PRINT October 2009


THE LOS ANGELES–BASED PHOTOGRAPHER AND FILMMAKER Elad Lassry often uses the term pictures when speaking about his work. He prefers it to both the more technical photographs and the more abstract images. This may partly be due to the lexical streamlining of an Israeli speaking English as his second language, but the distinction is nonetheless suggestive. Pictures carries a specific and familiar art-historical reference entwined with certain appropriative strategies drawing from mass-distributed print media, television, and cinema. And indeed, although Lassry’s practice is primarily devoted to studio compositions and film, he also makes works using pages from vintage Life magazines, outdated textbooks, and many-decades-old Hollywood stills and publicity shots, often modified with blocks of silk-screened color or foil appliqué. Rather than engaging with the belabored discourse around post–Pictures generation appropriation, however, Lassry takes what he calls a utilitarian approach toward these found images. Inserted into groups of his studio-shot photographs, they serve as a kind of punctuation, imparting an aura of history to the other works and acquiring from them new life through the relationships that form between old and new pictures when they coexist casually on equal terms.

It is, then, perhaps equally significant that pictures can refer to movies as well as photographs. For his solo exhibitions, Lassry puts a selection of studio photographs and a few altered found pictures into conversation with one of his silent 16-mm films, which are themselves principally pictorial scenarios: silent, without narrative, and ranging from about five to thirteen minutes in length. Viewers are thus encouraged to explore the formal resonances and narrative connections offered by the associations between both printed and projected pictures.

Lassry’s studio photographs fixate on formal arrangements in which monochromatic negative space surrounds single subjects or small, clustered groupings of like specimens. His subject matter is atomized and idiosyncratic: There are portraits of anonymous people and known personalities (a smiling Czech girl, a blonde girl with a surgical mask, a man named Michael, several Anthony Perkinses), studies of animals (a Burmese cat and her kittens, two wolves, a falcon, a flamingo, a snake, a Weimaraner), and still lifes individually showcasing melons, a head of cabbage and some radicchio, Persian cucumbers, bread, nail polish, lipstick, and balloons. All these subjects are handled with similar formal deliberation and restraint, resulting in still lifes charged with the soulful gravitas of portraiture and bodies distanced into sculptural form. The naked geometries and deadpan objecthood of Minimalism here cleave to the plastic flamboyance and everyday banality celebrated in Pop art. The staged arrangements, moreover, are emphatic and demonstrative in the straightforward manner of catalogues or textbooks. With pedagogical purpose, they seem to declare, in Warhol’s words, “A good plain look is my favorite look”—even if it is everywhere obscured and elusive, distracted by formal concerns.

For Lassry, the gap between photography and film is a continuum passing through a sweet spot where still pictures begin to convey extended temporality and moving pictures approximate stillness. The long fixed shots and constructed illusions of stasis or tableau in Lassry’s films bring to mind Jack Goldstein’s extraordinary short films of the mid-1970s, in which simple isolated actions (such as the untying of a ballet slipper or the barking of a German shepherd) transpire in a static cropped frame. Like Goldstein, Lassry makes the most of his adopted city of Los Angeles, maintaining high production values to achieve lush color and texture. But unlike Goldstein’s films, Lassry’s feature fluid camera work and are often edited with jump cuts; they also consistently portray live actors or dancers whose silent interactions imply the faintest of abstracted narrative possibility. Slow pans, like the films’ silence, insist that the viewer take the time necessary to absorb each carefully composed and richly colored image. Zebra and Woman, 2007, shot on Super 16 color film and projected as part of Lassry’s MFA thesis show that year at the University of Southern California, tracks over a zebra’s body, from its whipping tail to its forehead and a glinting black eye, at which point the frame cuts to black. This launches a second scene, a slow tracking shot bringing into view the head of actress Radha Mitchell, who achieved cult fame as a photo editor in the 1998 film High Art. We scan the two subjects as they obediently hold their poses—exemplary specimens of the animal and human pairing that recurs throughout Lassry’s practice. They are set in a formal equivalence that posits them as similarly opaque and expressionless surfaces of intensified visual incident, concealing a private perceptual experience and essentially unknowable interiority.

