28th October 2016 – Fundació Foto Colectania, Barcelona

Barcelona has a fine track record for promoting and exhibiting photography and there are a number of venues in the city which house permanant collections and mount regular exhibitions.  One such is the Fundacio Foto Colectiana; I visited their most recent exhibition in October, a joint show comprising work by

  • Catherine Balet
  • Mishka Henner
  • Michael Mandiberg
  • Stephanie Solinas
  • Doug Rickard

Catherine Balet’s idea for “Looking for the Masters in Ricardos Golden Shoes” has its beginnings in the breakfast attire of her friend Ricardo, with whom she was attending the Arles Photo Festival.  Wearing a striped tee shirt he once again reminded her of his resemblance to Picasso and their wish to recreate the Doisneau photograph of the painter with loaves for fingers.  This book is the realisation of that idea and those that followed, resulting in a volume of portraits with Ricardo as the model in homages to the great photographers.

 

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After Elliot Erwitt, with terrier and Golden Shoes

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After Annie Leibovitz

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After Diane Arbus

I had the opportunity to look through the exhibition copy of the book during my visit and to read the introduction.  It seems that the original idea was expanded through publication of successive images in the same vein on social media which, having been well received, encouraged the photographer and model to ‘adopt a more professional approach’ and publish this book. The introduction then attempts to place the work in the context of transforming social relations and examines…

“…how the appropriation of images on the internet and the process of creating self-iconographic representations and experiencing other people’s reality has changed the way we use and respond to photography”

My feeling is that as intention this is plausible but insincere.  It seems far more likely that the two of them had a good idea, which seemed like fun so they decided to play it out.  The series most probably developed along a path which was determined largely by Ricardo’s undoubted skill and plasticity in emulating a well known photograph in a convincing fashion. But then its equally possible that the idea developed as the series progressed and they ended up in the realisation that they were working within an established meme.

For me the book works simply as an amusing, well executed series of imitative images. I didn’t get tired of the fundamental premise as the pages turned since each one was engaging in its own right.  Balet’s assertions and interpretations concerning the meanings and purpose of the content seem to pale beside the obviously lighthearted and wry results.  No need to complicate matters, it’s an enjoyable and worthwhile endeavor without needing any justification.

I was interested to learn that the project was a ‘slow-burner’, having begun its path to publication some years ago as a kind of joke between friends and that it travelled through the intermediate phase of Facebook exposure before, suitably heartened by the popular approval, Balet pursued the idea to its final form.

Miska Henner’s work “Less Americains” is a reworking of the Robert Frank book which migrates the linguistic twist of the title into the images themselves by eliminating segments of the photographs and replacing them with paper-white – hence the ‘Less’ reference. He employs the same device in the introduction, removing what appear to be random letters which has the effect of rendering the text largely unreadable.

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Miska Henner “Less Americains” Introduction

But I did some internetting and discovered that Henner’s “Introduction” is just the original by Jack Kerouac, subjected to the scalpel treatment.

 

Image result for less americains "mishka henner"Image result for less americains "mishka henner"

This is the result.  In the above image Mishka has removed all elements save the hats and the flag.  I’ve placed the original adjacent to illustrate the technique.

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In the above three images (and in most of the others) the faces are excised along with certain limbs.  The work is currently on show in its entireity in New York at the Silverstein gallery and the press release tells us:

“Inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s audacious erasure of a Willem de Kooning drawing in 1953, Henner appropriated the 83 images from Robert Frank’s iconic book The Americans (first published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in France as Les Américains) and digitally erased much of the original content, leaving blank areas where once there were faces, buildings, and landscapes. The work becomes a contemporary composite belonging to our digital age; a kind of new portrait of American society emerges, conjuring up notions of missing data and lost image files, asking the psychological question of how we remember these famous images and how our relationship to them and to the medium of photography today differs from that of the past. 

“…so I plunged into those mysterious details, scalpel in hand, searching for my own signs and symbols in the smooth, paper thin surface of America.” – Mishka Henner, 2013”

Anon n.d. Mishka Henner – Exhibitions – Bruce Silverstein. Available at: <http://www.brucesilverstein.com/exhibitions/mishka-henner-less-americans&gt; [Accessed 24 Nov. 2016].

In some cases Henner seems to have highlighted those ‘signs and symbols’ by removing the other parts, leaving for example the mens’ hats and the American flag.  In others the signs or symbols themselves have been removed, leaving an image devoid of the elements for which he searched. He has done this in all eighty-three of the photographs Frank included in his book but I wonder if such slavish completionism was warranted. I get it, Mishka – it’s an interesting reflection on the original book and what made the images so American – but by the tenth or twelfth rendition I found that my interest was waning and the remaining sixty-odd did little to enhance it. Henner does not produce any new photography by manipulating Frank’s work but he is able to make an observation on it and show something of what he has seen to the viewer, but it is a somewhat singular observation; that old photographs contain elements which, viewed from the present, seem to be representative of their time.  

This type of work is referred to as ‘Appropriation and Erasure’ as I have discovered through a review in The Guardian – actually the author is reviewing the British Journal of Photography piece on “Less Americains”: 

In 1980, Sherrie Levine, one of the pioneers of appropriation, exhibited After Walker Evans, in which she rephotographed Evans’s famous portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs from his catalogue First and Last. Levine did not erase, or add, anything, she simply presented the copied photograph as her own work and went so far as to copyright it as such. This was both a barefaced artistic gesture and a political statement, wilfully provocative in its thrust and feminist in its undertow. She was, according to her champions, critiquing the very notion of authorship and ownership – as well as cocking a snook at the canon of “great white male” photographers.

