Metamorphoses: Photography in the Electronic Age, Blaffer Gallery. University of Houston, June 9-July 30, 1995 , by Eric Davis
As a society we have long lived with Buck Roger’s ideals of the twenty-first century. So long, that we no longer recognize being on the cusp of a new age in which technology will make our lives easier. We are there. Inventions once considered advanced now seem archaic. Steam enginges, automobiles, and electricity have given way to the information superhighway, space sbuttles, and nuclear power. The computer age has made us so demanding, we find it difficult to wait for the next improvement. We want IT and we want it now. As a result, technology has in a way become its own worst enemy. We need it, but loathe it, as it has become so interlinked with our existential fabric that we cannot even die without it. Technology has made our “dreams” come true.
It seems appropriate then that Houston, the home of NASA and Compaq computers, would he a venue for "Metamorphoses: Photography in the Electronic Age.” Photography, after all, is an art form invented from technology unlike painting and sculpture that have a prehistoric basis.
The concept of photography isgrounded in reality. Since its invention we have looked upon and physically held it as tangential proof of a subject's existence. The photographer has a real subject in from of the camera. The actuality of reality is hard to deny. With digital imagery, however, one has the ability to create a totally fictional reality—a digital reality. Digital photographic subject matter looks real; it is hard to overcome the veracity we have been taught to see in photographs. Yet just as we intuit traditional photographic subjects to be real, we ultimately know digital imagery to be false. Nowhere is this collision of ideas more evident than the work of Pedro Meyer and the collaborative team, manual.
Pedro Meyer has been known primarily for black-and-white documentary images. Meyer, however, has not fully given himself over to the possibilities of digital imagery. He still incorporates images from the real world. Meyer has been known to humorously play with the conception of falseness in digital imagery with pint size humans listening to monumental ceramic mariachis or his Claes Oldenburg homage of giant chair on display in apublic setting. In "Metamorphoses" he displays a mix of fantasy and social awareness. The Temptation of the Angel is the most successful of Meyer's images in the exhibition. Although most viewers have grown to question spiritual beings, Angel pushes one to believe in the possibility of their physical existence. Digital imagery is temporarily granted a moment of veracity.
The evenness of Meyer's work in the exhibition, all from 1991-1993, quickly fades. He finds a momentary respite in the slight humor of The Strolling Saint, but the remaining works fall flat. Meyer is still caught between social commentary and purely aesthetic imagery. In the crossover, his messages become so heavy-handed that the viewer resists being force fed attempts to raise their consciousness. Mexican Migrant Workers is intended to he a caustic statement about the collision between the poverty of the workers and the excess of America as found in the hedonism of Las Vegas. It fails, however, as a digital image because the viewer knows the setting is visually fictional; as a result, the actual plight of the workers is weakened as the image takes on a fictional appearance.
The collaborative efforts of Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, known as MANUAL, fully celebrate the possibilities of digital assistance in stealing a contemplative blend of aesthetics and social commentary. The techno-landscapes, floating balls, and other oddities found in their work, however, are totally computer-generated.
In the exhibition, MANUAL mixes social commentary with elements of fantasy. Although the commentary now seems a standard part of their repertoire, it is not repetitious. They have long been taking visual stands on cultural icons including television, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and the "landscape". MANUAL makes its point ever so subtly, but very powerfully.
The installation of untitled images from The Constructed Forest best exhibits the clash between the ideals of technology and the natural world. There are, however, two battles of the titans working here. The more overt of the two is one that humans have waged against nature for centuries. Like technology, we need the "landscape”- but often loathe it, and consequently, try to make it ours through various means of improvement. Also, like technology, without the landscape, society could physically die.
Mankind's quest for a better world has consequently pushed it westward. This has subsequently meant the natural world, the true forest, has had to make room for man's new constructed landscape of homesteads, shopping areas, and office buildings. In MANUAL’s work, man is represented in the floating designs in the images. These seemingly utilitarian objects are theoretically made from materials taken from the natural world and molded for our use.
The irony of such fabrication is that the objects do not look natural, look real—they appear plastic. They possess the same quality as man's attempt to produce "simulated wood grain" for those who can no longer afford the real thing (economically or ecological) one of inexpensiveness. The plasticity of these "natural" objects is further complicated by the fact that they are computer generated. They do n ot exist in our material world.
The production of these objects can be taken a step further if one considers MANUAL’suse of framing. The handsome frames are made of actual wood. They have been, however, carefully constructed tomeet the artists’ conception for presentation and, usually, sale of the work. The notion of the work as a product is enhanced further by the artists' signature, often displayed as a stamped M in acircle; much like the emblem for product registered trademarks. MANUAL’s idea of using a mass-produced product to create mass-producible works of art would greatly appeal to the artists of the Dada movement. Surrealism, born from Dada, also centered on the irrational but was more positively charged than its nihilistic parent. The movement tried to reconcile the contradiction of dreams and reality into what Andre Breton, Surrealism's official spokesperson, called a "super-reality." Dada and Surrealism allowed the artist to use ideas and techniques previously not thought suitable for serious work.
The rise of digital imagery then is the perfect cross of these movements. It is shocking the art world's complacency within traditional photography values. It deals with the illogical and sometimes absurd, Finally, it fully allows the reconciliation of dreams and reality into Breton's super-reality—now a digital reality.
