Catherine Yass

Laure Genillard

To those who take notice of her, Catherine Yass returns the compliment. When commissioned to make a work her light boxes focus upon those in power within the commissioning organization; when invited to participate in group shows she complies by contributing a portrait of the curator or portraits of others sponsoring the exhibition. Characteristically these photographs are not “straight” portraiture but constructed, subjected to various processes—overlaying positive and negative images combined with further manipulations in the printing process that intensify the colors. Yass’ first one-person show in a private gallery makes a spectacle of the whole exhibition system. The dealer, the collector, the critic, and the artist—the four cardinal points of the gallery system—are all here. The figures in each of these four photographs are ciphers, decodable into the signs of this system, but also readable as specific individuals—Yass, her dealer, her collector, and, by extension perhaps her critic.

From the entrance through to the gallery’s back wall the pictures came in the following sequence: dealer, collector, critic, artist. Ostensibly, these are the main subjects, but, in fact, Yass is present in every case and the work taken as a whole, presents, by stages, her increasingly visible form. Laure Genillard has been photographed holding her baby and standing against the street window of the gallery. Apparently shot at night, blurred spots of light punctuate an otherwise dark background. The figure of Yass herself is just visible in the window as a ghostly reflection. In the glass behind the collector and Andrew Renton, the critic, she is a progressively clearer presence until, in her self-portrait, she comes into sharp focus. She is photographed contre jour, rather than against the night, but the windows behind her are masked, and the light from them is altered and partially obscured by blocks of cyan caused by the overlaying of the image’s negative on itself.

Whether or not this final image of the four represents the culmination of a process of true embodiment is, however, debatable. Yass is photographed next to her camera. It could be that this is a “double portrait,” that is, a photograph taken by another camera, but certain details call such an interpretation into question. Yass is not looking straight out of the picture, yet her off-center gaze is a focused one. It seems that the image is a reflected one and that Yass is looking at herself in the mirror rather than at the reflection of the camera. So although there appears to be something more concrete in which to invest our ideas about Yass the artist, it is in reality a construct. In all this, Yass might be seen to question where power lies and how it shifts and circulates within the web of social relations that conspires to sustain the illusion of meaning. All those things that contribute to the building of a reputation—promoting, endorsing, consolidating, publicizing, supporting, interpreting, explaining, justifying—require a concerted effort. Whose interests are served by questioning the probity of that effort once the pact has been made?

Michael Archer