New York

Alan Belcher

Jack Shainman Gallery

Although Alan Belcher’s work has been visible for more than a decade, it has never attracted a broad audience. Part of this has to do with the critical discourse that surrounded photography during the ’80s, with its limiting, even formalist emphasis on the rather banal notion that the photograph was a mediated image not a window on reality. But some of the blame must also be laid at Belcher’s feet: he has tended to overstate the degree to which a single piece or series can effectively engage both sculptural and photographic issues. Not only have his efforts in this direction often resulted in a certain formal clunkiness, but when he resorts to merely juxtaposing the image of the object with the thing itself, they degenerate into nothing more than clever witticisms on problems of representation. As a rule, Belcher walks a fine line—even in his best pieces, he seldom transcends clever punning to achieve semantic complexity.

In his recent exhibition, however, Belcher seems to have shifted away from photography toward a greater emphasis on object-making. Described by one critic as “New Age kachina-doll voodoo,” his figures were pierced, adorned, encrusted, and/or stained, with matches, needles, and pins, as well as crystals, coins, and garlic cloves. These new works suggest that Belcher is no longer committed to rarefied visual punning and is ready to cross over into the world of real people and their fetishized things. While it is true that the immediate impact of this new work comes from the eagerness with which it embraces themes of abjection and mortification, Belcher has upped the stakes of these au courant thematics by seeming to submit his own body to supernatural forces. Displayed like ethnographic relics, the nearly two dozen “fetish” dolls all incorporated not only Belcher’s photographic self-portrait, but also his blood, hair, nail clippings, and fabric taken from his own clothes.

At the level of process, these pieces surpass much of Belcher’s early work by offering the paradoxical notion of a spectacle of intimacy, an intimacy that stems from their evocation of countless hours of obsessive labor. These works not only effect a remarkable interweaving of the sculptural and the photographic, but also playfully tweak at the sanctity with which issues of ethnicity are usually broached in contemporary art. By literally transforming his photographic self-image into a ritualized fetish-doll, Belcher manages to heighten the resulting object’s desirability, while coming close to implying that the whole process of “deconstructing” the photographic is often nothing more than a lot of mumbo-jumbo. In the end, these beacons of the spirit world achieve what Belcher’s work has too often only hinted at: the creation of a powerful, even charismatic, object that captures the spectator in its orbit, effectively upping the ante on his longstanding meditation on the photographic.

Dan Cameron