This, of course, is not new territory. Photographers from Walker Evans and Robert Frank to Stephen Shore have wrung the pictorial equivalent of novels from signs that commented slyly, ironically or nonsensically on their surroundings. So have many of the New Topographics photographers. Gilles definitely stands on their shoulders. But his work also seems to be aligned with the sensibilities of contemporary chroniclers like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, artists whose monumental banalities magnify nothingness to wall-sized dimensions. There is also a link between Gilles and the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher whose career-length obsession with industrial structures serves as a kind of template. I’d be remiss, too, if I didn’t mention Hiroshi Sugimoto’s time-lapse movie theatre pictures. Gilles’ vacant billboards really do resemble Sugimoto’s blank movie screens — even if the motivations of the two artists are worlds apart.
Perhaps the most interesting transformation highlighted by Signs is how billboards, when emptied of content, switch from being visual pollution to being blank slates on which viewers can project anything. Gilles probably didn’t intend this, but he certainly captures that potential when he photographs billboards outside cities at dusk. Pictures like Olympia 4547 show how, instead of arousing the desires of motorists, these blank screens seem to be lying in wait for passersby to engage in a little free-form culture jamming of their own – a fact underscored by the razor-wire fence that guards the billboard in, another picture, Ad America. Look closely at this image and you’ll other important details, like a billboard for the 40 Deuces, a burlesque club, and a cluster of under-construction buildings that seem, in their unfinished state, to be waiting for time or circumstance to reclaim them, too.
David Roth says
Elaine: From what I know, Richard’s worldview (photographically speeaking) is far more colored by the history of photography than by painting. However, I would be interested to see which Cezanne paintings in particular you had in mind.
Elaine O'Brien says
Great review. I forwarded it to a couple of photo majors. Can we also see Gilles’ billboards as Roman viaducts in Cezanne or as allusions to the picture plane like windows in paintings (Matisse and all), only reversed, parodic? Elaine