition that explores what happens to a photograph when it is altered in some way—whether in the moment that the photograph is taken, while processing the negative or after the picture has developed and printed. “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it,” reads the show’s epigraph, by American artist Jasper Johns.
Rather than taking away detail from the picture, Baldessari’s paint adds intensity and depth to the photograph. The negative space acts as presence. By deliberately obscuring the subject of the photograph Baldessari confuses what we expect of photographs: that they will show us what is there.
“For opacity is not the obscure,” wrote the philosopher and poet Edouard Glissant, “though it is possible for it to be so and be accepted as such.” Glissant was speaking of the right for opacity in terms of personhood: that one should not have to be “understandable” or “legible” within Western norms to be understood as human and exist with dignity and freedom. And while a person’s humanity and the representation of their humanity are two different things, I do think the framework can also be applied to what we expect of photography, as the practice has developed in the Western canon: that it should reveal, shed light on, elucidate the subject, rather than blur, complicate, or cover it with paint.
There are many photographs in the show that deal with the artist’s intervention in the photographic process—either by shaping photographic pigment and paper into a topographical installation like the work of artist Alyson Shotz, or alternatively by scraping, burning, and otherwise corroding the photographic paper to create violent, abstract prints, like Marco Breuer. The most compelling question that the show offers, though, is on the symbiotic relationship between the subject’s body and the photograph’s body—explored, for the most part, through works in which the artist has altered the picture after it has been printed. For example, Untitled (Nude), a black and white photograph by Joseph Maida, depicts the slender trunk of a body, curving elegantly from the rib cage down to the top of the subject’s thighs. Upon closer look, the photograph (and the body) is composed of two different images: the picture of the chest and upper rib cage is attached to a separate picture of the belly and the legs. In the top half, the shadow of a breast. In the bottom half, the tip of a penis peeks out from between the thighs.
If, as Roland Barthes wrote, photography is the “longing to inhabit” through observation, then Maida’s Untitled (Nude) is the physical embodiment of that longing. Maida’s joined photograph creates a continuous, delicate, and erotic body, where its apparent fragmentation is actually what makes the photograph, and the body pictured, complete. The photograph subverts the age-old question, “Is it a woman? Is it a man?” that has too often been weaponized against people whose bodies don’t conform to cissexist norms (wherein people whose bodies don’t fit into traditional “male” or “female” gender binary are alienated, fetishized, and often harmed for their difference), and instead asks: What can a body be when it is free?
Similar to the way Maida questions what the subject’s body can be by playing with the photograph’s physical material, many of the show’s works anchor the medium in a tactile practice rather than one restricted to the eye and intellect. Mickalene Thomas’s collage, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires #5—an adaptation of Edouard Manet’s famous painting—features three black women covered in jewelry and bright fabric, sitting in a studio. Thomas’s collage pulls from craft and folk art vernaculars, and becomes a mosaic of colored construction paper, cardboard, and rhinestones that do more than just send up the visual tropes of the Western and European painting canon.
Thomas cuts the photographs of her subjects into rough shards, and layers them over colored construction paper, often using cardboard and rhinestones to create a sort of mosaic, or puzzle photograph. The effect is that of seeing the subjects through a broken glass pane, through a shattered mirror, or perhaps in a dream—and they too, are looking onto us from the security of their room. “I wanted to break up this wholeness,” Thomas has said of another series of collages she made, more cubist in nature. And she achieves a similar thing here—the women in the photograph are impossible to fully apprehend, scattered and assembled in their various parts. They are as dense and layered as the materials that the collage is composed of. Here too, the photograph gains in what the eye cannot see.
There are many strong works in the show. It’s a subtle and memorable success.
Millie Christie-Dervaux is a writer, photographer, and editor based in New York.