To Feel Authentic
Curated by Akemi Hiatt
While the process and practice of photography has many pluralities, one can increasingly observe a recent incarnation of the form which directs a self-reflexive gaze at the mode of production behind image-making.
To Feel Authentic looks at the myriad issues surrounding the “surface tension” increasingly apparent in the politics of contemporary photographic representation. This practice encourages the viewer away from what one might describe as passive, “window-like” viewing and into an arguably more self-reflexive “mirror-like” viewing. By creating work around the re-use or re-appropriation of existing imagery, Mark Lyon, Chad Kleitsch, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya each address a contemporary concern with simulacra and deploy a visual language which investigates the simulation of depth in photographs. Their images playfully subvert the ideal of “truth” or “reality” often ascribed to camera-generated images and attempt to define the aesthetic relationship we have with the role of art and imagery in postmodern society.
Like his other projects (Posted, Stuffed, Swat River & Fried Chicken) Mark Lyon’s (Maybrook, NY) series Landscapes for the People, represents a sustained investigation into nature and artifice. On the most direct level, Landscapes for the People catalogues the use of landscape photographs as wallpaper in clinical environments. Adorning dentist offices, laundromats, and waiting rooms, the wallpaper seems intended to provide some sort of psychological escape, to serve as a “window” to an outside world transporting viewers away from what would otherwise be a banal, familiar space. The classically kitsch scenes of snow-covered mountains, babbling brooks, hot air balloons are, perhaps, “the places we would rather be”, as Lyon points out in his artist statement. Yet, the fact of their presence in these environments suggests a removal from reality rather than a closer approximation towards it, driven by the way in which Lyon emphasizes the two-dimensional nature of his subject through the process of re-photographing photographs. More than a catalogue of a certain, bucolic type of American nostalgia, Lyon’s images study the phenomenon of the simulacra – what the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard identified as a trend in postmodern society of accepting the signs of the reality as reality itself – by using photography to simultaneously conspire with and critique the idealized image.
The images in Chad Kleitsch’s (Rhinebeck, NY) White Box series are made while major art institutions and museums undergo exhibition changes, during quiet moments that reveal the spaces between artifice and reality. With behind-the-scenes access to these usually private exchanges, Kleitsch brings to light the techniques of aesthetic display and the politics of representation. Visually, the photograph “Untitled #60” articulates Kleitsch’s interest in the veil of the “white box”, since it blurs the line between formal and informal methods of presentation, although, as he notes, “even the installation processes themselves are aestheticized”. Indeed, a painting with yellow fields and a blue sky becomes a self-conscious, yet seductively abstract meditation on the aesthetic relationship we have with artwork when overlaid with a single sheet of bubble wrap. The resulting photograph consists of a single pictorial plane, but the transparency of the bubble wrap also allows for a certain degree of depth, reminding spectators that they are looking at an object. As viewers, we can attempt to penetrate the image, to attempt to define what it is we are looking at, but ultimately we can’t help but delight in the visual pun Kleitsch has orchestrated. He seems to relish pointing out these contradictions – the gallery space is a superficial construct, meant to condition viewers to view artwork “properly”, yet it also maintains an institutional hierarchy of its own. Likewise, an image like Untitled #60 can be understood as a meta-conscious study on the myriad issues within photographic practice, one in which the traditional notion of a photograph as machine-made and authoritarian in viewpoint is subverted, and wherein the flatness inherent in pictorial representation is not only realized, but elevated as a subject in and of itself.
“Self-Portrait After” comes from a body of work that Paul Mpagi Sepuya (Brooklyn, NY) began while in residence at CPW in the summer of 2010 and which marks a departure from his earlier inquiries on the act of portrait-making by placing himself as the images’ subject, object, and author. His process involves constant printing, editing, re-appropriation and re-creation, and as seen here, he often moves a referent from one piece and incorporates it into another. Visually, the resulting photograph is a collapsed document of time, space, subject, and medium. The viewer sees the artist handling his photographs, in a photograph of himself, which contains yet another photograph of him, framed twice over by the same room. Moreso than Sepuya’s earlier work with portraiture, “Self-Portrait After” is fostered by the reciprocal tension of looking and of being seen. In this case, the usual trappings of portraiture are remixed and displaced – the latter a term which Sepuya often deploys when articulating an overarching concept in his work. He describes it as the redirection of an emotion from its original object to another, or alternatively, an awareness of the distance between an object’s initial position and a later position. This shifting subject-object dynamic points to Sepuya’s interest in using photography as a tool to collect images and to explore the relationship to and among art objects. Thus the seemingly contradictory roles of the photograph are laid bare: is a photograph a referent for a moment or an effective substitute for that moment? Is photography a mirror which reflects our own gaze back at us, or a window which transports us to another world? If Sepuya’s work provides any indication, the answer could be neither or both.
In contemplating the presence and influence of the photograph on our way of seeing, it can be helpful to look at these photographs as precise tools which describe the world around us, as well as fluid texts which celebrate the medium’s own particular limitations and strengths. Using different methods, Lyon, Kleitsch, and Sepuya each demonstrate a fascination with aesthetic diction, engaging in an idiosyncratic, tongue-in-cheek investigation of image-making which confronts and questions the act of representation itself.
– Akemi Hiatt, Program Associate