Curatorial essay for exhibition at Robert V. Fullerton Museum
September 30-December 09, 2006
At least as early as 1858, photography’s role in the West as an indexical marker, as pointing to some objective reality, has been in question. In that year Oscar Rejlander combined approximately 30 negatives to create Two Ways of Life.1 What appears to be a stage set full of bodies is instead a collection of separate images of individuals who did not, in fact, occupy the same space at once. Yet, photography has also functioned in court cases, mug shots, journalism, tourism, and family photo albums as “evidence.” Photographs have served as proof that a crime was committed, a criminal caught, a battle fought, a vacation enjoyed, a first step taken.2 As Roland Barthes put it, “Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see. In short, the referent adheres.”3 In other words, that to which a photograph refers, whether person, event, place, or thing, was in front of a camera at some point in time in order to show up in that photograph. For this very reason, a photograph is believed to function as evidence. The referent “adheres” to such an extent, in fact, that looking at a photograph can result in the exclamation “What a beautiful sunset!” instead of “What a beautiful photograph of a sunset!” Viewers of photography can get lost easily in the real-ness of the image, forgetting the subjective nature of photography as a choice made by a photographer to frame and interpret a scene, not to mention the possibilities afforded by digital technology. There is a sense that even as we recognize the potential for photographic manipulation we believe in the camera’s ability to capture a section of the visible world.
The work in p h o t o g r a p h y u n b o u n d literalizes, makes physical this precarious position occupied by photography. Robert Markovich, Mary Younakof, Matt Lipps, and Rusty Scruby manipulate photo-based images so that the material on which the image appears contributes as much to the power and meaning of their work as the photographed image itself. The artists highlight the tension between the objective and subjective elements of the photograph. The power of the work in this exhibition comes from the effects on the photographic referent of foregrounding the material, object-form of the photograph. The referent is unbound. It is not attached seamlessly to the photo paper, allowing the viewer to see through the paper and deep into the image. However mesmerizing the image might be, the material refuses to disappear behind the referent. These artists take advantage of the ability of photography to fool our eyes, to hinge between constructed fantasy and evidence, all the while preventing us from forgetting its material existence as a constructed object.
Robert Markovich accomplishes this by decontextualizing the California sky. These slices of firmament appear without an identifiable figure or horizon line, without a way to establish a sense of scale, and become enormous, anonymous color fields, imitating the smooth plane of the photographic paper and the gallery walls. The ambiguous identity of the referent and its abstract appearance make it difficult to get lost in the photograph; the viewer is invited to consider the relationship of the image to the material surface. The wall space around the photographs participates actively in the viewers’ experience of the artwork. Furthermore, the symbolism of the sky is also “flattened.” The grand marvel of the sky as representative of an afterlife, of hope and wonder, of natural disaster and fear, is defamiliarized and turned into a series of color bands teetering between two and three dimensions. What in much of the history of photography has served as a powerful allegorical referent has become in Markovich’s work ambivalent layers of color. The image of the sky is now an object.
Mary Younakof takes on the history of portraiture, traditionally featuring royalty, clergymen, and celebrities, but instead chooses dolls as her subject—dolls with alabaster skin, glass eyes, and clothing reminiscent of the mid-late 1800s. Younakof distorts the images, with sections repeated and bent out subtly into the viewer’s space. Such visual effects play on our awkward relationship with dolls—they often represent and comfort us, but they also haunt us as the stuff of nightmares. These particular dolls not only represent a child’s toy (commonly associated with girls), but also modernism and mainstream Victorian values. The distorted representation of such particular types of dolls suggests the complexity of an era associated with the technological advancements and social horrors of the Industrial Revolution, colonialism, and the so-called “Manifest Destiny” of the United States. Although Younakof seems to parody and question the tradition of painted portraits from the Renaissance into the 1800s, she also makes clear the influence of it on her work, whose monumental scale acknowledges its importance to western culture. This tension between canon and kitsche, fine art and craft constitutes a feminist intervention into the hallowed halls of portraiture.
Rusty Scruby cuts the photo paper into tiny pieces and reassembles it into a fragmented puzzle whose undulating and textured surface attracts the viewers’ attention before they can identify the image. The subject matter disappears, reappears, and becomes animated as a result of the spontaneous visual twists and turns, but one cannot ignore the obsessive quality of the construction. Scruby often uses photographs taken during his childhood as the source of his work, and the effects of the deconstruction, fragmentation, and reconstruction of the photographic paper leads to a particularly intriguing meditation on memory and, by association, history. The photographs, often depicting posed, planned (if only moments before) shots, are already constructed to some extent, but Scruby’s meticulous process emphasizes the slippery hold we have on memory. Past moments are always subjective and always tainted by the ways we want to understand them. Memory is framed by desire. Importantly, however, humans can remember, even if that memory is incomplete or skewed. We can and do write history; we can strive to bring justice to that history even as we work only with fragments.
Matt Lipps revamps the nude into a surreal male figure, with body parts unexpectedly melding and protruding. He appropriates magazine images and collages them onto cardboard stands, making reference to journalism, pornography, and fashion—the blur of bodies generated when flipping through the pages of a periodical. Lipps’ installation, Untitled (Appetite), is lit dramatically to cast shadows against a paper screen and set up to encourage the viewer to walk around the individually constructed figures. The photographic play of light and dark surrounds the figures that seem like a continuously morphing army of queer soldiers, marching to the beat of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” The objectified bodies of men produced for scopophilic pleasure are announced more decidedly as manufactured objects. In some of Lipps’ pieces, the cardboard stands consist of several layers. A clear view of the male body on one layer is interrupted by another layer containing intricate, carved silhouettes of galloping stallions or the fragile forms of flowers taken from a photography manual. The more blatant sculptural construction of Lipps’ work emphasizes the construction of sexual desire in traditional photographic images of male bodies.
Photography that is “unbound” finds ways to alert us to photography’s constructed nature without denying us the visual pleasure provided by the workings of a camera. These artists are careful in their handling of subject matter and material so as not to mute either photographic voice. As a result of such delicate balancing, the work in p h o t o g r a p h y u n b o u n d has the effect of a funhouse mirror—you recognize the distortion, but you still see yourself in the image.
–Heather Murray, curator
1. I am using the George Eastman House catalog record for the date and title of Rejlander’s composite print.
2. I realize this process is never simple and that the interpretation of a photograph is never unbiased. My point here is that photographs have been used in these ways, but not that such uses are innocent.
3. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981: 6.