Suspect Artforms: Lee Ann Norman on Photographic Appropriation
Altered: Appropriation & Photography at Edwynn Houk Gallery
May 7 to August 22, 2014
745 5th Avenue, 4th floor (between 57th and 58th Streets)
New York City, 212 750 7070
I have strong feelings about the word “appropriation.” It conjures negative associations for me, like anonymity, deceit, or lack of agency. My interests as a critical writer have often revolved around tracing the origin of a cultural object or activity, and I entered “Altered: Appropriation & Photography” at Edwynn Houk both curious and apprehensive. I wondered how the four artists in the exhibition — Sebastiaan Bremer, Lalla Essaydi, Robert Heinecken and Vik Muniz — might expand the conversation around creating visual meaning in an image-saturated world. When we see something, we put ourselves — our perspective, our knowledge, cultural index — in it. How might drawing our attention to the altering change how we make meaning of what we see?
Photography destabilizes the presumed “authority” of perspective in Western painting. Paintings tend to make the story of the image clear, providing nearly all of the cues for meaning making. Photographs often leave something out. In a candid snapshot, for example, we only see a portion of the scene, such as smiling revelers posing in front of a parade float, while the beer cans at their feet have been cropped out of view. Photographs emphasize the detail, giving a viewer more autonomy in constructing the image narrative. When we look at photographs, we often have to fill in the blanks. Bremer, Essaydi and Muniz frequently borrow images from the past, but how does re-casting historical images situate them in the present? What story can the image tell us now?
Bremer’s “Eye” series (2012) re-makes quotidian portraits into haunting abstractions by enlarging a detail — in this case, one of the eyes of famous art historical figures, including Arp, Ernst and Giacometti, among others. The meticulously painted-over surfaces transform the images from portrait photographs to hybrids that blur the boundaries between painting and photography.
Titian’s painting Tityus (1548-49), which serves as source material for Muniz’s Prometheo, After Titian (2005), visualizes the myth of Ticius, who was murdered by Apollo and Diana for the rape of their mother, condemned to the underworld where buzzards would feast on his liver for eternity. Muniz creates a tongue-in-cheek response with a play on words in his updated version. In Greek mythology, Prometheo is a Titan and trickster figure, credited with defying the gods to create man from clay. Using a collection of junk consumer goods like old car and engine parts, broken electronics, bottle caps and crushed soda cans, Muniz’s “titan” serves as a reminder that in the quest for material knowledge or wealth, man should be careful to avoid the ills of excess.
Although visually affecting, Essaydi’s photos from the “Les Femmes du Maroc” series (2008) leave me wanting. Her images imitate women in Orientalist paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, drawing inspiration from works like Delecroix’s Women of Algiers (1834) and Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque (1814). The Middle Eastern women were often presented as generic and eroticized, since social constraints prohibited artists from sketching women in person.
In the series, Essaydi’s women are draped in white and their flesh is covered with henna tattoos of faux-Arabic calligraphy — calligraphy in the Arab world is viewed as an art form for men and henna tattooing one for women, performed by women, often in harems or women’s spaces in the home. Essaydi’s use of the faux-writing suggests a level of access and familiarity that would likely be denied to men, and Westerners as well, since calligraphy is an art form closely tied to religious practice.
The backgrounds — also inscribed with sepia-colored writing — along with the women don’t create a convincing disruption to the Orientalist imagery from which she borrows. What does it mean to isolate these women as only (generic) Arab or create faux-text that signifies an (anonymous) Other? Doesn’t Essaydi’s continual use of anonymity keep the woman locked in a universal Arab identity, one symbol that is easily swapped out for another and a trope she aims to avoid?
Heinecken, whose retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art continues through September 7, is unlike the other artists in the exhibition. He culled source material exclusively from the popular culture of the time, such as magazine advertisements and television. His juxtapositions and re-mixes examining notions of masculinity and femininity, sex and sexuality, highlight the ways that society trains us to interpret visual information, making his criticism all the more unsettling.
In Recto/Verso (1989), a portfolio of 12 Cibachrome photograms, Heinecken provocatively contrasts various images of women. In one scene, a Chanel advertisement for red nail polish and lipstick sits on top of a photo of a model wearing an elegant black cocktail dress. A jagged, blood-red smear of the lipstick slashes across her neck and pools of polish dribble dots like blood-spatter on her face. Heinecken’s images make us uncomfortable not only because he is a man commenting on the ways women are portrayed in popular culture, but also because his pairings make it plain just how twisted some of our ideas about beauty, personal agency and desire are.
Photography underscores the ways in which a viewer can shape, construct and reconstruct reality: nearly any story becomes possible by mixing up the visual clues. In “Altered” appropriation breaks out of its shadowy shell — at least in my mind — and changes into a useful tool for re-making and questioning meaning in the visual world.