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Points of Departure

New Photography 2010: Roe Ethridge, Elad Lassry, Alex Prager, Amanda Ross-Ho, MoMA
September 29, 2010–January 10, 2011 –

A recent show at MoMA titled New Photography 2010 exemplified a growing trend in art where new artworks look old. In New Photography, four photographers work with dated imagery, a dated aesthetic, and in a referential manner, restaging Alfred Hitchcock film stills, Cindy Sherman photographs, or recycling an image of Goldie Hawn happily smiling from 1970s. Newness is the one thing the artwork conspicuously lacked. Instead of judging the artwork itself and whether we like it or not, it is infinitely more productive to consider why it is that young artists are using various techniques to draw their viewers backward in time. Lagging behind and dragging its feet, art is finally beginning to recognize the turn of the century, and the change this historically brings. A decade late, artists seem to be acknowledging the 21st century by wandering, aesthically lost, through the visual tropes of art history.

These young artist’s whose work conceptually or visually reference artworks of the past can be classified into three distinct categories. The first are the “re”-artists, whose artwork can best be described with a “re” in front of a noun or verb—repurposed, reinvented, reinterpreted, recycled—and is the category I find the most prevalent and problematic. If the author died with Barthes in the late 1960s, surely the “death of originality” came shortly thereafter, beginning with the birth of post-modernism and the artists who embraced appropriation. The art historian Rainer Crone wrote that Warhol’s contribution to contemporary art was “the rejection of authorship as an essential feature of authenticity and originality.” While I find the current lawsuits that headline the discussions around artists like Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, and Shepard Fairey distracting, I also find the constant rehashing of The Picture Generation movement, now 40 years old, cause for concern. All artists—visual or otherwise—begin as re-artists, and part of the process of finding a singular voice is remaking what others have already tried, or from what others have already made. Art school critique rooms are filled with the valiant efforts of art students to break away from precedent, from their historical tethers. Remaking the artwork of a movement based on repurposing, however, should inherently question how pertinent this rehashed artwork might be today.

Two young artists from MoMA’s New Photography exhibition, Roe Ethridge and Elad Lassry, are self-defined re-artists. Ethridge, who “borrows images already in circulation” creates photographs of any subject and in any style. A pensive portrait of a fashion model wearing a crisp, white Alexander McQueen blouse leaning against a tripod, recalls a Vermeer painting with its soft lighting and delicate beauty. This photograph, titled Debora Muller with Tripod (2008), captures the mystery of the woman inside the frame, and like the portraits of old masters we instinctively want to know her. In contrast, another photograph by Ethridge, this one of a pixilated, white dinner plate layered atop a black & white, checkered scarf, lacks clear intention and therefore impact. Elad Lassry, who appropriates with more compositional success, uses borrowed images that are removed from their original context and placed within a collage of his own making. Brightly colored and framed in like hues, his images have the appearance of a vibrant magazine spread depicting a scene that is off-kilter. What is most interesting about these re-artists is the style they are recycling. Many movements throughout art history have been revisited or appropriated from, but most of them fade within a decade. Does borrowing from the 1960s and 70s remind new artists of the era they appropriate from? Retro in the 21st century is losing its implied sense of nostalgia, and is now serving instead a kind of contemporary need—there is as much comfort in time already passed as there is safety in art already made.

The second category under the umbrella of the “rework” trend are the artists making artwork with current conceptual ideas, but who do so using techniques borrowed from art history. These artists do not appropriate images, they appropriate techniques, and there is usually a conceptual reason they are evoking the stylistic language they choose. The painter George Condo, who currently has a 30-year retrospective on view at New Museum, George Condo: Mental States, is perhaps the father of this style. The New Yorker art critic Calvin Tomkins wrote this January in an extensive article on Condo, “Instead of borrowing images or styles, Condo uses the language of his predecessors, their methods and techniques, and applies them to subjects they would never have painted.” It is this mixture of new and old that young artists find appealing, a desire to visually transport and transpose our reality. The 21st century is an era of groundbreaking novelty, so much so that it becomes normal and almost boring. Perhaps our own time looks more provocative in the shades, shadows, and hues of another century. If we see it literally depicted in another light perhaps we can also see it differently now.

