“Beyond the Purloined Image”

Riverside Studios

The aim of this selection of work by Ray Barrie, Judith Crowle, Karen Knorr, Yve Lomax, Olivier Richon, Mitra Tabrizian, Susan Trangmar, and Marie Yates was “to re-work and extend the notion of ‘appropriation’ . . . as used predominantly by American critics,” according to a statement in Block #9 by the show’s, curator, artist Mary Kelly. I hope I am not the only reader confused by the critical use of the term “appropriation”; important as this discourse has been for exposing the sociopolitical apparatus at work in culture’s codes of representation and the institutions of art, its emphasis on the commodity status of the art object and on the strategies of art practice has perhaps run the risk of homogenizing diverse work and impoverishing it of its potential for meaning outside this abstracted ideological framework.

“Appropriated” and “purloined” (which are not synonymous) begin to resonate, however, in the context of recent developments in feminist discourse. Kelly proposes a crucial shift in emphasis by which the ideological status of the image is invested with the related problem of how the “subject” is inscribed within the signifying systems of language. In view of the psychoanalytical models used to support this discourse, it may be appropriate to say not that we purloin the image but that, as language, it purloins us. It covertly binds the subject into its text, and distances the self from its self as a representation. Within patrocentric culture the self is most visibly inscribed in terms of a normalizing idea of sexuality which, in constituting the “feminine” as the negative, limits the potential mobility of identity for men and women alike. If one postulates that a patrocentric use of language is motivated toward idealizing the subject, defining it so as to mask contradiction, then alternative strategies that could lead to a decentering of it may include the discursive use of a plurality of codes and readings disruptive of logicosyntactical conventions. These important issues were raised in this beautifully constructed and thoughtful show, revealing both the problems and the potential of applying theory to art practice.

None of the artists quote preexistent images directly, but all refer to the codes of photography. The problem of the photograph is that by its nature it works to center the subject in a fixed point of view; the possibilities for disrupting this relationship—the Surrealist and propagandist traditions of collage and montage, “narrative,” and dialogue between image and text—were variously employed here. The work of Tabrizian and Knorr, while exposing the subject-object relations at work in the production of fashion photography and portraiture respectively (the latter in a fascinating essay on the image of the gentlemen’s club), does not confront the problem of the authoritarian mode of address inherent in the “fine” photographic print, or of the boundary (the limit) imposed by framing and textual definition of the image. Although it resides in the same tradition, Richon’s work transcends these difficulties and elegantly succeeds in posing the problem of the relationship between reality, representation, and the subject. He acknowledges our captivity to the lure of the photograph through the presentation of an enigmatic space that enables the viewer’s imagination to resonate through notions of cultural memory and fantasy (Western romantic nostalgia for, and appropriation of, exotic cultures, and the cinematic spectacle of the epic).

This sensuality of the photograph is seemingly denied in the formal montages of Lomax and Trangmar, but is addressed in Crowle’s ambiguous images derived from ’30s stereotypes of men and women. She fractures the subjective centering of the photograph not by collage but by a mirroring that creates an erotic image of the body whose uncertain sexuality is reflected in the avoidance of rigid boundaries in the presentation. The boundary is a metaphor central to Barrie’s investigation of the inscription of male sexuality in language; in its almost-excess of heterogeneous visual and verbal codes the work exposes itself to the risk of incoherence, but nevertheless maps a rich territory of signs in which viewers are free to negotiate their own meanings. Barrie allows the discourse to emerge from the internal relations of the work, unlike Yates, who prefaces her work with a résumé of Lacanian discourse on the subject, ending by virtually telling us how to read her piece. Ironically this effects a closure which contradicts her desire for discursivity, suggesting a dependence on theory and insufficient criticism of it. Theory has only relative truth, and needs to be constantly under revision if we are not to fall into the trap of using it (paternalistically) as if it were natural law. My overall criticism of this important show is that the overt display of philosophical texts located the work before viewers had a chance to discover their own space with in it. If this problem were resolved—and American art does have the tradition of allowing the image to speak for itself—we could perhaps extend beyond the image of the purloined subject.

Jean Fisher