New York

Manipulation and Photography

The Gallery

The title of this show is simplistic: there isn’t a photographic image that isn’t manipulated or manipulating. In fact, curators Kathleen Cullen and Dan Appel brought together work that deals not only with manipulation but with abuse, loss, and violence. The artists seen here also seem to be expressing a deep ambivalence about money. This is a refreshing position for a viewer weary of tongue-in-cheek, disingenuous attitudes toward greed and mercantilism in the art world.

Simon Leung’s Father’s Journal, 1989, is a photocollage of found black and white images (mostly medical photographs from the ’50s) with significant areas of each cut out and rearranged. These pictures start to look pornographic because Leung’s lacunae create the sense that whatever is missing is provocative and unspeakable. Censorship produces obscenity; an absence is worth a thousand words. In one image, a view of a man’s buttocks has been neatly cut out in a perfect rectangle and placed beside a view of a second man, kneeling. The repressed homoerotic content and violence of these banal photographs, which were used to teach World War II vets to live with their prostheses, becomes obvious in a fragmented and lyrical way.

In the majority of this work, the gaze is seduced, broken up, worked over, disintegrated. In Untitled, 1990, Graham Durward attaches a beautiful image of two men kissing to a motor which makes the photo move back and forth. The movement is hypnotic and evokes both the rhythms of sex and of mechanization. The viewer wants to stop the senseless ticking in order to get a better look at the image of the man whose neck is being kissed. The piece is pure provocation. Durward complicates the issue of pornography, bringing it into a relationship with the machine and offering us an image which does not let us escape the violence of our own urge to look.

Blowing up images seems to obsess these artists. Moyra Davey enlarges details of money. Her enlargements reveal the ghostly drawings of the ideal capitalist structures and metropolises that are reproduced on different bills. In their photographic installation The Big Picture, 1989, Margaret Crane and Jon Winet include a lurid film still of a man whose torso bears a bloody wound. In front of the image is a pedestal with an inscription that functions as a sort of caption to the image: “Original meanings are confiscated before we have the chance to learn them. The debt of unfulfilled desires extracts an excruciating payment. Our stimulated appetites are voracious for all the wrong things. The price of privilege is false interpretation. . . .” and so on. This is good stuff. These artists are offering a powerful interpretation of desire and the image under capital. The horrific image becomes the phantasmagorical manifestation of our collective abjection in a society where we are overstimulated and never satisfied, where any form of intense experience is denigrated. Crane and Winet affirm, in a manner recalling Georges Bataille, the violent senselessness of the world. These artists are onto something. They’re looking at the future with open eyes and they aren’t content to let us smirk our way into the next century. They want us to be more courageous than that.

Catherine Liu