Masquerades – Nikki S Lee

Nikki S Lee is an American performance artist of Korean origin. She uses a camera to record her art, but does not consider herself a photographer (Bright 2011,41). Her typical images are a form of self-portraiture, ‘snapshots’ of herself taken by others with simple point-and-shoot cameras. Of her two major bodies of work, ‘Projects’ is very much a masquerade exercise and ‘Parts’, although apparently more self-referential , is still a performance of sorts. More recently, she has branched into film; ‘AKA Nikki S Lee’ is part documentary and part performance, in which she plays both the documentary-maker and the subject. (reviewed in Kino, 2006 and Davis, s.d.)

‘Parts’ (2002-2005) is the less controversial and easier to describe body of photography. Lee has herself photographed in ‘social snapshot’ situations with different men, prints the image then cuts the man out, leaving just a vestige such as an arm or a hand visible. (slideshow of examples here) Seen individually, these images appear as caricature ‘break-up’ pictures, including the three-sided border which makes it obvious that this is a cut image rather than poor framing. In the AKA film, she gets angry at one exhibition where the borders have been removed before framing in a mistaken attempt to tidy-up the photograph.

When several of the images are viewed together, we see something different. The same face (Lee’s) is matched with differing costumes, make-up and locations and we realise that there is some role-playing (masquerade) going on. Lee tells us (reported by Bright 2011, 41) that these are not break-up pictures but “… show how personal identity is is affected by other people and different kinds of relationships. … You can see that it is one person throughout and that her identity shifts and changes depending on whom she is with”. The use of ‘her’ rather than ‘my’ is significant and suggests that even when interviewed, Lee is role-playing.

‘Projects’ (1997-2001) is a set of interconnected (if only by technique) projects in which Lee adopts a particular group or subculture for a period of weeks or months, attempts to assimilate or blend in, then has herself photographed in persona with group members, by members of the group or passers-by, in the same snapshot aesthetic noted earlier. As before, individual images are unremarkable but viewing multiple images makes the role-play and deeper questions more obvious.

At the surface level, we are tempted to play a version of ‘Where’s Wally’, to identify Lee in each image. Her distinctively oriental features make this easier in groups where there is a racial stereotype (the WASPs of ‘The Yuppie Project’ or the African-Americans of ‘The Hip-Hop Project’ for example) and part of the controversy around her work comes from reviewers dealing with perceived racism (eg. Berger 2001 and Kim 2016)

There are challenges in attempting to fit the group visually. In ‘The Schoolgirl Project’,  going back to Korea helps with facial features but Lee is noticeably older than the group. At the other end of the scale, she had to wear a mask and/or heavy make-up for ‘The Seniors Project‘ (it is reported that the group members ‘thought she was an elderly crackpot and gently humoured her’ (Cotter 1999)). It is her use of blackface in ‘The Hip-Hop Project’ that particularly attracts Kim’s venom.

Any masquerade project (apart from obvious drama in a formal theatrical setting, when we know what to expect) is going to be controversial, with accusations of voyeurism or exploitation. The language used by reviewers is interesting. The more neutral reviewers say little about the process by which Lee joins her groups; however Dalton (2000) who appears generally approving, refers to Lee ‘befriending’ the group, whereas Seamon (2011, reviewing Smith) in a book review says that Lee “… ingratiated herself with various subcultures …”.

The images appear primarily as a comment on the nature and identity of the group she is working with. Group members appear as subjects in the photographs, and Lee has either done her research or spent time assimilating in order to blend in as well as she does. Whether they comment Lee’s own identity is problematic. Clearly she is there, but my own reading is that she is playing a part. Ultimately, these are film stills with Lee as one of the actors.

References

Berger, M. (2001) ‘Picturing whiteness: Nikki S. Lee’s Yuppie Project’. Art Journal 60 (3), pp.54-57.

Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now.. revised edn. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.

