New York

Lucas Samaras

Pace Gallery

By poking, caressing, scratching, scraping, modeling, and who knows what other means of molesting the photoemulsion of Polaroid SX-70 color prints, still wet underneath their protective seal, and faint in their first few developing minutes outside the camera, Lucas Samaras so violates the integrity of the photographic record that, even if he had not gangrened his chroma with the shrieking cerises and emeralds of filtered lights, the things observed through the lens seem to shrivel or wraggle, animistically, as if cursed with some metabolic disaster first urged on by genetic misalliance. Photo-transformations, he euphemistically calls them. And the one subject upon which these 80 or so 3“ by 3” photos focus—as well as the thousand he’s been working on in the last several months—is himself. The man lifts up what appears to be the skin of his back, revealing a carcinomic landscape bristling with spikes. Or out from the reticulated, gummy, or marbleized foam of photographic substance that went wrong, teeth gnash or an eye sparkles. Things like that. These could be passport photos of that newly modish creature, the devil, choking yet reveling in the soil of his psychic excretions.

In any event, especially considering their sonic resonance, I am glad that these are small, precious, and distancing objects. There is a lapidary, glacé quality to the finish, and the way Samaras has probed or smeared the print shows it to have an unexpected, once unguent, depth. More priceless is his rage, if that is not too weak a word, at the inevitable, reifying process of the chemicals as they quicken onto paper the taken images: he would twist them into something decidedly more fabulous than those programmed liquids had ever intended. In that sense, he is like an animator, marking directly on the celluloid, frame by frame. Only, in this case, he races in a very constricted period against what the machine was about to transcribe permanently on its own. He interferes and improvises with specters, not to delay their gathering density, but to disturb their configurations. Inscribed on his portrayed action or pose is his illusion-canceling stipple or swipe, that is, his literal action. A new technology gives us a self-developing photograph in the hand, and Samaras is practically alone in defacing the advanced process which brings it about with a barbaric, polymorphous splendor. The irony of this recycling radiates from every print, that is, the knowledge that his regression is made possible only through the sophisticated, industrial leap forward. Unlike his earlier auto-Polaroids, Samaras is now a full, collaborating, organic partner with the machine in the physical genesis of his image. But he can only subtract from or deform what the machine has given, a fact which may have contributed to the virulence of his ravings.

But what is the point of using the photograph in this ruthless and perverse manner? Why take a medium whose virtue is precisely that of highly resolved visual documentation, and wrest from it these crazy and betraying fantasies? In its shuffled performances, the show uncovers a gamut of answers. Here, for example, is an artist who previously maximized the gradients of focus in a photograph; now, his very fingers become a range finder, crystallizing or steaming out resolutions at will. Once Samaras had to grimace, partly in order to convey his compulsions; now, the malleable photo substance can do that for him—act, that is, as freely as paint, without foregoing its identity. Indeed, it is a grasping, adhesive, mutating stuff, so often waxen or mucous in its textures that it must gratify his narcissism immensely because it conveys the illusion that he is altering his own atoms. But more than through any of these internal dialectics, the new works gain their corrosive power because their photographic residues are pathetically pressured and trapped. An isolated eye, toothy maw, nose or toe looks to us like a survivor in a slavering murk. The artist’s figure grows faint in the radioactive air of his kitchen. In other words, a normal enough photographed feature becomes beleaguered or enchanted, magically homeless at any rate, in its distressing, unreal surround. (And often it is an object, rather than the flesh, which takes on a weird pliability.) In these circumstances, no brush could vie with the camera in making these details as jolting as Samaras wanted them to be. We are familiar with anamorphic or fun-house mirror distortions in photography, but their zany arabesques writhe across the entire field. Samaras, on the other hand, introduces partial and comparative buffetings that do not so much draw appreciation for a mechanistic trick as make us doubt our senses.

