New York

Willa Nasatir, Conductor, 2017, C-print mounted on wood, 75 x 61 3/8".

Willa Nasatir, Conductor, 2017, C-print mounted on wood, 75 x 61 3/8".

Willa Nasatir

Whitney Museum of American Art

Willa Nasatir, Conductor, 2017, C-print mounted on wood, 75 x 61 3/8".

Camp, as Susan Sontag once described it, is expressed as a love of artifice and hyperbole, of “things-being-what-they-are-not.” Willa Nasatir makes pictures in this spirit; she coaxes both illusion and its failure from abstracted still-life photographs. Nasatir’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art—her first major institutional show in New York—includes ten large-scale C-prints and seven more modest gelatin silver prints (all works 2017). Glossy, a little melancholic, and very cinematic, each features illusion functioning variously. Though the images appear to have been digitally altered, each work is the result of the rephotographing of a single-exposure image. Nasatir constructs found-object assemblages on reflective flooring in her studio and subjects the arrangements to extreme lighting conditions; subsequently, she rephotographs the resulting print, obscuring it with various filters: colored Plexi or clear latex, pulled apart to create the look of lacy insect wings. The works recall Barbara Kasten’s “Constructs,” 1979–86, methodologically, but also for their neon noir aesthetic and mirror play. But these retool Kasten’s riff on the actual and the optic to address the body and its narrative.

Nasatir describes her images as portraits, a conceit that is campy in itself: props and prosthetics function as stand-ins for people, as well as exaggerations or distillations of character. For the artist, this approach avoids the human objectification so common in commercial photography and instead makes objects proxies for the body—in a mode more Surrealist than object-oriented ontology. (These works are purely anthropocentric.) The arranged props evoke a Hans Bellmer work gone butch—we see dismembered doll parts, gloves, and spindly-legged ladders, but also hard hats, hammers, and headlights. Of course camp, as a sensibility or genre, is in essence about liberation—a comeuppance to the dictates of taste. It’s worth noting that if we take the artist at her word, the subjects represented by these portraits are a relatively homogenous crew.

It’s worth noting, too, that these images don’t read as portraits—at least not of individuals. What the work best represents, I’d argue, is a contemporary worldview that is settling into a fog of deception and feint. Indeed, it has always been photography’s charge to reflect something of our world back to us. And there is something de rigueur to be said for the way Nasatir uses screens and filters and versioning to obscure her subjects—the way her works add up to a palimpsest of images of abstracted duration, the way they make analog digital effects. But what is more timely about her methodology, if it is not immediately apparent, is its reflection of the social and political ramifications of alternative facts and of a presidency writ by ratings as they seep into the general intellect. We’ve grown accustomed to “things-being-what-they-are-not.” As I scan, in vain, Nasatir’s seductive images for evidence of spatial or narrative coordinates, it occurs to me that we are living in a moment of unparalleled camp.

Annie Godfrey Larmon