New York

Liz Deschenes

In the 1920s, Aleksandr Rodchenko suggested that the camera could and should be used as a tool of Soviet advancement, one capable of encouraging visual awareness in a mass audience. Traditional photography was not up to the task, since photographs mimicking painterly illusion offered no more than a middle vantage, a “belly-button” view, as Rodchenko termed it. Modern photography ought, he argued, to harness perspectives “above down and from below up and their diagonals.” The value of such exercises manifests in viewers who ordinarily “don’t see what [they] look at” being granted—via photographic experimentation—unusual perceptual (and perhaps intellectual) vantages.

The radical promise of Rodchenko’s unmoored, nomadic camera remains interesting, even while it’s likely impossible today to secure an angle (above down, below up, or anything else) that hasn’t been fully exploited. Indeed, the famous Constructivist concern that advanced capitalism breeds an overabundance of visuals and blindness to them has become a truism. In spite or perhaps because of this, artistic practices still intent on seeing (as opposed to merely looking) persist. Case in point: Liz Deschenes, who I have heard referred to more than once as a “photographer’s photographer” and whose thorough use of the medium can be regarded as willfully redirecting the viewer. Yet, rather than avoiding the “belly-button” view, Deschenes, it seems, seeks to plumb it. Hers are pictures that glory in burrowing to the center of a thing—only to displace that center or turn it inside out. In older work, such as her landscapes, Deschenes subtly torques the operative functions at the heart of that genre, asking the eye to navigate indistinct foregrounds and backgrounds. Her series “Green Screens,” 1999–2002 (photographed by Deschenes during the National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Las Vegas), similarly attended to the armature of images, making an object (and subject) out of what is normally pushed out of sight.

For “Registration,” her first solo show at Miguel Abreu Gallery, Deschenes turned to an incredibly simple form of photographic manipulation. (As always with her practice, here the artist’s “effects” are nondigital.) While traveling in France, Deschenes had come across an unusual kind of paper. Perforated by small, evenly spaced round holes, the sheets offered a surface present and absent in almost equal measure. Hanging the paper in a well-lit window to shoot it, Deschenes produced starkly graphic eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white negatives. But rather than printing these straightforwardly, the artist duplicated the negative and layered two copies in the enlarger. Printed on color paper, the resulting photographs are at once quiet and visually assaultive, formally precise even while bursting at the seams.

The slight misregistrations caused by the doubled negatives render each image a unique moiré pattern. And while it’s easy enough to comprehend the way the photographs were made (one can surmise quickly that these are so many just-off-kilter dots), the explanation does nothing to quiet their optical effects. Deschenes’s photos refuse to sit still, and the more we look at them, the less manageable they become. Here is a simple suite of images; they are ostensibly of something (light, and paper with holes in it) but more than that, they seem to hold out a model of seeing, one regimented and unruly, transparent and utterly opaque. Hung amidst the seven vibrating “Moirés,” 2002–, was the show’s own belly-button, so to speak: Red Transfer, 1973–2003, a diptych comprised of seemingly identical red monochromatic prints that, upon closer inspection, nonetheless revealed themselves as subtly distinct: one decidedly warm in hue, the other ever so slightly cooler.

Johanna Burton