New York

Vikky Alexander, Ecstasy (detail), 1982, triptych, framed C-prints, overall 24 × 102 3/4".

Vikky Alexander, Ecstasy (detail), 1982, triptych, framed C-prints, overall 24 × 102 3/4".

Vikky Alexander

Downs & Ross | Reade Street

Vikky Alexander, Ecstasy (detail), 1982, triptych, framed C-prints, overall 24 × 102 3/4".

What happens to a copy as it ages? This show of Vikky Alexander’s photographs from 1981 to 1983, produced at the apex of appropriation art, put the question front and center. Though Alexander’s work was not included in 2009’s lauded “Pictures Generation” overview at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, her photographic strategy from this period maps neatly onto that of the loosely affiliated group (most of whose members hailed from California and were slightly the Canadian artist’s senior). Alexander culled these photographic images—pictures of leggy women—from fashion editorial spreads and advertisements; her works evidence the same discerning eye that Richard Prince trained on his clipped subjects, but she strategically deploys her selections in the service of a feminist mandate.

Time has bestowed upon these works the lush, Vaseline-smeared-lens look of the vintage—probably because most of us have never seen them before. (They reemerged only five years ago at galleries in Calgary and Toronto, some thirty years after they were first shown.) One looks at Prince’s living rooms and cigarette smokers or at Sherrie Levine’s airbrushed Amazons framed within silhouettes of presidential busts and thinks of the contextual underpinnings that gird them, the reams of discourse that now frame their reception. One looks at Alexander’s angora-swathed model, however, and thinks of the 1980s (and perhaps of Isabella Rossellini, whom a keen eye will identify as the work’s subject).

The triptych Ecstasy, 1982, located at the gallery’s Eldridge Street space, is made up of two images. One is an overhead shot of angoraed Rossellini, whose neck arches toward the head of the partner kissing her breast, creating a sinuous line that draws attention down from her face, flushed with desire, to his. The other is a portrait from another shoot, in which the actress appears alone against a white background, eyes closed and head cocked at a similar angle, the framing additionally highlighting her relative lack. The work refers to Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647–52, whose marbled saint and seraph also swoon, their bodies leaning gently toward the right. According to Teresa’s account, the angel’s spear pierced her to her “very entrails,” and when he withdrew it, she reeled from the “sweetness of this excessive pain.” The artist thus saddles the central image with inadequacy: Compared to the rapture of Bernini’s coital stand-in, who wouldn’t feel less-than?

Other compositions now register as somewhat ham-fisted.Located at the gallery’s Christie Street space, Pieta, 1981, which flips Michelangelo’s titular rendering of Christ’s body in Mary’s arms to feature a male model gazing down at a reclining female, underwhelmed. Two other works, Portage Glacier and Yosemite, both 1982, featuring glamour shots superimposed on mountain ranges (arctic and temperate, respectively), were heavy-handed in their commentary on the constructedness of “natural” female and geographical beauty. Yet a reading informed solely by the selection and arrangement of the works’ re-photographed source images and their inversions of classical references overlooks the materiality exterior to their frames. In a display strategy she would use throughout the decade, Alexander mounted the prints behind highly reflective Plexiglas so that viewers were met with their own reflections within the tableaux. By underscoring the images’ physical presence in space and their relationship to our own, she complicates our conventional understanding of “straight” appropriation—and its attendant commentary on lived reality as a mediated, disembodied experience—showing instead that the body, far from unmoored and intangible, is ever more vulnerable to the pernicious effects of its reproduction. The work thus extends beyond the Pictures generation’s strategy of preemptive collusion with commercial media, implicating maker and viewer alike. While the print succumbs to the indignities of age, the face reflected in its gaze retains its élan vital.

Cat Kron