Candice Breitz

Johnen + Schöttle

Candice Breitz’s first works to cause a sensation were the photos in her “Ghost” series, 1996, in which she took generic South African postcards featuring staged shots of half-naked African women in traditional costume and then painted over the women’s skin with correction fluid. For the “Rainbow” series, 1996, she made collages in which she combined images (clipped out of porno magazines) of the body parts of white women with those of African women in native dress. In works like these, Breitz, who was born in Johannesburg in 1972, addresses themes of racial discrimination, sexism, and the exotic connotations of the gaze directed at the African woman.

Breitz’s immediate social environment ha always served an important role in her work. The artist has lived in New York since I995, and she had the photographs in her current series “Surrogate Portraits,” 1998, taken in the no-frills photo studio of a local K-Mart. Her sitters are captured in bust-portraits wearing monochrome T-shirts on which Breitz has appliqued their names. To accompany the series, the artist has written a “Surrogate Manifesto,” in which she establishes the aims and procedures of her project, whose concept is to provide for the production of a portrait for every name existing in the world, to be placed in a “Surrogate Archive.” Breitz chooses her sitters as randomly as possible, calling on “friends of friends of friends” or arbitrarily picking people out of the phone book solely on the basis of their first names. For each name, there is only one portrait, which serves as a placeholder for all other people with the same name. (Breitz writes in her manifesto that “individuals who arc preceded by their reputations” will not be asked to become surrogates.) Often the name is loaded with historical connotations, as in Diana (a portrait of an unknown woman whose name evokes the Princess of Wales), so that the relationship between signifier and signified is playfully called into question.

In her recent show, Breitz displayed eleven pairs of portraits, offering her own versions of more well-known couples: The portrait of “Bill,” for example, was placed next to the photograph of the woman who functions as the surrogate for “Monica.” But what at first glance may look simply like a humorous game reveals itself on closer inspection to constitute a successful conceptual project, one that takes on the construction and (historical) determination of identity. In her press release, Breitz mentions August Sander, Thomas Struth, and Thomas Ruff (along with Douglas Huebler, who, in the early ’70s, wanted to photograph every living person) as the forerunners of her current undertaking. But unlike those three photographers, all of whom attached great importance to the formal quality of their photographs, Breitz simply takes the cheapest approach to the production of her portraits.

To pairs such as John and Yoko and Barbie and Ken, Breitz added one single portrait: a photograph of an African-American woman whose name, judging by the T-shirt she wears, is Candice. Standing in for the white artist, this “self-portrait,” which problematizes our too quick conceptions of ethnic identity, loops back to Brcitz’s two previous series. And even if one might regret that the recent works don’t have the shocking urgency of those earlier series, the artist nonetheless succeeds with her “Surrogate Portraits” in coolly freeing herself from her classification as provocative bad girl and in holding her ground as a serious conceptual artist.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from German by Diana Reese.