Artist Presentation
Sarah Charlesworth

 

 

Synopsis by Jennifer Rosenberg

 

 

In the wake of her twenty-year retrospective co-curated by SITE Santa Fe and the National Museum of Women in the Arts which has been touring museums around the country for the last two years, Sarah Charlesworth presented a comprehensive overview of her work. She introduced herself as an artist who had been influenced while in college by the emergence of conceptual art and had begun to explore photography as her subject matter. She described her departure from painting and sculpture as necessary and natural in the process of examining how our culture constructs meaning and identity. Charlesworth situated her work art historically--following pop art, minimalism, and conceptual art--and said that the issues with which her work was originally engaged might seem dated now. She spoke of the importance of each generation reinventing the practice of art to speak of and to the issues of that time.

With regard to the subject of ‘text,’ she spoke of her interest in photography, which she viewed as a dominant language within contemporary culture. She maintained that how we picture our relationship to the world --our sense of identity, history, other cultures, and even our values and beliefs are informed through photography-- specifically print media (advertising, journalism) and television.

Charlesworth showed works from nine major series and spoke about the questions underlying each. The first series, called, Modern History (1977-1979), were serial works which used newspapers to explore how history is pictured. Each piece was a serial work where Charlesworth tracked the dispersion of one story across the front pages of different newspapers throughout the world. To let the images tell the story, Charlesworth photographed the newspaper pages with all the text removed. This method enabled viewers to see for themselves how power and value were conferred by structural devices like a picture's size, placement on a page, and juxtaposition with other images. The piece that Charlesworth presented, April 21, 1978 showed newspapers that followed the kidnapping of Italy's Prime Minister Aldo. By showing how the story played out around the world, Charlesworth demonstrated that the news is a battleground where all decisions --including formal ones-- are politically informed. She also emphasized how events are perpetually reconstituted.

The second series that Charlesworth presented was called Stills (1980) and included seven seven-foot tall images of people falling in mid-air. Charlesworth rephotographed these images from various newspapers. Taken out of context, it was impossible to tell whether these people were attempting to save or end their lives --let alone the outcome. Charlesworth was interested in exploring the narrative parameters of what images can or can't tell. In these pictures, the most important information (whether the subject lived or died) was not visible. Charlesworth was also interested in exploring our experience in a world that is mediated by images, where our relationship to human events is vicarious.

When asked to discuss the role of appropriation in her work, Charlesworth said that she was not interested in the political gesture of taking someone else's images. Rather, she was interested in the experience of living in a shared world where images are part of our landscape. The title of her third series, In Photography, was a play on Susan Sontag's book On Photography. Charlesworth was interested in using actual photographs to explore how photographic images work in both perceptual and semantic terms. Addressing semiotic and linguistic theory, she took images from popular culture apart by cutting them across their ‘fault lines’ to see how they cohered. She described this deconstructivist exercise as a way to see the ‘shape of ideas.’

An extended series, called Objects of Desire, which consisted of five sub-series or exhibitions which evolved over a five-year period marked her first in-depth exploration of color as a primary semantic element. The works in this series all followed a consistent format of 40 x 30 Cibachrome prints with solid colored fields and matching lacquer frames. These works intended to expose the cultural codes at work in representation, particularly the importance of color in the language of photography. Charlesworth rephotographed fragmentary images that she had cut out from magazines and other sources and placed against single-color backgrounds. She used this technique to silhouette and isolate what she wanted the viewer to see. By removing the individual figures in her silhouettes --such as the image of a wedding dress or a sexy evening gown or a leather jacket (and from the first Objects of Desire series)-- she highlighted the visual codes shaping our models of sexuality --particularly the power dynamics inherent in different physical stances. She made diptychs to juxtapose seven different forms. Each of the different series within the Objects of Desire had a different theme and used a different palette. For example, all of her images about gender and sexuality used only red, white, and black. Another series which focused on conventions of nature and travel photos was all green and black. Other works used gold and blue to represent material and metaphysical desire respectively.

Her fifth series, Academy of Secrets, (1989) were also rephotographed collages against single-color backgrounds that explored different representations of the unconscious. The content was meant to reflect images used to depict states of interiority. Charlesworth showed a self-portrait done while pregnant, consisting of various visual elements (a clay pot, ex voti) which could be read either as symbols or as body parts. They were photographed against a yellow background. Here, she was beginning to pull images from paintings and from art historical sources.

The sixth series she showed, called Renaissance Paintings and Drawings, (1991) recombined images from various Italian Renaissance works to make new paintings. By changing their context, Charlesworth altered the meanings of the original works. She said she was interested in exploring common psychological complexes. Once again, Charlesworth used certain colors to represent certain themes. While the palette of this series was draw from Renaissance paintings, the symbolic use of color paralleled that of the Objects of Desire such as green for mythologies of nature, yellow for materials of desire, and blue for metaphysical desire. Her piece, Vision of a Young Man, showed a young man from a Raphael painting asleep with a tall tree growing up from his groin, making fun of our tendency to ‘freudianize’ everything. This body of work illustrated how we are living in a world of shared images where meanings are continually remade.