And on Henner’s work in particular:

His reconfigured Robert Frank images become something dramatically different, more surrealist puzzles than photographs. You might find them interesting, and not at all controversial, if you came upon them without knowing about The Americans (in fact, had I seen them without their title, it would have taken me a while to figure out they were taken from the book). For that reason alone, I cannot get worked up about whether they are theft, provocation or an insult, but they do intrigue me as another example of how artists are grappling with the surfeit of images now available to us on the internet. It seems hardly surprising that the brilliant is being appropriated alongside the banal, but, in this case, it seems more an odd form of admiration than disrespect.

O’Hagan, S., 2012. Mishka Henner’s erased images: art or insult? The Guardian. [online] 23 May. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/may/23/mishka-henner-less-americains&gt; [Accessed 24 Nov. 2016].

Now as I write this and explore the background to these works a theme seems to be emerging, one which was not at all clear to me when I visited the exhibition – ‘appropriation’ is a common factor in the works on display. 

Michael Mandiberg contrived an interactive piece which consisted of a computer, printer and monitor and invited the viewer to take part in the production of an original ‘authentic’ printout.  I struggled a bit with the language but my usual urge to press the buttons overcame my caution and I duly became the proud owner of this:

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Which is accompanied by this:

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It’s not easy to see the ‘Certificate of Authenticity’ here, but it says that the Printout is an ‘Authentic Work of Art’ provided that the presentation, definition, frame/glazing follows the precise but simple requirements and the certificate is signed and dated by the printer –that is, the person who pressed the button (me).  As soon as I can find an appropriate frame I will be proud to own an original Mandiberg.

As the pieces and references of this exhibition fall into place I notice that Mandiberg’s image is called “Untitled (AfterSherrieLevine.com/1.jpg)”. 

I hadn’t heard of Sherrie Levine before reading the Guardian piece. Now I have a touchstone for the original protagonist. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York summarises her approach rather succinctly:

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a group of artists including Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine—at the time dubbed the “Pictures” generation—began using photography to examine the strategies and codes of representation. In reshooting Marlboro advertisements, B-movie stills, and even classics of Modernist photography, these artists adopted dual roles as director and spectator. In their manipulated appropriations, these artists were not only exposing and dissembling mass-media fictions, but enacting more complicated scenarios of desire, identification, and loss.
In 1981, Levine photographed reproductions of Depression-era photographs by Walker Evans, such as this famous portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs, the wife of an Alabama sharecropper. The series, entitled After Walker Evans, became a landmark of postmodernism, both praised and attacked as a feminist hijacking of patriarchal authority, a critique of the commodification of art, and an elegy on the death of modernism. Far from a high-concept cheap shot, Levine’s works from this series tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions.

Anon 2016. Sherrie Levine | After Walker Evans: 4 | The Met. [online] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. Available at: <http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267214&gt; [Accessed 25 Nov. 2016].

I had a good look through The Met’s online gallery for Levine but have to confess that I searched in vain to find any resonance with their assertion that the images “tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions.”

Stephanie Solinas

Alphonse Bertillon, the subject (and also to an extent the content) of Solinas’ work was a French policeman who created an identifacation system for individuals based on their physical measurements.  The system was used to identify criminals but was supplanted later by fingerprinting.

Sans titre (M.Bertillon) – le masque is Alphonse Bertillon’s own portrait (taken head on and in profile) from his 1893 file created in order to promote his identification system, run through a software specifically designed to perform facial analyses. This produced a three-dimensional interpretation in paper, which is then subsequently cut up into separate pieces and organized to recreate Bertillon’s omniscient face as a reference to Janus’ double face.

Anon 2016. le masque _ stephanie solinas. [online] Available at: <http://stephaniesolinas.com/stephaniesolinas/le_masque___stephanie_solinas.html&gt; [Accessed 25 Nov. 2016].

Once again the appropriation theme is apparent with the added aspect of reproduction – the paper printout is offered with instructions on how to cut, fold and glue your own mask of M.Bertillon and the exhibition showed Solinas’ own effort under glass:

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Le Masque; Stephanie Solinas

The gallery information for this work was in Spanish, supplemented by the artist’s own comments in French.  My command of both languages is limited but I understand that Slinas is exploring appropriated imagery, in this case with the amusing twist that M.Bertillon himself was involved in reducing real people to measurements, thereby rendering them more pliable.

Doug Rickard

For his work on “A New American Picture” Rickard copied images found through Google Streetview to assemble a mosaic showing America’s run-down and forgotten suburbs and neighbourhoods.  In “N.A” he extended his search to Youtube, taking three years to amass considerable amateur footage of similar areas. Again, the appropriation method is evident.

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Doug Rickard; “A New American Picture”

Where individuals feature, Google has blurred their faces rendering them anonymous even though they are often looking directly at the camera, mounted on a moving car.  Rickard made these images by photographing the monitor screen directly, giving a somewhat indistinct ethereal quality to the result.  These appear to be photographs as evidence, without concern for quality or accuracy.  They are also in the realm of the vernacular since the people were never intended to be the subject although Rickard has selected only those images.

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