John Gossage

Petley Jones Gallery

John Gossage’s photo-collages have a decidedly political overtone that comes from their combination of printed matter and photographs. “The Code,” a series of small photographs of Washington, D.C. from 1989 shown at the Tartt Gallery, are collaged next to pages from the Internal Revenue Code. Both are placed on oversized mattes. When Gossage invests photographic “truth” and factual data with symbolic and metaphorical meaning, powerful images result. In one piece, pages from the “Enforcement—Possessions” section of the code are aligned next to a photograph of a dark doorway. Set onto green paper reminiscent of currency, this doorway suggest the behind-the-scenes machinations of special interest groups that influence our tax structure.

The two series exhibited at Jones Troyer Fitzpatrick focus on Berlin and operate in much the same manner as “The Code.” The small photographs used in the “LAMF” series (the title of which comes from graffiti Gossage saw on a Berlin wall) were all taken over a three-day period in 1988. Collaged onto pages from the newspaper Die Zeit, they contain abundant references to the Wall, the East, and current political events. In one work, Gossage pairs two close-up views of a section of a Berlin wall made of steel wire with a travel advertisement page. In another, an apartment building photographed from the street against the night sky is placed on a newspaper page above a mushroom cloud and a news item about Reagan. With its one illuminated window, the apartment creates a Magritte-like image underscoring the psychologically troubling dilemma, especially evident in Berlin, of a Germany trapped in the conflict of East/West ideologies.

In “The Illustrated Life of Goethe” series, Gossage makes a more profound historical exploration of German social, cultural, and political identity. In this series, begun in 1981 and completed in 1988, Gossage substitutes for the newspaper the pages from a 1915 edition of the life of Goethe. Visually complex, these works at first seem too attractive, too precious. In them, photographs and yellowed pages of German gothic script are delicately balanced by colorful printer’s ink samples, then grouped on cream-colored matting. Their beauty is not, however, purely decorative; it forms part of a complex interplay of elements intended to evoke a sense of the social and cultural formation of German society. In one of these works, a photographic detail of a battered 19th-century statue is silhouetted against an image of the Berlin Wall and its surrounding no-man’s-land. The photograph overlaps a page from Goethe’s life in such a way that the edge of the page and the monument carefully align, fusing the space past and present. In another work, a former Nazi building, oddly cropped to seem suspended in place and time, is contrasted with another of these book pages, suggesting that both contribute to the German psyche. In the simplest but most profound of these works, Gossage allows a photograph of the Berlin night sky, with specks of stars visible in a field of black, to cover the entire text of one of the pages; only its yellowed edges are visible as a border. Here, as in the rest of the series, Gossage seems to speculate on how recent German history threatens to obliterate completely all traces of its more humanistic past.

Howard Risatti