Cotter, H. (1999) ART IN REVIEW; Nikki S. Lee [online] Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/10/arts/art-in-review-nikki-s-lee.html&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Dalton, J. (2000) ‘Look at Me: Self-Portrait Photography after Cindy Sherman’. Performing Arts Journal 22 (3), pp.47-56.

Davis, B. (s.d.) Cultural Karaoke [online] Available at <http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/davis/davis10-24-06.asp&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Kim, E. (2016) Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects”—And the Ongoing Circulation of Blackface, Brownface in “Art” [online] Available at <http://contemptorary.org/nikki-s-lees-projects-and-the-ongoing-circulation-of-blackface-brownface-in-art/&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Kino, C (2006) Now in Moving Pictures: The Multitudes of Nikki S. Lee [online] Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/arts/design/01kino.html?ex=1317355200&en=ba68cca87c7383c1&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&gt; [Accessed 15/10/2017].

Smith, C. (2011) Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper and Anna Deavere Smith, Durham NC: Duke University Press [reviewed by Seamon, M. in unidentified journal]

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Masquerades – Hannah Starkey?

I have put a question mark in the title because it is unclear how Hannah Starkey’s work fits the theme of this part of the course. On p79 of the course notes we are shown an image titled ‘Self-Portait, February 2013’. It appears to be a page-filler and, frankly, it is an odd selection when we are not shown works by the artists (Nikki S Lee, Trish Morrissey, Tracey Moffat) whose relevant works are described in the notes.

Neither is the presented image an obvious self-portrait. We see a pane of glass, probably an art shop window, behind which is an assemblage of curtains, assorted woodwork (easels?) and, in the centre, a painting on a classical theme. We also see reflections of parts of the outdoor scene – tree branches, an indistinct outline of a building and (centrally) a very indistinct outline of the lower body of the photographer. Any reflection of the photographer’s face is lost in the central bright area of the painting.

I have found two other ‘self-portraits’ by Starkey online. They are, similarly, window reflections with an indistinct image of the photographer. This differs from the reflection-selfies of Vivian Maier, for instance, who would generally catch herself sharply and distinctly. Either these images are saying something deep about self-effacement or they are jokes at the expense of the art world (is the emperor clothed or not?)

However, this is a distraction and Starkey’s other work is certainly worth considering in the overall context of a ‘Context and Narrative’ course. Her photographs, all titled “Untitled” plus a date, are carefully posed and constructed images showing women (either paid actresses or members of the public ‘picked up’ locally) in mainly urban settings or intimate spaces, usually in some sort of apparently natural, contemplative pose. I see parallels with Gregory Crewdson (constructed and directed images) and Martin Parr (apparently unguarded moments) but without Parr’s whimsical style. These images are too serious for that. The Tate suggest a parallel with Jeff Wall’s constructed banal scenes (‘banal’ is not necessarily a pejorative term, see my previous posting)

Starkey’s images are haunting and just a little unsettling. Perhaps it is the cinematic style (and I feel the same thing with some of Crewdson’s work) suggesting that this is the last moment of calm in the movie, just before the horror strikes.

 

Self-portraits – Gillian Wearing

Gillian Wearing is a conceptual artist who uses photography or video to record her / her subjects’ performances. Her breakthrough piece “Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-93)” is an exercise in breaking through the perception of English reserve. The device of having subjects hold up a piece of paper expressing their innermost thoughts has penetrated popular culture to the extent of becoming a scene in Richard Curtis’ film ‘Love Actually‘ (2003).

She continued to explore the theme of emotional honesty and confessional with the videos ‘Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian.(1994), ‘Secrets and Lies‘ (2009) and ‘Trauma‘(2010) in which her subjects’ anonymity is protected by masks bought from a fancy-dress shop.

Masks are the major feature in Wearing’s so-called self-portraits, several of which can be found in the Maureen Paley online gallery. The set referred to in the course notes is ‘Album‘ (2003) in which she recreates images of her family members from various photo albums. She has also portrayed herself as some of her artist-heroes, such as Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe and, earlier this year an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (Searle 2017) in which she parallels the mask-disguise work of Claude Cahun.

