New York

Penelope Umbrico, (Not) Easy Canvases, from Four Photographs of Rays of Sunlight in Grand Central Station . . . , 2015, fifteen giclée prints on polyester canvas, each 16 × 20".

Penelope Umbrico, (Not) Easy Canvases, from Four Photographs of Rays of Sunlight in Grand Central Station . . . , 2015, fifteen giclée prints on polyester canvas, each 16 × 20".

Penelope Umbrico

Bruce Silverstein Gallery

Penelope Umbrico, (Not) Easy Canvases, from Four Photographs of Rays of Sunlight in Grand Central Station . . . , 2015, fifteen giclée prints on polyester canvas, each 16 × 20".

Like words repeated over and over until they sound like the utterances of an alien tongue, Penelope Umbrico’s images are fascinating for their exploration of the differences between multiple photographs of the “same” subject—for the fact that no two shots can ever accurately be described as identical. Her true subject is thus not that which is pictured in her appropriated snaps, but the personal-social circumstances and technological-commercial processes through which they were arrived at. Pre-Internet, hers would have been a much tougher, perhaps impossible, undertaking. Now, the very sense of the term search has shifted, the Web having rendered the pursuit of any given image well nigh effortless. The joy is no longer in the hunt, but again in the quarry.

In “Silvery Light,” her debut exhibition at this gallery, Umbrico has two main foci: first, several versions of a famous 1954 photograph of sunlight pouring through the windows of Grand Central Station, and second, numerous anonymously authored photographs of the full moon taken in different places at different times by users of Flickr. Attribution data—in the form of either run-on titles or accompanying documentation—make up significant portions of each series, underscoring the extent to which circumstances of authorship and ownership may intersect with a given shot’s aesthetic weight and referential currency. The complete title of the video projection Four Photographs of Rays of Sunlight in Grand Central Station, 2013–15, for example, incorporates a lengthy paragraph of names, dates, and provenances, while the work itself presents a slowly shifting sequence of not-quite-contiguous images.

But while it might still be possible to appreciate the video’s gentle morphing from shot to shot on a purely visual level, Umbrico’s other variations on the Grand Central theme refuse to allow the same possibility. Not Easy Canvases, from Four Photographs of Rays of Sunlight in Grand Central Station . . . , 2015, for instance, is a cluster of prints on canvas in which digital watermarks of the photographs’ online sources signal the photographs’ purported ownership by Getty Images and its ilk. A pair of prints from 2015 titled Grand Central Terminal Rays eBay hammer the final nail, cementing the photograph’s status as commodity, branded, sold, and rebranded to within an inch of its artistic life as print becomes poster becomes screen grab.

Yet though such projects are executed with theoretical consistency and technical aplomb, they lack toughness and mystery. Umbrico’s system and subject are robust but well-worn, and her formula often threatens to simply diffuse the strangeness it aims to fully deconstruct. The other works in “Silvery Light” bear this out; while they are initially seductive, their impact lessens with familiarity, which is particularly ironic given their heavy reliance on accumulation. There’s a beauty—or at least a satisfaction—to be found in the piling-up of closely related items, but even this can be subject to diminishing returns. Everyone’s Photos Any License (654 of 1,146,034 Full Moons on Flickr, November 2015), 2015, embodies the problem.

Discovering that the titular moon shots were copyrighted by Flickr users concerned with protecting their professional or semiprofessional results, Umbrico contacted every single photographer for permission to reproduce their work within hers. The result is a wall-filling multicolored patchwork of prints accompanied by a multipage listing of all their attendant details, the latter amounting to a kind of collectively authored camera instruction manual in its detailing of every shutter speed and lighting condition. Again, idea and object mesh seamlessly, but airlessly.

Michael Wilson