New York

Sarah Charlesworth

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

When Andy Warhol in the ’60s used newspaper images, documentations of destruction and disaster, one was wholly conscious of their media origins; often they were either pictures of familiar historic moments, or they appeared along with that bold-faced, instantaneous alarm-signal, the newspaper headline. Warhol may have made the peculiar genre of newspaper disaster reporting “art,” but in his work its identity as media remained intact. “Media” remained the source of interest and material for contemplation as phenomena.

When Sarah Charlesworth in her latest series, “Stills,” isolates disaster images from newspapers and enlarges them to over six feet in height, she chooses more commonplace tragic events (people plunging from high buildings, possibly to their deaths), which are completely unidentified, voided of obvious historical importance, or journalistic detail.

Charlesworth’s earlier work with media testifies to an interest in examining the sociological effect of media (in a much more methodological manner than early Warhol), but “Stills” in their isolation, size and dubious value as historical record are divorced from their origins. They should be troubling—one can’t identify the falling body, the city it’s falling in, or tell whether it’s an accident or suicide attempt, and one can’t turn to page fourteen to see how it ended—it’s impossible to satisfy that media-exacerbated thirst for the gory details. But they’re not; the large, timeless, blurred image becomes abstract esthetic pattern, the twisted, suspended, almost androgynous bodies are locked into the hazy backgrounds of architectural horizontals and verticals. If anything, these floating, soaring forms hover more like birds in flight; although we are convinced that these are of actual moments, the captured moments could well be poetic epiphany.

We would wonder about, if the gallery press release didn’t inform us, just where Charlesworth obtained these documents; they look real, not posed. But the divorce from the crucial media relationship of image/text/time/date, the disaster image lifted from its usual context below the Daily News headline, is so conscious, the transformation so complete, that esthetics initially overcome the intellectually given element of documented disaster.

But if Warhol made timely media disaster a still, an icon of modern life, then Charlesworth’s “Stills” are untimely, slow-moving psychological disturbances, the kind that disturb long after they have been seen. The tension between tragedy, esthetics and ethics is there because the given propels us toward the unknown, and then we wonder why the given is not enough, no matter how esthetically alluring the large prints may be against the broad white walls of airy, silent rooms.

Joan Casademont