 

Two artists recently shown, Alex Prager in New Photography, and Mat Collishaw in The Armory  Show exhibition, work consistently with retro techniques, both casting their subjects into the language of another period. Prager, an LA based, Hollywood inspired photographer, creates cinematic images that recall film stills of the 1960s and 70s. Inspired by directors like Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock, and clearly indebted to artists like Cindy Sherman and Sophie Calle, she works with costume and disguise to create tense scenes of an ambiguous nature. Her images suggest dark mysteries behind her bright backgrounds, and hidden secrets in the mask-like faces of her characters. Her photographs rekindle notions of the city, corruption, and artificiality, and her work is about recasting the past. Just as period films are said to reveal more about the time in which they are made than the era they depict, her work says more about the appeal and influence Hollywood still has on Los Angeles today than about any past cinematic stories. The British artist Mat Collishaw, in an infinitely more interesting and successful manner, also uses a retro technique in his series of dark and disturbing photographs, titled Last Meal on Death Row (2010). Evoking the still life paintings of the Flemish masters of the 17th century, Collishaw depicts the mortality of death row inmates through their last meal. In an almost religious manner we look at their food with a sense of sadness and horror.  Each meal a vivid portrait of an inmate, they reveal a range of desires and last thoughts, and while some meals seem sacrificially spare, others imply a glutton-like consumption. Painterly, dim, and full of shadows with touches of illumination, Collishaw’s use of the Flemish technique creates a memento mori with the implication that it’s not just these inmates who are mortal. Describing this interest in retro techniques, the young photographer Amanda Ross-Ho said in an Art in America interview last year, “We live and act in the present, and yet it is the hardest moment to describe. The present is our ongoing, ever-changing moment of origin; a collage of everything.”

The final category of artists within this grouping, slightly segmented from the rest, are artists whose work documents the present as though it were already the past. Conceptually different from the other categories because they do not borrow images or techniques to illustrate their concepts, there is still a shared impetus and aesthetic behind the visual outcome of their work. Documenting that which exists now—Detroit, Times Square, Cuba, or vacant lots in Chicago—their work looks almost post-apocalyptic, or bizarrely futuristic and asks the question: how can our present look so much like something that has already passed? Their work documents places in the midst of great change, showing us how the recent past is a living and ever changing part of the present. These photographers seem to exemplify Lucy Lippard’s statement that a “photograph’s presence is based on absence.” Like Atget documenting his quickly vanishing Paris, or Hopper capturing the growing separation between rural and urban American life, these artists depict places in an ambiguous state of being, places caught between the history of their past and the momentum of their future. Their work is very much about the present, but it seems to capture the feeling of glancing backward for a quick look at what we might have missed. Change in the 21st century, as the stock market crash of 2008 and the following recession has taught us, happens more quickly than we expect.

Articulating this style are two artists, the young Canadian photographer Chad Gerth whose work was also shown in this year’s Armory art fair, and the American photographer Andrew Moore, whose haunting photograph of the Former Ford Motor Company Headquarters (2009) was the cover of Art in America’s January issue. Chad Gerth’s series of aerial photographs titled Empty Lots (2008), document empty building lots throughout Chicago. What could be seen as ugly photographs of cracked concrete and weeds become beautiful footprints of an urban area. Temporarily abandoned spaces, these lots act as a physical reminder of what was there, while still seeming transitional: space is a precious urban commodity. Gerth states of his own work, “empty lots such as these are within every city’s territory, yet they exist outside of their identity …they are a shortcut to both the pre-urban past and a post-human future.” Resting snugly between these two extremes Gerth’s photographs evoke our tentative feelings about an ambiguous future. Though in a less apocalyptic vein they evoke the imagery in Cormac McCarthy’s writing: “perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made…the ponderous counter spectacle of things ceasing to be.” McCarthy’s bleak and poetic words perfectly describe the photographs of Andrew Moore, who looks for places to photograph that are caught between an embattled past and an uncertain future, places that have internalized the changes in their facades. His latest series of photographs document the tumultuous state Detroit has found itself in, most recently, because of the historic decline of the American auto industry. His images are not so much of decay as they are of the death of an industry and the lifestyle it supported. Moore’s photographs also show a rooftop party, a couple walking down a deserted street, a man sitting alone on the porch of a beautiful brick building, suggesting that life continues, cities rebuild, industries shift, and a new beginning ensues. However much we dismiss picturesque decay now as indulgent, it’s to these great moments of transition that we always look back upon most in history, and the longer a way of life survives the more it leaves behind when it disappears as anyone who has driven through the south can attest. Max Kozloff said of Moore’s photographs in his essay titled A Planet of Relics (2011), “these pictures are of the moment, but they are also antiquarian.”

There has always been, and will continue to be, a strong link between what we want to look at, what connects with us as viewers, and what artists make. The trends discussed here raise many pertinent questions about all three of these desires, and the one constant seems to be an overall uncertainty. Though a kind of depressive cynicism dominated the latter half of the aughts, this outlook has since been replaced by a more temperate and pensive uncertainty. Speaking of Andrew Moore’s interior photographs, Kozloff wrote, “in these rooms, anything but cold, his subjects live alongside their pasts, deep within the uncertainty of their present.” It’s the ever shifting ground of the new century that has sent art sliding from one time period to another, from Flemish domesticity to pop-culture appropriation, as artists search, as they always do and always should, for the language with which to describe our present. Visually echoing McCarthy’s end-of-days narrations, these artists see “borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

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