truth to image materials

by Whitney Huber

Fractal Semblance, on view at Roots and Culture from January 18 until February 16, brings together photographic works by Robert Chase Heishman, Jessica Labatte, Alistair Matthews, and Liz Nielsen. As the curatorial statement informs us, all of the works are “untouched by digital processes,” a fact that, once known, comes to bear differently upon the experience of each work. Beyond emphasis on how these photographs are made, the exhibition’s title invokes fragmentation and experimentation with illusion and representation. The curatorial statement suggests that the redefining of illusionistic space is a significant trend in 21st century American conceptual photography. I remain unconvinced of these larger claims, but they’re not needed to enjoy the work. Ultimately, it’s an engagement with the idea of contemporary photography that rejects digital manipulation that best holds the show together, and that I find most intriguing.

How is it that refusing to use some of the newest of photographic technologies could be significantly contemporary and not simply reactionary or even traditionalist? What does the foregrounded use or non-use of digital processes bring to considerations of contemporary photography? In a world where a member of Congress openly altered photographs for posterity, what can we make of the assertion that direct photographic processes still matter in the realm of conceptual photography? How do processes impact the experience of a casual art viewer (and not just art photographers’ photographers)? Asking these questions might begin to illuminate works in this show.

In the first gallery, two works by Heishman, _IMG #3 (2012) and ­_IMG #9, captured my attention briefly – they seem a HEISHMAN_IMG#3little obvious at first – but stuck with me. These two works appear to have been made fairly simply, straight photography of an ordinary space in which colorful electrical or craft tape has been arranged in such a way as to anticipate the presence of the camera and the eventual photograph that is taken, an ultra-simplified Sandy Skoglund. But rather than painting and modeling a fantastical world meant only for a photographic life, Heishman is mapping out his elementary ideas about images with extraneous but tangible line and color, like a gaffer’s assistant after hours, discovering the mysteries of framing, camera angle, depth of field, focus, and perspective, once he’s gotten a hold of the camera. While not digitally manipulated (although provocatively titled with “digital” file names), these are staged works, but they’re humble, playful and quiet. Their surfaces are muted with details of the mundane: the

HEISHMAN_IMG#9

surface of drywall, old hinges, dust and dirt, torn and uneven strips of tape, objects and corners of everyday life. The quality of the tape lines acting in anticipation of a photo or even as documents of compositional play for the camera is interesting in a sweet way. It’s more evident in _IMG #3, because the singular rectangle of tape conforms to the framing of the camera, as if marking off the image in space through multiple movements and sitings, in advance of the quick, camera click. In _IMG #4 (2012), found toward the back of the exhibition space, we encounter aRobert Chase Heishman, _IMG #2 (2012) photographic image of the same subject as _IMG #3, a simple architectural space, perhaps a studio, with a bench and pot of flowers. We infer that this was taken earlier in time than _IMG #3, because we can see that the initial framing of the scene with tape has just been made. I appreciate the literalness and simplicity, here and elsewhere in Heishman’s work, that demonstrates the camera’s ability to flatten space while somehow preserving it – a Georges Méliès-esque reminder of just how these image-capturing devices work.

At the back of the gallery hangs Jessica Labatte’s The Alignment (2010), the largest work in the exhibition and the most visually striking. With this work, consideration of the process of its making Jessica Labatte, The Alignment (2010)strongly impacts the pleasure and interest that I take in it (the story of its making was delightfully conveyed to me by two of Labatte’s adoring students). This photograph, made in a single shot, shows us a carefully staged assemblage of visible objects and pieces of mirror that reflect objects and surfaces that are out of our sight. A near antithesis to Heishman’s work in regard to the effects of process, The Alignment is an almost virtuosic display of the photographer’s in-studio compositional and lighting skills. Part of a series titled Lazy Shadows, there is certainly no laziness in craft or care to be seen. Nothing seems to be left chance, which is perhaps why one’s first impression is that this must be a photo-shopped image. Imagining this construction of reflections as it stood in the photographer’s studio is a large part of the wonder of getting lost in the work. The precision of placement needed to make such an image without digital manipulation urges viewers to untangle possibilities for the positions of lights, angles of reflection, distances of objects placed beside or behind the camera in order to appear as fragmented subjects within the dramatic and somewhat baroque array. This is an interesting visual pursuit that gives a sense of vertigo, and one that undoubtedly points us back to the photographer’s patience and skill. As for subject matter, I am at a loss in the way that I am with works by Jessica Stockholder. I want to combine references, draw associations, infer theme or concept beyond that of craft, reflection, color, light and composition, but I’m left unsure. Why are we looking at spray-painted Styrofoam, a cinder block, a bedpan, an air filter, a cup carrier, some yucky food? These items are maybe drawn from the life of the artist – home, studio, or alley? – and seem to be treated largely as formal elements.

Bringing together the curatorial suggestion that contemporary American conceptual photography is redefining illusionistic space, along with the insistence that these fragments and visual experiments be composed without digital processes, I become intrigued by what is most contemporary about these works. I don’t find it in the play of figure/ground, reflection and opticality. While highly enjoyable, these challenges to pictorialism are, after all, the familiar concerns of the Cubists, Futurists, collage artists, of Steiglitz, of Kertesz, of modernism. They are somewhat “shattered remnants of art history” from the early twentieth-century, but I don’t see them washing up on shores so much as retelling the continued cognitive struggles we have with our tools for producing realism. The abstinence from digital processes is not contemporary, per se, and not necessarily conceptual. Most importantly, these art photographers enjoy making and exploring image structure in its material interface with the concrete world. I’m guessing that they (rightly) believe this is a quality of images that is being lost in the sea of Photoshop and Google images. In this sense, they are poetically stubborn luddites with a truth to materials ethos. No, it’s not the formal interests or the non-digital processes that seem to make these contemporary, but the quotidian materials and surfaces (craft tape, drywalled spaces, pink Styrofoam, fast food trash, bad floral fabric) that place these images in a culture and in time. In this sense, they represent and document a contemporary moment in a long-standing modernist tradition of conceptualizing spatial/pictorial conundrums.

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