Drafting another star with a much longer list of credits, Lassry’s latest film, Untitled, 2009, features Eric Stoltz, whose enduring mainstream appeal is of a piece with the fantasy construct of upper-middle-class white America of generations past that consistently plays a part in Lassry’s photographs, and whose well-groomed representatives are cast in his films. With people, as with things, manicured appearances and whitewashed good looks slyly gesture to the power visual media have in establishing the ideals that define a culture’s popular imagination and private fancies. In Untitled, Stoltz plays a debonair Jerome Robbins–type choreographer teaching steps to a Mary Martin–as–Peter Pan look-alike dancer in a John McCracken–esque wonderland of three brightly hued plastic monoliths. Still portraits of each figure, shot against vibrant color backgrounds, legitimate the otherwise expendable teacher-pupil mini-narrative (mimed in silence), which primarily serves to set up a series of Peter Pan–inspired flying sequences in which the general position of the suspended dancer’s legs is maintained within the cropped frame while swaths of color are traversed in the background—producing a transitory sense of stillness adrift in motion.

Such moments of perceptual failure instigated by analog optical trickery are an ongoing focus of Lassry’s films—also notably forming the crux of his previous Untitled, 2008, in which figures engage with a perspectival deception painted on the set’s floor after a trompe l’oeil photograph he found in a 1971 science textbook. Resisting the mechanics of film and photography, these scenes and others like them deliver visual information that doesn’t make sense, obstructing the process of perception and demanding a second and third take. As the eye modulates its focus and the mind orients itself in relation to the illusion, the act of perception itself impossibly causes static things to move and motion to stand still.

Lassry’s photography is a durational experiment in looking of a related sort, likewise premised on skewing straightforward visual perception: His pictures’ meticulously composed stillness yields fleeting hints of potential or illusory motion. In the doubling of fluttered eyes that unsettles the head shot of Man 071, 2007, or the stuttering displacement of layered exposures in Wolf (Blue), 2008, the object of our attention ghosts itself and we see double. Several other still lifes and portraits are similarly jolted into staccato movement—as though through the superimposition of adjacent film frames. Such a sense of compression is developed through various means in many of Lassry’s works, in their visual density as well as through the merging of spatial and temporal strata.

In several recent photographic works, plinths serve as the base for collaged elements. In Laminated Structure (For Her and Him), 2009, a photograph of a striped plastic cube approximately centered in the frame on a seamless, pale, fleshy pink ground—compositionally recalling Josef Albers’s iconic “Homage to the Square” series—functions as the structural support for a collaged black-and-white film still, cut to fit its base. Though collapsed to a flat representation, the plinth continues to operate, illusionistically, as the shrinelike pedestal for this reverential presentation of a pasted-on print. Lassry’s use of collaged film stills, here and elsewhere, fuses pictorial planes and locates an overlap between his two media. Taken from the comedy Seems like Old Times (1980), the still shows Goldie Hawn and a dog leaning openmouthed out the window of a limousine. The movie was shot in color, yet here it is the plinth’s blond, auburn, and marbled-cream palette that conjures the complexion of both actress and dog. The setup is framed behind Plexiglas, as in a vitrine display, granting it a sculptural compactness that suggests a sense of a filmic duration condensed into a single image. The composition becomes a kind of emblem of immobility, haunted by the stirrings of the cinematic past life that moves through it.

Lassry’s studio photographs and altered appropriations are all presented in similar IKEA-esque frames. Excepting black-and-white pictures (which are framed in natural wood), the palette of each picture is precisely matched by the color of its frame. These picture-and-frame units have a slick irreducibility and an airtight sculptural quality, like vacuum-sealed commercial readymades. Clenched in their matching frames, the depicted objects have an internal gravity that builds over the course of extended looking. Lipstick, 2009, for instance—five reds and pinks in black tubes set against a seamless beige background, raised on stepped pillars of kelly green plastic and framed in the same hue—could be a ’70s Revlon advertisement distilled to its bare geometry and chromatic contrast. Slight shadows convey an immeasurable yet shallow theatrical depth. The ubiquitous monochrome backdrops in Lassry’s photographs combine with the images’ sharp focus and diffuse lighting to convey poised glamour. Designed to captivate and distill desire, these works exude a schooled look of almost obsessive control. Bright and clean, isolated and seamless, they are, if anything, excessively stylized. Sealed in their tidy frames, they are also vividly sterile.

Beyond its commercial associations, the abstract, horizonless space of the empty background also represents a clearing in and of the mind, a nowhere space in which to zone out and stare. Lassry’s pictures are activated by the shift when vision flips from looking to staring and attention homes in on its object. Their small playful tricks result from the artist’s mining his media for potential glitches—ambiguous visual information or disarming illusions—that make indexical representation fall apart. The understated visual power and polished hermeticism of Lassry’s photographic and filmic work express the centrality of desire to his practice, cumulatively proposing staring itself as the ultimate mode of active reception, an enduring experience of absorption in pictures to the point of losing oneself through optical infatuation. At the same time, vision is destabilized in a way that relishes the doubt and unreliability embedded in all forms of representation.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer is a writer and critic based in Los Angeles.