A common feature of all of these works is the thick silicone masks that Wearing wears, usually only her eyes disconcertingly  visible through deliberately rough-cut holes, and this is where I find myself in difficulty with the definition of ‘self-portrait’. Unlike the work of Cindy Sherman, who is recognisably herself, whatever persona she is portraying in her images, Wearing’s mask images appear more as disguise than self-portrait.

sculpture-of-the-artists-003Wearing explains the process of creating the masks and the photographs in an extended Guardian piece (Wearing 2012). These are thick silicone masks, created by a mask-maker with training from Madame Tussauds, intended to remove the contours of Wearing’s face  and almost every other piece of visible skin. This image is of the mask representing her sister, and includes coverage of the throat as well as the face.

This is taken to extremes in the image portraying Wearing’s brother, Richard, naked from the waist up and combing his hair. The torso, described as a body mask, is several inches thick and causes me to ask at what stage does something cease to be a mask and become a piece of sculpture in its own right. I have to conclude with a personal opinion that these images are not self-portraits at all and may not even be disguise, but that Wearing is using her body as an armature for a piece of sculpture created by (and presumably photographed by) somebody else. She is the mastermind behind a production team and a piece of performance art, but she appears to have more in common with Gregory Crewdson than with Elina Brotherus.

References

Maureen Paley (s.d.) Gillian Wearing [online] Available at <https://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/gillian-wearing&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

Searle, A (2017) A ghost in kiss curls: how Gillian Wearing and Claude Cahun share a mask [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/jan/08/gillian-wearing-claude-cahun-mask-national-portrait-gallery&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

Sooke, A (2012) Gillian Wearing: Everyone’s got a secret [online] Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/9149522/Gillian-Wearing-Everyones-got-a-secret.html&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

Wearing, G (2012) Gillian Wearing takeover: behind the mask – the Self Portraits [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2012/mar/27/gillian-wearing-takeover-mask&gt; [Accessed 1/10/2017].

Self-portraits – Elina Brotherus

It is not clear why the author of the course notes picked two nude self-portraits of Elina Brotherus as illustrations. While most of her work (Brotherus, 2016) includes the photographer as her own model, she is fully-clothed for the majority of it.

Elina Brotherus (b 1972) is a Finnish photographer, now based in Finland and France.  “I was left with this idea of what adults do,” she says. “They do chemistry and if that doesn’t work, they study art. So that’s what I did.” (quoted by Sherwin, 2010). In this she is modest, having gained both an MSc in chemistry and an MA in photography. At the time of Sherwin’s Guardian article, she was best known for her landscape and figure-in-landscape. Her autobiographical photography came later and reflects an earlier period, including the ‘Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe’ and the Model Studies series.

There are differences between Brotherus’ work and that of Francesca Woodman. With Brotherus, I get a much stronger impression of narrative, within individual images and in the series. And, of course, Woodman denied herself the opportunity to mature as a photographer.

The link between Brotherus’ early and late periods of autobiographical work is illustrated in the series ‘12 ans après (12 Years Later) made in 1999 and 2011-13. During a period as artist-in-residence to the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône, she made the series ‘Suites françaises’ showing herself learning French with the aid of Post-it notes stuck to parts of her guesthouse rooms. Returning to teach a workshop in 2011, she stayed in the same guesthouse and recorded many of the same places and scenes; the two sets of images creating a dialogue across the years.

Unlike, say, Cindy Sherman whose self-portraits have an air of artifice and glamour, Brotherus is brutally honest about herself and her emotions. Probably the most personal series is ‘Annonciation‘, made between 2009 and 2013, dealing with five years of unsuccessful infertility treatment and her final acceptance of involuntary childlessness.

Annonciation 9, She would go to Anne-Sophie’s school

Annonciation 9, She would go to Anne-Sophie’s school (source: elinabrotherus.com)

Broken up into years by facsimile diary pages, the series charts a progress through hope, despair and tears to a form of acceptance, a female figure with her back to camera in the middle of a snowy landscape.