Paul Thorel is one of the most successful in accomplishing this task. His images are on the very edge between the two states of mind. Thorel, however, depicts that last gasp of memory between unconscious and alleged conscious reality—that fleeting moment before waking when one tries to retain the thought, titles of works such as “Look madame, the snail is flying!" and “There is not a single rascal in all of Denmark" complement perfectly the nonsensical, irrational stare of mind that produces dreams. We have all wished we could capture our dreams on him; Thorel seems to be working toward such realization.
Martina Lopez, not unlike Thorel, is interested in reconstructing memories. Thorel's dreamlike imagery tends to accentuate the illogical, sometimes absurd, aspects of unconscious thought. Lopez's images, though, attempt to revive very specific memories. At first the works appear to be autobiographical, centering on her family. The viewer, however, can easily bring personal reference to her work. The existence of billions of photographs of our own familial memories helps bring a commonalty to Lopez's digitized recollections. This factor is taken further as she now searehes junk sales for imagery that carries experience common to her own.
If one could find fault with Lopez's elegiac memoirs it would be with the amount of digital assistance necessary to produce her work. The only indication one has that these are not traditional collage or montage images, is the lack of physical edge normally found in such efforts. The majority of the works in the exhibition owe homage to the montage and collage artists of the early twentieth century. Lopez in particular owes a debt of gratitude to the magical constructs of Joseph Cornell.
As shown in Houston, Osamu James Nakagawa, who holds an MFA from University of Houston, opens the exhibition. Nakagawa finds photography to be the "expressive bridge" between being American by birth and culturally Japanese. Caught between the two, he uses this perspective to investigate and present his views, of Western society. Using the pop culture iconography of drive-in movie screens and advertising billboards, he depicts overtly public or political situations juxtaposed against seemingly innocuous scenery. The social commentary of Nakagawa's imagery is well intended. He wants us to think about the juxtapositions, but they occasionally appear strained. He carefully chooses which billboard or movie screen landscape is the setting for his inset images and they seem appropriately placed in the "natural" landscape. If a subtext of these images, however, is the encroachment of humans against nature, for questionable consumer purposes, then it fails—Nakagawa uses the manmade structures to sell us his view on social issues. Only in the works, Gas Mask, Martin Luther King, and Cowboy, does the combination ring true. The placement of the "Golden Arehes," in McDonald's,over a cemetery and the marching Klan members, of KKK, in a flowering field, come off as heavy banded.
Nakagawa acknowledges that he pastes these photographic "messages" onto his images of the screens or billboards. These images are then reprinted with some digital enhancement as normal color photographs. It is with this acknowledgment that the challenge of the exhibition, and digital photography, begins. The question arises: Did these images need to be created with digital assistance? The answer is a resounding maybe.
If one reads the labels carefully, however, he or she would have surmised the answer is yes. The descriptions of photographic medium ranged from the simplicity of Nakagawa's computer-altered photo output as Type C print to Eva Sutton's computer photomontage output by film recorded onto black-and-white sheet films, printed, onto photo-sensitized paper and selenium toned work. With such oblique information, how could the viewer feel the technical wizardry was anything but necessary?
The technological aspects of digital assistance are nothing, if not a conundrum. Medium descriptions are minimally useful to other photographers, but here they could potentially lead viewers away from aesthetic concerns those of pure technology. The question of digital assistance becomes inure difficult to answer as the very inability to decipher the work's creation is what pulls the viewer back to the aesthetic issues.
Deanne Sokolin openly acknowledges her images are not dependent upon digital assistance. Yet her work succeeds because of, once again, the inability to discern what she has done digitally. Works such as Untitled 9(which recalls a draped Victory of Samothrace), Untitled 10, and Enrobed Head, all from the Covering series, are fine examples of the virtual reality possible with computer enhancement. The covered objects, influenced by sitting Shiva, a Jewish mounting ritual,become fully sculptural as they float in a dark void. The texture of the sculptural cloth is all the more seductive as one feels be or she can reach in and envelop the works themselves.
The three untitled images by Nancy Burson are much less seductive, but no less visually intriguing. The anomalous portraits of children with craniofacial deformities are not real, but they could be. Although they are digitally-altered photographs, children and adults unfortunately suffer from such maladies. Burson has been criticized for intentionally creating images of deformities. She is, however, challenging us to come to terms with the actuality of such deformity in the real world and to adopt a new way of looking at everything.
The least challenging aspect of "Metamorphoses" was found in Staffer's upstairs gallery where images using Iris ink-jet technology were quietly tucked away into a comer. Despite the beauty of Olivia Parker's Horseplay,David Byrne's whimsical Clouds, Mannequins, Fruit, and, Eileen Cowing mysterious narrative, Based on a True Story, the works here owe much more to the actual printing process than the technological possibilities of digital assistance. The potential expressive qualities of the two processes was inadequately shown and largely appeared as a commercial for Nash Editions, where these works were produced.
Many of the artists in "Metamorphoses" successfully bridge the gap between traditional and digital photography and dreams and reality. Just as many, though, are unconvincing in their need to utilize digital assistance to create imagery, they have not fully explored the capabilities of digital realization. Yet, given the chance, as traditional photographers have been, those artists can discover their creative niche within the medium.
What will remain provocative about computer generated imagery is the artist's ability to remove telltale signs of handwork and rearrange an image at will, including the total removal of unwanted subject matter The person creating the final image, hopefully the photographer in this case, has complete control over the resulting creative expression. There are previously unknown worlds to discover through digital assistance. The downside is that computer manipulation can be used to tangentially harm or falsely implicate individuals with altered imagery. Whatever its use, we can still a long way from fully accepting the possibilities of digital imagery as legitimate artistic expression.
Eric Davis if a curatorial assistant in the Prints and Drawings Department of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.