Kodak Three Point Relection Guide, Christopher Williams
The core idea behind the Walker Art Center’s new exhibit, Ordinary Pictures, couldn’t be more relevant. We live in a world saturated by images, many of them stock photos provided by companies—Shutterstock, Getty Images, Veer, Corbis, iStock, etc.—that maintain massive databases of imagery on every conceivable subject. The images are taken by professionals and look great, but there is nothing “true” about them; they are generic and impersonal, and created almost exclusively for commercial use.
Given that so many images in circulation are designed to manipulate and persuade, artists can help us separate the wheat of truth from the chaff of deception by exposing the mechanism behind all this merchandising. Ordinary Pictures purports to be an exhibit that reveals the truth behind the lie of stock imagery, but that’s over-stating its aims a bit. Ordinary Pictures doesn’t so much examine this idea as flit around the edges, commenting obliquely and often inscrutably on aspects of image production, reproduction, and appropriation that are more theoretical than theatrical. Or, to put it another way, much of the work on display is more interesting to think about than to look at.
Squirrel, Elad Lassry
So, for instance, you have a photo of a squirrel. Taken by Israeli-American artist Elad Lassry, the squirrel is sitting on a piece of varnished wood, inside somewhere—somewhere a squirrel shouldn’t be—eating a piece of popcorn. It is difficult to tell if the squirrel is alive or dead, and that is pretty much the point. As Lassry explains in the show catalogue, “My whole practice raises the question of whether the work’s existence is image-based or object-based, or whether it can be both.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if the squirrel is alive or dead, what matters is that you don’t know, and can’t tell.
Green Screen #4, Liz Deschenes
If you enjoy these kinds of thought experiments, there are plenty to choose from in Ordinary Pictures. There’s Richard Artschwager’s “Mirror” that isn’t a mirror, ha ha ha. There’s Liz Deschenes’ “Green Screen #4,” which looks like a photographic green-screen—but isn’t! It’s really an inkjet printout on paper that looks like a green-screen, and could even act as a green-screen, but is really just a huge piece of paper pretending to be the thing it isn’t, but could be in a pinch, if you happened to leave your real green-screen in the car. There’s also Sherrie Levine’s “Light Bulb,” a series of silver light bulbs that reflect rather than emit light, making the bulbs a highly ironic source of another kind of light—illumination of the mind!
Or something like that.
Light Bulb, Sherrie Levine
At the Walker, one expects to be pushed toward ideas that aren’t necessarily comfortable, by art that doesn’t necessarily look or feel like art. In the past, I have proposed coming up with a “WTF!” index for Walker patrons eager to understand why nothing they are looking at seems to make much sense. This nudge toward nonsense can be tedious, to be sure, but it can also be exhilarating.
A perfect example is Steve McQueen’s “Once Upon a Time,” a video installation McQueen created using images that NASA sent into space on the Voyager probes in the 1970s. Encoded with images, sounds, and diagrams, the purpose of these so-called “Golden Records” was to provide a cultural scrap book of sorts that explained humanity to any alien life form that might come upon it. The images are comically boring stock photos of everyday life—of houses, people in the backyards, animals, etc.—and one image slowly bleeds into the next. Meanwhile, a male voice “narrates” the images, but the language he is speaking is deliberately unintelligible. What you have, then, is a slideshow of images that are supposed to represent various aspects of humanity, but don’t, narrated in something that sounds like language, but isn’t. Images and words are supposed to convey information, but McQueen inverts this idea to render the whole thing entirely meaningless—except for the meaning that you, the observer, ascribe to it. The fun part is: You are here, looking at these images on Earth, but experiencing them much the same way an alien from another galaxy would. (That’s a good thing—exhilarating, even.)
OMEGA, Amanda Ross-Ho
Super-sizing everyday objects to a hundred times their normal size is a favorite practice of contemporary artists as well (see “Spoonbridge and Cherry”), and Amanda Ross-Ho’s OMEGA is an impressive entry in this time-honored category. The sculpture is a meticulous recreation of the photo enlarger she grew up with as a kid, right down to burn marks on the base where her father used to lay his cigarettes. The thing is twelve feet high, though, and photographically replicates in three dimensions an object that spent its life enlarging photos—an “enlarged enlarger,” as she calls it. Every part is hand-made, including the rusted screws, which are really putty and spray paint. Why anyone would go to the trouble of building such a thing, I do not know, but give her props for doing it, because it really is its own brand of awesome.
The same can’t be said for some of the other work on display. Unfortunately, Ordinary Pictures regurgitates far too many c-art clichés: sketchy video of people doing strange things in the 1970s; an aural exhibit of random sounds; piles of cardboard boxes; film projectors looping footage that’s maddeningly mundane, etc. And of course, no such exhibit would be complete without a pile of debris masquerading as sculpture. In this case we have Rachel Harrison’s “Marilyn with Wall,” a photo of Marilyn Monroe attached to a pile of sheetrock and aluminum framing ostensibly taken from a previous exhibit, an ongoing project that she’s been recreating in different locations since 2004. So yes, it’s Marilyn Monroe displayed on (or as) a pile of trash. Poignant or puerile? Heartfelt or heavy-handed? You be the judge.
Curiously absent is work that addresses identity, politics, or gender bias in stock photos. For instance: Who are these generic people in reality? Is the content of the images really empty, or are they suffused with subtle biases, dictated by the marketplace, that permeate the curious discourse of capitalism? Are there liberal or conservative ideologies simmering beneath the surface of their banality? What about the people behind the camera—the photographers who actually capture these professionally polished images? Is it possible for a human being to take photos and video that are entirely impersonal, or that don’t contain some aspect of their being, purposefully not?
Ordinary Pictures isn’t much interested in questions like these. Curated by former Walker curator Eric Crosby, who is now the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, it’s a more cerebral, detached exhibit that uses the idea of commercial imagery as a “starting point” for artistic inquiry, not as a punching bag for criticism. Crosby’s essay in the show catalogue explains the limited parameters of the show, and introduces readers to some of the conceptual frames that shaped his approach to the subject. The essay should be required reading for anyone who wants to get the most out of Crosby’s work, because if you don’t read it, you may experience some of the familiar mystification that often accompanies a trip to the Walker.
Many interesting ideas are percolating in Ordinary Pictures, but not necessarily the ones you might be expecting—or hoping—to learn about. In many cases, the artists are addressing questions that lie two or three layers below the surface. For instance, Christopher Williams’ “Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide” looks like a photo of six ears of corn stacked in a pyramid, with a small Kodak color chart above it. To understand the artistic intent behind it, however, you have to know that the ears of corn are plastic, and that the corn itself is a reference to various materials used in the photographic process that are made from corn by-products.
Which is a long-winded way of saying: read the plaques on the wall. Otherwise, you might think you’re looking at a squirrel or stack of corn, when you’re really looking at something else.