Archive for ‘Whitney Huber’

March 21, 2013

“a test for full system manipulation”

by Whitney Huber

Neue, a solo exhibition of the work of interdisciplinary artist Lee Blalock is currently on display at the Hyde Park Art Center through June 23, with a performance and discussion to be held on May 18, 3-5pm. Blalock’s body of work and website appear extensive and impressive. For the purposes of this review, I mostly avoided them in order to focus on the work in Neue as experienced at HPAC. Neue includes sculptural elements, objects, two dimensional works, video, sound, electronic and digital technologies, such as QR codes and animation software. All but one of the works are made in a palette largely of black, white, and gray, and a number of elements are repeated across works, which gives the effect of one work bleeding into the next. In this way, Blalock’s work makes the most of its somewhat awkward exhibition space. All of the work exhibited dates to 2013 and reflects a diligent and cohesive pursuit of focused ideas.

Text available at HPAC explains that Blalock’s work in Neue “explores the mechanics of prosthetics” and “how rhythm and movement can be interpreted through body amplification and prosthetics.”[1] The intent to consider the body in light of technology is evident throughout the exhibition. Most of the works combine a figural or interactive element with a more “technical” element. The poetic and critical questioning of combinations of the body and technology is more provocative in some works than others.

ctrlr.H.rt #115

A series of four sculptures (ctrlr.H.rt #113, ctrlr.H.rt #114, ctrlr.H.rt #115, ctrlr.H.rt #116)  of life-sized hands cast in resin and painted white sit within Plexiglas boxes alternately holding or plucking music box mechanisms. The wrists of each sculpted hand are sliced into oval-shaped parts that are rotated off the wrist’s center, reminiscent of Dadaist or Surrealist body/machine imagery. A knob projects out from the outer palm of each hand. But where is the prosthesis here? These hands, wrists, and knobs do not move and have no means of connecting to or extending the body. They rest inside Plexiglas boxes, etched with markings representing something like those of a heartbeat monitor or a seismograph. The four sculptural elements are accompanied by four QR codes and are exhibited alongside a video displaying two actual hands unfurling a scroll of paper (apparently used in the music box mechanisms) from what appears to be the mouth of the hands’ owner. The QR codes link to beautiful and provocative abstract figurative videos (available on the artist’s website), perhaps documenting a dance or performance. These images are aesthetically similar to figurative elements in other works in the gallery, but they seem obliquely related to the ctrlr.H.rt sculptures, and we are left to fill in many gaps. While intriguingly minimal and poetic, all of these elements combined leave me somewhat confused and unclear. The technologies and bodily interactions invoked point to body/machine integration, but the references are asynchronous (modern? contemporary? mechanical? digital?) in a way that is perhaps a bit too ambiguous. They just begin to depict what is more embodied by other works in the exhibition.

illustration detail

Blalock’s more two-dimensional works (digital illustration and drawing), some combined with sound and video, are accomplished in technique. I find many riveting details where textual language morphs into the language of digital code or in words written in chalk but effaced through the repetition of writing until they transform into images of some high-tech fiber optic landscape. Of these works, I am most intrigued by the drawings made with prosthetics, NeueBody Drawing Series, Nos. 1, 2, and 3. Yet, I want to see the prosthetics, or perhaps even make marks with them myself, in order to truly ponder what makes these prosthetic drawings more or less technological, more or less futuristic, than any other kind of drawing, such as a stick in sand.

music box scroll

What I seek most in Blalock’s investigation of technology and body is embodiment, and it’s ironic that it seems most readily available in the two works incorporating computer technology, Render Loop 2 and Stereo Test No. 1. Both of these include photographic representations of a human body that is not easy to categorize ethnically or in terms of gender. This allows questions of identity and manipulation to surface in a “higher” tech conversation. Render Loop 2 features a software program that allows the viewer to “conjure”, “kill”, and manipulate the image of a twirling female dancer and to control a “virtual music box” (unfortunately, this was not functioning – or was it?). An actual crankable music box sits nearby within an acrylic box, along with slotted scrolls of silent music that appear to have piled up and stretch down the hallway. This work is visually and verbally engaging, but the role of viewer interaction is not clearly defined, and the malfunctioning music box underscores the strange effect of the numerous music boxes included in the exhibition, all of which are effectively silent. Stereo Test No. 1 is a haunting video work – in my humble opinion, the most conceptually complete, compellingly futuristic and seemingly autobiographical work in the exhibition.

What is most compelling for me about this body of work are the implications for identity as technologies of the body move forward in unmeasured bursts and regressions. Blalock’s stated love of Speculative Fiction and interest in the “future superbody” and “the possibility of a body without race, gender, or biological deficiency” are most visible for me in Render Loop 2 and Stereo Test No. 1.[2] In this context, the exhibition’s title Neue, from the German, entertains a futurist polemic that is seemingly liberatory and potentially terrifying. My own strong attraction to the two works most directly engaging human identity suggests to me that such a possibility is, if anything, a distant future one that we may not be ready for. And, we certainly don’t know if its desirable. The subtlety needed to introduce such utopian/dystopian ideas about race and gender without causing offense or outrage makes me look forward to the future work of this artist.

[1] Hyde Park Art Center: http://www.hydeparkart.org/exhibitions/lee-blalock-emneueem

[2] Hyde Park Art Center: http://www.hydeparkart.org/exhibitions/lee-blalock-emneueem

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February 5, 2013

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.