Melbourne

Joan Letcher

13 Verity Street

Joan Letcher steals from old master paintings and Hollywood movie stills, photocopying, enlarging, and recombining them into collages on canvas, and improving on the originals in every way. Before, these motifs were enveloped in the monochromatic fog of art-book reproductions or grainy film stills. In books, they were mere patterns of textured tone; through her interventions, a curious atmosphere and complexity is retrieved. By manipulating photocopy paper through lightening and darkening, she simulates the distorted view through a keyhole, an essential voyeurism. Letcher’s figures, freed from their museum frame, make fresh starts. The possibilities of cutting and slicing mean that settings are no longer constricted. Nor are the participants fixed in fantasy; they now relate to our time.

Paradoxically, Letcher’s paintings have an old-fashioned look. The borrowing of pictures from the media, and the references to hyperreality, escapism and sublimation seem to place Letcher with artists who are involved in critiques of representation. Like Barbara Kruger, Letcher incorporates text into many of her pictures. However, Letcher’s universe is surreal, like that of early Max Ernst. The politics of her recent paintings, though clearly alluding to feminist debates of the earlier ’80s, are more blurred than Kruger’s. Rosalind Krauss has noted that the structure of recent work by Cindy Sherman no longer supported the experience of a fissure between stereotypes and the artist; the two had been fused. The same is true of Letcher’s collages, despite the variety of her disparate sources. Certain themes replace the possibility of an analysis of stereotype, though that may well be intended. The works project a sense of emptiness and nomadism.

Letcher’s paintings are built out of resemblances, and this naturally invites commentary based on comparison. These are irritating and overdetermined works, but they avoid didacticism precisely because of their quite sophisticated and contrary amateurism. The illusions created by grafted photocopies are clumsy and far from seamless. Unlike Ernst’s collages, Letcher’s recombinations never achieve formal unity, since they are hardly interested in it. Her charades are disjointed, like the Muybridge photographs that she deforms. Words are substituted for actions, and they distance us from the melodramas she describes. In her tableaux something is missing; objects and figures are circumscribed by the definite emptiness of intervals of white paint and bare canvas. No matter how much she fills space with strange figures or clutters backgrounds with decorative detail, her figures end up frozen—the embalmed slaves of the art cult. Letcher’s movies stars and old-master nudes share a picture space, but are isolated within that space. Even when, in Lasso, 1989, two figures are locked together, they don’t interact so much as coexist. Because of their different period origins, this action disintegrates into chaos. The text in Lasso reads, “The laws of hospitality protect you here,” and it offers all the psychological security of a nomad’s homecoming—the protection granted by alertness.

Charles Green