As a sort of follow-up, ‘Carpe Fucking Diem‘ (2011-15) “ is an attempt to reconstruct the meaning of life for a future that is not what I imagined it to be”. Shot partly in parallel with ‘Annonciation‘ and partly in the two years afterward, the series takes Brotherus from those depths to a new surreal view of things around her. In her own words, “I don’t have children so I don’t need to adopt any preconceived role of an adult. I can give normality the finger. Carpe Fucking Diem is also about inventing strange games for the playground of the camera.”

Reference

Asbæk, M (s.d.) Elina Brotherus [online] Available at <http://www.martinasbaek.com/Artists/Elina-Brotherus&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Brotherus, E (2016) Elina Brotherus [online] Available at <http://www.elinabrotherus.com&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Sherwin, S (2010) Artist of the week 104: Elina Brotherus [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/sep/08/artist-week-elina-brotherus-photography&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Self-portraits – Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman committed suicide in 1981, at the tragically young age of 22, having failed a suicide attempt the previous year (Wikipedia, 2017). There, I’ve said it – as has pretty much every reviewer of her work that I have read; most use it as their starting point, or even as the central theme for discussing Woodman’s work. I find myself questioning the standard analysis (that her photography indicated a troubled mind and foreshadowed her suicide) as being just to trite, too ‘easy’. She had, after all, been photographing since the age of 13 – almost half of her short lifetime, and I doubt that she was suicidal for all that time.

Indeed, some recent commentaries (Gumport 2011, Salter 2012, Keiffer 2016) suggest that Woodman was self-aware and ambitious, with depression only entering the story around 1980 as a result of lack of recognition, refusal of funding, and a failed relationship.

I also wonder about discussing Woodman’s work as a completed oeuvre. Clearly, it is ‘complete’ in the sense that there will be no more of it but a majority of the images I have found online are from her high school and student days (up to late 1978) and have the look of student experiment, cutting loose with subject matter and camera techniques. I suggest that we are looking at the juvenilia of a potentially great artist, tragically unrealised.

Woodman’s photographs (and some surviving video) are varied and fascinating. Almost all feature human figures, herself or other young models/students and in many of them, the use of long exposures has blurred the body almost out of recognition. A large proportion feature nudity (so public display of anything pre-1976 is problematic) or vintage costume, both of which contribute to a timeless (or outside-of-time) quality.

According to Kate Salter, Woodman says the reason for taking so many self portraits was ‘It’s a matter of convenience – I am always available.’ (quoted in Salter 2012)

It is Woodman’s blurred images (examples here and here) that have attracted most comment – probably because of the association with self-effacement, disappearance and her eventual suicide. However, her sharper images in which she gazes direct to camera seem (to me) to say more about the artist herself. ‘Me and My Roomate, Boulder, Colorado is straight cheesecake, a reminder of happy student days. An untitled image from the ‘Polka Dots‘ collection, and the well-known Providence, Rhode Island ,1976 show a wary, slightly haunted expression in images with surreal elements. In contrast, in ‘From a Series on Angels, Rome, Italy 1977she wears a rather stern and slightly intimidating expression.

Overall, a complex character and a great loss of potential, but interpreting her work as presaging her suicide is just too simplistic.

References

Gumport, E  (2011) The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2011/01/24/long-exposure-francesca-woodman/&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Keiffer, M (2016) Haunted Genius: The Tragic Life and Death of Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/articles/haunted-genius-the-tragic-life-and-death-of-francesca-woodman/&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Salter, K (2102) Blurred genius: the photographs of Francesca Woodman  [online] Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9279676/Blurred-genius-the-photographs-of-Francesca-Woodman.html&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Wikipedia (2017) Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesca_Woodman&gt; [Accessed 13/9/17].

