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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue
ArtSeen

Lucas Samaras: Me, Myself and …

Lucas Samaras, Untitled, 2019. Pure pigment on paper print, 13 x 13 inches. © Lucas Samaras. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

ON VIEW
Pace Gallery
January 17 – February 22, 2020
New York

Origins and foreseen endings bookend each moment of Me, Myself and …, Lucas Samaras’s latest exhibition of digitally produced photos and photomontages. “My mother brought her dress from Paris,” begins a line of text that introduces the exhibition. “Grandma is holding me. I’m dressed in puffy clothes, face ready to poof.” The left side of the print that hangs beneath this text shows us this family portrait, its subjects smiling, Samaras in a knit cap and baby boots. The right side of the print juxtaposes this maternal scene with a reproduction detail of Philipp Foltz’s Pericles’s Funeral Oration to the Athenians (1852) in the top corner and, below, what appears to be a manipulated close-up of the flowery architectural flourish at the top of a classical column. Foltz’s painting can also be discerned in the black-and-white shadows of the family photo, on a fabric backdrop behind the grandmother, mother, and child. Samaras takes this image as a reminder of the death that awaits his grandmother in the future. “There is a tiny red mark on grandma’s chest,” the wall text continues. “Ten years later our apartment was shelled during the 1947 Greek civil war killing grandma in the lung.”

Installation view: Lucas Samaras: Me, Myself and …, Pace Gallery, New York, 2020. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

The prints on view here—untitled pigment prints on paper (all 2019), presented alongside 10 other works drawn from the artist’s long career in photography, assemblage, and painting—continue Samaras’s habitual use of computers and Photoshop to create images, along with his interest in the psychic currents of autobiography. Samaras’s backward glance at his own origins, as much as his intimations of a next phase of existence, finds him communing with various alter egos. Throughout the exhibition, Samaras doubles images of himself within abstracted or digitally created pictorial environments. In one print, a photo on a wall presides over a digitally manipulated bed, while another photo opens the tiny space of this digitally produced bedroom as if a doorway onto an adjoining kitchen. In the photo above the bed, an adolescent Samaras crouches in a sea or lake, his torso out of the water while he looks at the camera. In the kitchen photo, Samaras crouches in the same pose, a decade or more older now, his torso rising over the lip of the tenement kitchen’s combination of sink and bathtub. The bedsheets are rumpled (a recurring motif), as if one of these selves had just left the room.

Moving beyond a narcissistic restaging of this retrospective look at selfhood, the exhibition’s prints chart the transformations that take us from origin to ending, flirting with gender fluidity and an almost queer staging of the body. In an untitled installation (2019), beaded necklaces and bracelets hang in ordered rows on the back of a blue wall that bisects the main gallery on a diagonal. Have they been rescued from a mother’s closet? The boy-child playing dress up as the artist? They seem to wink at the viewer: they are proudly on display, but in their neat rows also imply that they have been put away. They align this exhibition and its adornment of the artist’s many selves with the feminine—with the maternal trio of the exhibition’s first print, with the dress his mother wore, all set in contradistinction to the masculine theatrics of Pericles’s oration and the destruction of the Greek civil war.

Lucas Samaras, Untitled, 2019. Pure pigment on paper print, 13 x 13 inches. © Lucas Samaras. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

Turning back to the longer view of art history evoked by Foltz’s Athenian scene, Samaras continues this playful, ambiguously gendered posing of his body. One of the prints that pursues this art historical thread thumbs its nose at Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) as an aged Samaras, with long white hair, reclines nude like the woman at Manet’s picnic party. If many of these prints make use of images recognizable from Samaras’s career, establishing him in the traditionally masculine pose of artist, this print makes it clear that his use of his own body sets him in the traditionally feminine pose of the model, as well. In a subset of related prints, Samaras makes priapic visual puns that recall ancient fertility statues and myths of sexual exploitation. Set in a garden, one shows him riding a sheaf of aquatic grass, the long green shoot rising upward suggestively. In another, a swan’s long arched neck curves up across the flank of his thigh.

The exhibition, which opened on the artist’s identification with the maternal and feminine sartorial, veers with these images into a view of history that allows us to imagine the aging body through a lens of quasi-mythical transformation. The artist identifies his image with Manet’s nude model—with both Leda and the swan. Samaras's images ask what remains of the self, and what develops out of it, in a body that grows and changes (and dies) over time. Another way he poses the question: Can technology—from writing to photography to Photoshop—capture the past? Can it frame it so that it makes sense? Can it help us understand, or even see, the future before it arrives?

Contributor

Phillip Griffith

PHILLIP GRIFFITH is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City. 

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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues