New York

“Copy Cat Show”

Franklin Furnace

In 1938 the lawyer Chester Carlson developed xerography as a quick, efficient means to make carbon copies of patent specifications. In 1959 Xerox unveiled the machine which soon became an office fixture. And by the early ’60s artists had turned to the medium as a cheap, easy, and challenging way to manipulate the stuff o’ the world. The rest is history: copy art was born. But the artists also inherited the medium’s paradoxes, as a mass-reproduction technique used for single or small-edition works. And while the machine promised much, it generally delivered little, offering standard formats, limited colors, and relatively poor resolution. Copy artists have, in varied ways, been grappling with these contradictions ever since.

“Copy Cat” is not the first large-scale overview of the medium. “Electroworks,” which George Eastman House organized in 1979, both preceded it and surpassed it in scope, presenting about 250 works chronicling 25 years of activity. But it is, to my knowledge, the first open juried show of this photographic form, and as such it provides a chance to view copy art on the broad, grassroots level one expects of “democratic” media. The show’s organization facilitated this perspective. Word was circulated by advertising, notices, mailers, local arts groups, and word-of-mouth; Franklin Furnace received over 700 works, which jurors Lucy R. Lippard and Lowery Sims then sifted to arrive at the definitive 132. These jurors represented fairly disparate viewpoints, and both scanned the work for breadth. The result was a medley of posters, postcards, pop-ups, assemblages, three-dimensional objects, verbo-visual poems, and books.

Shows like this require telescopic vision. You have to avoid the foreground, dense with disappointing work, and gaze toward the horizon, where the distance yields glimmers of what lies, in potentia, in a medium. For a first glance shows copy art at a fairly undeveloped level, with its proponents still frolicking in the new medium’s pleasures, playing with superimpositions, sequences, chance forms, and odd arrangements—in short, with the wonders of collage, with all its potential for image manipulation. The medium’s problem appears to lie in its laudable ease, in the facility that shifts attention from those limiting factors that “focus” the conception of a work. There’s much too much that’s cute. And far too much that’s pretty. We know by now that you can Xerox almost anything; that textured papers play with hackneyed copy hues; and that images can be glued, sewn, stapled, or variously “arranged” into any conceivable shape. It’s just that you begin to wonder, after looking at the stitching, quilting, embroidering, et al., at the point of doing this with imagery whose very importance seems to lie in its mundane emergence.

Luckily, though, there’s work in this exhibition that serves to center those issues that are implicit in copy art. Some of the best is political, as in the Struggle Collective’s To Be Equal, which shapes the mass-produced, mass-distributed messages of world injustice to moving, other-directed ends. And some is more broadly ideological, working both with and against the advertising imagery and mediated dross that comprise our daily diet. There is strong art using narrative sequences (Ann Fessler’s Michele’s Prayer is exemplary). And there is strong work with purely visual sequences like Mark Berghash’s portraits, in which multiple, gradually varied images of people caught in reflective moments yield complex sociological views. There are also many books—part of an already full and fertile tradition dealing with number, variety, and audience. I liked, in particular, the “census selection” by Joyce Cutler Shaw, whose apparently endless series of repeated signatures seems to work just right with the rhythm of the page. Such works show the medium’s potential, suggesting that, as with any new form, its proponents should keep on pushin’.

Kate Linker