Gregory Crewdson – Cathedral of the Pines

For the first time ever, the Photographers’ Gallery have turned over all three principal gallery spaces to a single exhibition, Cathedral of the Pines by Gregory Crewdson. I visited on the first day, in June, and it has taken me two months to shake off my writer’s block and blog something about it. There are multiple threads to discussing a Crewdson project, so let’s just dive in and have a go (in no particular order).

First, there is the image quality. No reproduction on a website or in a book is going to come close. These are large-format images, presented slightly larger than 900x1200mm and with pretty much front-to-back sharpness. Lighting appears natural (if slightly cool) although it is really very tightly controlled.

Second, there is the size of the production team. Many photographers are used to working alone, or having a very small team – an assistant or two to move lights around, a make-up artist and/or stylist for the model – but Crewdson works with a group of about 15 (video interview played at the exhibition), looking more like the production team of a small movie. I find I am asking myself questions about authorship; is it correct to name Crewdson alone, or would it be more honest to have something like movie end-credits displayed somewhere. My questions could be exemplified and summarised in one, “Why does a photographer need a Director of Photography?”

Third, and by no means least, there are the images themselves. We find ourselves in the small town of Beckett, Massachusetts and its surrounding pine forests. The cast of actors (a better word than ‘models’ given the filmic, big production style) show us a version of rural American life, but distinctly surreal or dream-like; Indeed, the amount of nudity reflects a classic dream trope. The actors seem isolated, slightly awkward, and universally deadpan in expression. (Crewdson says his frequent instruction is “give me less”)

I am intrigued by my own changing reaction to this work. At the gallery, I was dismissive, asking myself “Why bother with a big production to shoot what are essentially snapshots?” However, over the past few weeks I have been mentally revisiting (and looking at my photographs – above – taken of the images) and reassessing. These images all have a narrative – there is a sense of a story before and after – and an attention to detail that is not, at first, apparent. I will be returning before the exhibition closes in October.

References

Photographers’ Gallery (2017) Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines [online] Available at <http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/content/gregory-crewdson-cathedral-pines&gt; [Accessed 24/8/2017].

Joel Meyerowitz at B+H

The Beetles+Huxley exhibition Joel Meyerowitz: Towards Colour 1962-1978 presented a very different view of Meyerowitz’ work from the large-format Ground Zero images discussed previously. Unsurprisingly, given that the exhibition was mounted in conjunction with Leica, it deals with his 35mm early work before he bought his 8×10 in 1976.meyerowitzBH

Meyerowitz’ photography is largely self-taught having been inspired to pick up a camera when, as a junior art director, he was briefed to ‘supervise’ Robert Frank on a photoshoot. Being self-taught, and therefore unladen with the baggage of art-world received wisdom, he was attracted to colour from the start. As a matter of practicality, however, he carried a camera loaded with monochrome film as well as one loaded with colour, and much of his early published work is in mono.

There seem to be two threads as we look at the work chronologically. First, the move from predominantly monochrome into exclusively colour work. Meyerowitz regarded a European road trip in 1966 as his coming-of-age as an artist, and had excluded mono from his work by 1972.

Colour describes more things – more radiance, more wavelengths, more sensation. (Meyerowitz, concatenation of two quotes from the exhibition catalogue)

Second, there is a move away from the traditional ‘decisive moment’ images (epitomised by the ‘Kiss Me Stupid’ image above) to something more decentralised or non-hierarchical in which everything, including the colours, contributed equally to the image.

I was trying to unlock photography from the aesthetic of ‘the decisive moment’ – a difficult thing to give up – and to bring the photograph closer to the experience itself, which is inchoate and unresolved in ways that I had been reluctant to deal with before. (Meyerowitz, exhibition catalogue)

Although I have enjoyed Meyerowitz’ later large-format colour work, I found that my preferences in this exhibition were towards the earlier work, mono and colour. Analysing my own reaction, I believe it is because I am reluctant to let go of the concept of the decisive moment.

As always with B+H exhibitions, they make good use of a fairly small space – the photographs are close together but never feel crowded – and the catalogue is excellent value at £10.