Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.
by Maria Porges
A summer exhibition often draws on the work of artists represented by the gallery hosting the show, with or without a theme being involved. At Haines, The Stand-Ins, a standout effort among such presentations, includes works by Maurizio Anzeri, Kota Ezawa, Chris McCaw and Allison Smith. All of their new or recent pieces use photographic/ digital processes in ways that transform or go beyond the conventional expectations of the medium, assuming any such expectations still exist.
The term stand-in can be interpreted in a number of ways. In the movie business, it’s someone who acts as a substitute for an actor at various tedious or dangerous moments. It can also allude to something that acts as a more or less permanent surrogate for an absent object or person—a presence that has disappeared for any number of reasons, most of which add up to some kind of loss.
As the latter idea might suggest, each of these artists addresses an aspect of time passing: events, whether particular or universal, that have taken place, and how we remember or interpret them. A specific loss is examined, in a beautiful yet slightly melancholy manner, in Ezawa’s interpretations of two of the masterpieces stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. In contrast, McCaw’s dark images of the sun’s movement, burned into photographic paper with the lens of his homemade camera, use the passage of time (his exposures range from eight to 24 hours) to stand in for all days since the beginning of marked time, measured in order to grasp its meaning. Anzeri’s repurposing of photographs of now-forgotten individuals gives new life to his anonymous subjects — even as their faces are hidden behind a welter of delicate stitches. Finally, Smith’s stage-prop of a bed evokes the universal resting place of all itinerant Americans, from the pioneers traveling west to the homeless whose search for such a place is never-ending.
In a world so saturated with images that we are almost not even aware of reality itself (indeed, the goal of advertising is to make us forget), this movement, both backwards and forwards — from thing to image and from image to transformed object — seems extraordinarily important. Recognizing that his own version of appropriation could be regarded as a kind of image theft, Ezawa extends his signature use of computer animation and drawing to Manet’s Chez Tortoni and Vermeer’s The Concert, transforming these famous lost works into flat-colored forms set,
jewel-like, in light boxes. Instantly recognizable as Ezawa’s handiwork, they are both magnetically attractive and slightly disturbing. TV Buddha Garden, an installation in an adjoining room consisting of plant images displayed on 12 CRT monitors contemplated by a statue of the Buddha, both conflates and stands in for Nam Jun Paik’s TV Buddha and TV Garden (both 1974).
Anzeri’s embroidered additions on photographs he finds in flea markets have a way of drawing our attention to particular details: often, a single eye, framed in gleaming stitches, or front teeth revealed by a smile. The stitching, fanning out around selected features in circles or ovals, transforms the shape of the face or head, asserting the primacy of the overlaid form—or, perhaps, performing an elegant version of redaction. Sometimes it’s possible to see through the network of lines; elsewhere, the layered threads become a textile-like thicket, completely obscuring what lies beneath. Anzeri calls his pieces “photo sculptures,” alluding to the way in which his additions make what is a two-dimensional image into a tactile (if still largely flat) object: neither thing nor image, but both.
Like Anzeri’s work, Allison Smith’s Itinerant Bedding, Conner Prairie, Indiana, asks and answers its own question about thingness in an enigmatic sculpture that draws us in even as it mysteriously pushes us away. For Smith, the image of a textile—a black-and-white-patterned blanket lying on a rumpled bed—becomes a vehicle for an ongoing meditation on what it means, especially for the objects involved, to participate in reenactments of various aspects of early American culture. A stand-in for a mattress—not large enough to actually be one, but clearly making a gesture towards that meaning, with its ticking-covered bottom and rectangular shape—lies on the floor. Its top surface consists of a picture, printed on fabric, of a bed in a home in “Prairietown,” an entirely fake village. Supposedly representing life in central Indiana circa 1836, it was constructed in the later decades of the 20th century with pharmaceutical money – Eli Lilly’s – as Conner Prairie, an open-air, educational museum. A smaller version of the mattress-surrogate suggesting a pillow sits near one edge, simultaneously alluding to the possibility of an infinite regress, into smaller and smaller beds/pillows. At the other edge of the mattress, an actual black-and-white woven blanket makes the idea of sleep seem somehow plausible, even if the accommodations are, in their surrogacy, barely adequate. It is truly an itinerant bed for the 21st century villager, one that could be borne in a shopping cart to a tent beneath the freeway.
McCaw, the subject of 2011 profile in these pages, might seem to be the “straightest” photographer among the artists in this group, but his work, in its own way, represents the most radical departure from the medium’s conventions. Rather than representing the sun’s movement, the images on the eleven panels in the gallery were burned by the camera lens onto paper surfaces, creating unique, physical relics of the passage of time. The resulting pictures, for all that they show about a finite series of events, have an eerie, timeless quality. Like the other works in this memorable show, they remind us that art — though often ephemeral, contested, lost or appropriated — is long, and that life is short.
# # #
“The Stand-Ins: Maurizio Anzeri, Kota Ezawa, Chris McCaw, and Allison Smith” @ Haines Gallery through September 3, 2016.
About the Author: