Anne Collier, Woman Crying (Comic) #16, 2019, C-print, 77 3⁄4 × 49 3⁄4". From the series “Woman Crying (Comic),” 2018–.

Anne Collier, Woman Crying (Comic) #16, 2019, C-print, 77 3⁄4 × 49 3⁄4". From the series “Woman Crying (Comic),” 2018–.

Anne Collier

There are many good reasons to cry. Many bad, also. Love, laughter, fear, fury, disgust, relief, vacuity, loss. (“Loss is legion,” Gillian Rose writes.) Scant few human reactions denote such an abundance of emotion as the single tear shed.

But, given its ability to symbolize so universally, the tear in isolation frustrates. Cropped to close quarters, liquid on a stranger’s face, the lone tear lacks the contextualizing information required to determine its causality. “Tears are signs,” croons Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse (1977), “not expressions.” Displaced from their flesh and blood, these signs point everywhere and nowhere. They signify in such plenty that they signify nothing at all.

Anne Collier’s tears are white. They are white, and they are captured from the front or from the side, although two are shot through with the cobalt-blue gleam of nearby irises. Collier’s tears are whiter than they should be, because they anchor the comic-book reproductions that frame them, because they are bordered by dense outlines, because they drip on blushing cheeks. Collier’s tears are white, whiter than anything, because these tears are designed to be seen.

Collier’s ongoing series “Woman Crying (Comic)” and “Tear (Comic),” both 2018–, of which ten were displayed at this recent exhibition at Galerie Neu, draw from American romance comics marketed to adolescent girls between the 1950s and the 1980s. The photographs, which isolate individual instances of women crying, retain the hallmarks of this era: Benday dots, CMYK process colors, thick patches of black crosshatch shading; the manner in which women were reduced to vulnerable, eroticized archetypes of femininity to be hurt or rescued by angry male leads and emulated by young female readers.

Collier reduces these reductions further, concealing any and all expressions of (perceived) weakness and allowing the rolling tears to exist unto themselves. Hers is an archive of enforced emotion, in which suffering is framed as both a cruelty endured and a cruelty shared among too many. Hers is a mechanics of emotion laid bare: a study in the art of lust and power and its mass production in the name of entertainment and control. It is no small coincidence that Collier’s photographs preserve the comics’ original printing errors: smudges, misregistration, pressure points on paper. These tears are man-made in every sense.

Barthes, again: “By my tears, I tell a story.” The women Collier turns her hand to are refused this right. Their tears, like their tales, are those of others: the men they grieve, cower from, desire. But in order to address this inequity, Collier does not give voice to her comic-book heroines; instead, she moves to amplify, by way of stark compositional repetition, their imposed silence. In isolating the tear, that steadfast cipher for female vulnerability, she demonstrates the manner in which pop-cultural depictions of women are reductive, dehumanizing, flat. She displays (and therefore disrupts) the conventional gendering of voyeurism. Now it is Collier who looks—looks at the manner in which others have looked before.

It all ends in tears. Or begins, perhaps. In Collier’s series, such narrative apogees are elusive: Context and characterization are cut away until all that remains are the tear-shaped insignia of those who cannot be reduced to one-dimensional representations alone. No longer are these tears expressions of the banal desires of others, nor are they narrative tools dispatched so as to advance a plot or the profile of a male lead. They remain fragmented, anonymous, complex, unreadable, collective. Which is to say: They signify in abundance, thus retaining the most human qualities of the very individuals that they denote.