The seventh series, Natural Magic, (1993) was all made from original photographs of magic tricks which Charlesworth staged in the studio to talk about photography's truth-telling function. Charlesworth was finished with cut-outs and wanted to create meanings instead of deconstructing them. All of the images are framed in ovals styled after 19th century traveling magic road shows. In one of the images, she makes a woman levitate using optical tricks, in another, bent silverware is photographed as proof of her powers of telekinesis. In these works Charlesworth plays the role of magician and photographer and plays the conventions of each against each other.

In the final series she showed, Doubleworld, Charlesworth constructed environments based on seventeenth to mid-19th century still-life paintings and photographs which she photographed in her studio. In one work Still Life with Camera she photographed an old fashioned view camera in one panel of a diptych which is juxtaposed with a scene from the period to which the camera belonged. The camera appeared to photograph what it might have seen. Abandoning her primary color and Renaissance palettes, she used muted browns and deep reds. In one piece, she pointed a 19th century telescope through a red curtain which was drawn across the picture plane as though to peek behind the surface of the image. These works also speak of the pleasure and seduction of optical culture. Once again, she was exploring the illusion that photography offers a window on the world.

She decided to close her presentation with an image called Text, (1994) where she photographed a book underneath silk fabric so that it was unreadable. She discussed how in another sense, the book was completely laid open for reading, inviting the viewer to enter it through visual seduction. Here, she pointed out that the gestalt image was a different kind of text. One way of reading had been displaced by another. She reminded us that we are the makers of the symbolic language and that we need to empower ourselves to create the meanings we want to endorse.

 

 

Analysis by Stacey McCarroll

 

 

Sarah Charlesworth presented an extensive survey of her work. Originally working in the context of conceptual art practice, Charlesworth turned to investigate photography as a subject in itself. As she explained, her initial engagement with photography came out of a desire to consider how photography affects us individually and collectively. Charlesworth began her talk with a disclaimer that some of the issues motivating her early work would seem dated now. Yet her conception of photography as the dominant language of the 20th century --a language that regulates how we perceive our relationship to the world-- is perhaps more relevant now at the start of the 21st century. Given our visually saturated cultural landscape, it has become increasingly important to develop the critical ability to scrutinize the barrage of images. Charlesworth's artwork has always worked to advance these skills by taking up the "photographic" as her point of inquiry. From the beginning, Charlesworth envisioned the photographic image as a text --a text to be read. This pivotal idea of the photographic as a kind of language, a language that we all use and speak, serves as the foundation for all her work. The thread of this idea can be traced through the evolution of her photographic practice beginning with the Modern History series and continuing in works like Stills, In-Photography , Objects of Desire, and her more recent Natural Magic and Doubleworld.

Charlesworth's "Modern History" series from the late 1970s, for example, consisted of a number of serial works in which Charlesworth traced the photographic representation of events (news) showing how radically the context and viewpoint shape what we see. In the work April 21, 1978 , she tracked the reproduction of one photographic image through mutations of cropping and page positioning across every newspaper around the world. In doing this piece, Charlesworth was able to reveal some of the ways that image choice and placement were invariably politically motivated. The project further explored how photography can function as a play of symbols. Within this play, the Modern History series also demonstrated the adaptability of the news, as each event was constantly reconstituted in a different context. I wonder how such a project would look today and how it might change. In thinking about the permutations of text as image in contemporary visual culture, where does one look? Is there a dominant media outlet? If so, which one is it? The news and information media have expanded tremendously since the 1970s. With the instantaneous spread of visual and other information through CNN and the Internet, is our visual world more homogeneous, or not? In considering the ways that the relationship between text and image structure how we represent and interpret our world, we need to begin to think not only in terms of who controls the media, but also of the ways the media governs and perpetuates itself. Perceiving the photographic image as a strategic instrument for the exchange of information and the creation of values within in our culture, as Charlesworth describes it, is crucial to unraveling these persistent questions about the mass media and our relationship to it.

Charlesworth elaborated on the complications of our technologically expanding visual environment during the question- and-answer period following her presentation. She posed a somewhat rhetorical question to the audience, asking how we can presume to get a handle on visual literacy in the midst of information overload. She encouraged us to consider how computer technology and the design of software programs structure our relationship to the information we receive through those outlets. Charlesworth questions who controls these programs: the software manufacturer, or the consumer? Do consumers simply accept what is pre-produced for us? In making this segue from a discussion of her photographic work to her own current queries about technology, Charlesworth pointed at an investigation of text and image pertinent to the 21st century and the digital age. This is an important link. It urges us to acknowledge that many of the challenges we now confront regarding the nature of our visual culture can be located in the same examination of text and image that many artists and critics have executed during the 20th century. Certainly new questions will be posed and different answers may be found. But the critical and analytical framework advanced by Charlesworth and others can help to structure the developing debate. The controversies are still located in the manipulations of image and text.