by Shaelyn Hanes
From the 20th century avant-garde to today’s Instagram influencers, photographers throughout history have edited, selected and staged photographs to depict reality however they see fit. Photo Based, on view at Brian Gross Fine Art through August 28, explores the malleable medium’s ever-evolving form while toying with its potential to deceive viewers and defy expectations. The exhibition features work by six artists who apply the formal and conceptual language of photography to painting, installation and sculpture.
Paul Sarkisian (1928-2019), an artist who cycled through numerous styles in a career spanning more than 50 years, is represented by Untitled #3 (1983): a maroon surface scattered with scraps of intricately patterned papers and newspaper clippings that looks as if someone emptied a box of fastidiously guarded treasures saved for a scrapbook. Only upon close inspection do you realize that this colossal work is not a collage or a print,
but a masterful trompe l’oeil. Other works include the surrealist-inflected Untitled (1963), Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary (1963) and Secret Child (1961) in which the artist embeds appropriated imagery of religious figures within thick mounds of tar and asphalt. By situating Untitled #3, a painting that appears to be a collage, next to a series of collages that portend to be sculptural objects, Sarkisian blurs conventional distinctions between the two media.
Dana Hart-Stone (above) also plays with perception by creating abstract patterns out of digitally stitched, hand-colored photos he collects from across the American West. He jams so many of them together that the effect, at a distance, borders on horror vacui. In Operetta (2021) and Whistle Up (2021), sepia-toned figures immersed, respectively, in phthalo blues and greens result in a visual cacophony that functions dichotomously: as a trove of Americana in the micro view and as a collection of abstract shapes devoid of content when viewed from across a room. Analogs for this back-and-forth slippage between representation and abstraction are few. Chuck Close’s portraits, which achieve a similar effect by reversing the relationship between the two, are all that spring to mind.
Keira Kotler creates nonobjective photos whose subject is light and our perception of it. Navy (grid) (2021), a four-part photomontage, reads, as you circumnavigate it, a bit like a color field painting. With dark edges that give way to luminous undulating rays, it functions as a study of optics and motion.
Tony Berlant and Meridel Rubenstein examine photography’s sculptural possibilities, albeit in vastly different ways. Rubenstein uses photography as the basis of a social practice in which she documents the human and environmental toll exacted by war and other forms of state-sanctioned violence. Coke Bottle That Survived the First Atomic Blast (1993),for example, shows a glass Coca Cola bottle, a shriveled snake carcass and a faded photograph of two men in conversation—remnants of the 1945 Trinity Test, the first nuclear explosion in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The work extends themes Rubenstein explored earlier in a collaborative series called Critical Mass, which examined the interaction between
Trinity Test officials, scientists and Indigenous communities near Los Alamos. Another work of Rubenstein’s, a sculpture, consists of portraits of Vietnamese monks and nuns printed on glass and set inside a 19th-century dugout canoe from Panama. It’s part of another series called Millennial Forest/Trees at Sea (2000-01) in which Rubenstein documents the oldest trees in the U.S. and Vietnam as a way of understanding war and survival. In this context, the canoe’s provenance recalls both the Vietnam war and the U.S.’s fraught and violent history with Panama, exemplified by the 1989 U.S. invasion of that country and the resulting civilian deaths.
Tony Berlant’s Topanga After Dark (2018)—a large tin-on-wood panel depicting a lush scene rendered in electric cyan blues and speckled by the impact of thousands of metal brads—is the one piece in the show that most closely resembles a straight photograph. To create the source image, which the artist printed on collaged scraps of tin, Berlant held the shutter of his camera open to allow moonlight to illuminate the scene, exposing trees, underbrush and a good bit of the surrounding landscape. Here, the effect is the opposite of what we experience with Hart-Stone, where coherence comes only in the micro view. With Berlant, the parts of the original image, which appear grainy and shattered up-close, cohere only at a distance. In this regard, the piece demonstrates well-known optical properties, but for Berlant, it broke new ground in that it was the first instance in which he dealt head-on with perceptual issues specific to photography.
Finally, Robert Hudson’s Untitled (Pier 7 photo) (2021) addresses viewers from behind the reception desk. A key member of the Bay Area Funk movement, Hudson is best known for unruly assemblages made of flat and three-dimensional found metal objects. Here, the artist arranges photographs of stylistically diverse sculptures around a black-and-white photograph of a river ferry. Torn scraps of a map of Delaware and the Chesapeake Bay set on opposite sides of the frame suggest that the body of water depicted is the Chester River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Those familiar with Hudson’s oeuvre will recognize the sculptures shown in the collaged images as belonging to the artist. One is Black Cat for Joan Brown (2002), a vase with a winged figure protruding from the top; another is a double-armed ceramic vase called Jar (1972). The result is an idiosyncratic self-portrait.
If the goal of Photo Based is to demonstrate photography’s ever-expanding purview, then by that measure it succeeds. Photos, it reminds us, needn’t exist just on paper or on screens; they can operate as integral elements within or alongside just about any other medium without sacrificing their power to confound perception and fire the imagination.
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“Photo Based” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through August 28, 2021.
Cover image: Paul Sarkisian, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, 1963, road asphalt, roofing tar, and found cutout photographic imagery on wood, 10 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches. © 2021 Estate of Paul Sarkisian
About the author:
Shaelyn Hanes is a San Francisco-based curator, writer, and arts professional. Shaelyn earned an MA in curatorial practice at California College of the Arts in 2021 and a BA in interdisciplinary field studies from the University of California, Berkeley in 2010.