Expressively, these photo-transformations link with Surrealism, at least in their general articulation of the marvelous. But their creator has laid upon them the overtones of an exaggerated masochism and a lycanthropic creepiness that are entirely his own. If the screaming mouth motif recalls Francis Bacon, Samaras makes of it a periodontist’s frightmare. If he raises his arms, supplicatingly, all manner of rainbow echoes decorate the wall and ceiling. He tushes his stung against his teeth or dandles his shlock like a vamp made into the glowing snotch of a fractus man watching TV. Cure and querious vision! Lude limbs drape over a share near the oven. Eeks drip behind charred figits. The loudist grublimates his fuelest dandies, leaving us tippling in the laptures of euphoria.

Why do the planes of things in many photo-Realist paintings gleam so as almost to make you squint? The advertisers for Crest toothpaste do not market such sheer, reflective glitter as does Chris Cross from an STP racer or Ben Schonzeit’s greatly magnified silver foil chewing gum wrapper. We are familiar with dull, antiseptic surfaces in recent past art, but those available for inspection in galleries today are mint fresh and brand new, so ultrapolished and crinkly bright that to imagine them as in use or in any sense functioning is somehow to debase them.

I suspect one reason for this metallic or glassy radiance, that vitiates the souped-up color of its base, is really very naive. What better way to demonstrate an exclusively technical virtuosity in this competitive field than to master those effects most notoriously difficult to render and to profit all the more when they just happen to be the most vividly eye-catching? The splintered or dotted transparencies of light, arrested obliquely in a fantastic ricochet as they energize a static, even if prolix composition, fill the pictorial bill quite well. No wonder the majority of photo-Realist objects seem gone over a score of times with Pledge, Twinkle, or Windex—all hell has been shined out of them for no better reason than to provide balletic opportunities for the spray brush. The more sophisticated the finish, as it orchestrates a host of lush textures, the more infantile the sensibility of an art caught up in the narcissism of its own performance.

In American trompe I’oeil, Realism meant to equivocate between the identities of object and picture, excellent reason for the hyperacuity of the finish. Moreover, objects rendered through direct perception were chosen for their manifest social histories, smoothed, roughened, or torn by touch, as if the chance mellowing and pronounced tactility of these images compensated for the autographic prohibitions the artists imposed upon themselves. With the latterday photo-Realists, however, it is precisely the absence of a rationale, let alone a poetics, of ends and means that delivers a new, dispiriting harshness. These painters strive to convince us of the authenticity of their sightings by copying in longhand everything in a photo that painters would ordinarily synthesize or condense. By these means, the labors of the hand are supposedly valorized exactly because the camera has made them gratuitous and quixotic. Of course, it is a very shallow conception of the uses of photography for art. That depicted objects are also fetishized, without any conceptual mediation whatsoever, follows from the fetishizing of technique for its own sake.

Still, we would deny that these paintings look like photographs. A Bechtle, a Goings, an Estes are too compulsive in their attempt to materialize information that in a photograph is mostly “thrown away.” All of them take so tendentiously the focus of which the lens is capable, hardening it with their acid, industrial color, that it seems as if the optic nerve has had a tantrum. The results are always denser, more congealed, than anything captured on film. All this is quite natural because a particularly coarse painting mentality is at work, one that does not realize or acknowledge this misunderstanding. Moreover, photo-Realism seriously prides itself on its modernism, in this case, its cliché dissociation from subjects whose editorializing is never discussed. Confident in their mechanistic skills, the photo-Realists like to play dumb (a strategy long abandoned by Pop art, if it ever had it), and there is, indeed, such a flagrant opacity of meaning, flat-footed yet truculent, to their Burger Chefs and movie marquees, as to make the casualness of a photograph suddenly eloquent by comparison.

Of course, the sensory power and presence of painting is quite beyond photographs (unless one includes slides), and one appreciates the fact that painters hope to take full advantage of it. In addition, if one puts their efforts in the best light, they want to clarify the detail that is unstressed in a photograph. But this very practice fuels an objection to their style. They will dissect what goes on in a photograph, but do not heed how we scan it with a quickly fluctuating regard. As a result, they monumentalize what is trivial in a photograph, and are completely unprepared to treat the ambiguous phenomena that photography records at large, and that we interpret as a naturally built-in feature of the medium. So they fall back on commercial photography as a model. There, also, the whorish highlights are designed to circumvent this ambiguity in a delirium of hard sell.

Max Kozloff