by Charles Schultz
CRAIG F. STARR GALLERY | JUNE 7 – AUGUST 10, 2018
The sixty-eight Polaroid prints hang at shoulder height, encased in neat cream colored frames that run in a line along the walls of the intimate gallery space. The lighting is arranged such that a gentle illumination spreads across the pictures setting the mood of the installation in the calm eloquence of serenity. But this tranquility is deeply and marvelously contrasted by the spooky, psychedelic, visionary images that Lucas Samaras produced between 1973 and 1976 with an SX-70 camera, from which the works on view have been selected.
Samaras’s “photo-transformations” are the result of chemical manipulations the artist made to Polaroid images as they were developing. He scratches, rubs, and scrapes the delicate surface of the print, introducing an aesthetic of controlled agitation that shifts the register of the picture from purely photographic to something more like drawing, etching, or even painting. Samaras was his own model and he appears in every image, many of which were produced in the kitchen of his Upper West Side apartment. The relative banality of that space is taken to menacing extremes through Samaras’s use of colored lights, props, and dramatic body language.
There are essentially two types of photographs in this selection, which was made by the artist himself: close ups of body parts—mouth, ear, fingers, eye—and theatrical arrangements in which the artist poses in his kitchen. Certain of the former are so eerie as to be downright disturbing. Photo-Transformation 10/30/73 and Photo-Transformation 11/3/73 center upon the artist’s open mouth, over-saturated with color and quickly calling to mind the howling popes of Francis Bacon and Edvard Munch’s screamer on a bridge. There is a strong carnal energy manifested in Samaras’s close-ups—very much enhanced by the artist’s vigorous interventions—that grounds his work in the physical body as much as it suggests psychic states of heightened emotion. Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son (1819 – 1823) is of close kinship.
Samaras’s self-portraits in the kitchen are so masterful it is worth remembering that the Polaroid company gave the artist not only his camera but cartons upon cartons of film to experiment with. Photo-Transformation 8/12/76 is exceptionally well staged. Each element of the scene is carefully constructed and the overall composition is incredibly steady. This is equally true for Photo-Transformation 4/4/76 and Photo-Transformation 4/13/76, in which the artist’s body is bent, blurred, and loosely scrambled.
The performative nature of Samaras’s Photo-Transformations and the fact that he is the protagonist of his own images makes this body of work an important precedent for Cindy Sherman’s highly regarded and on-going series, Untitled Film Stills, which Sherman began making in 1977. Furthermore Samaras’s innovation of disrupting the photograph’s chemical development is analogous to the types of post-production efforts that are the hallmark of younger practitioners such as Lucas Blalock and John Houck. For these artists, the surface of the photograph becomes a site for literal interventions and visual manipulation.
The emotional timbre of these images is at rapturous levels, be they agonized or ecstatic, and the inherent violence in certain of Samaras’s gouged and slashing marks is gruesome. Between the terror and bliss, there are many selves presented in these sixty-eight images. In his intelligent catalog essay Marvin Heiferman makes note of a new connection that this work has to current mainstream visual culture, namely the compulsion to take selfies and add filters. This body of work may be more than forty years old, but it is as fresh as ever.
Charles Schultz is Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.