New York

Brea Souders, Untitled #26 (from Vistas), 2019, watercolor on ink-jet print, 12 1⁄2 × 10".

Brea Souders, Untitled #26 (from Vistas), 2019, watercolor on ink-jet print, 12 1⁄2 × 10".

Brea Souders

It is not easy to make an imaginative photograph, because the document tends to solidify whatever it re-presents: The camera’s eye is not unlike Medusa’s, turning everything it sees into stone—petrifying it so that it loses subjective import, becomes hard matter of fact however much it is felt (or romanticized) by the person taking the picture. The camera’s ruthless gaze traps consciousness in reification, as Theodor Adorno surmised. According to the German philosopher, under the “total spell” of the camera’s view, “the subject is lifeless,” despite the artist’s attempt to infuse the photograph with feeling. The camera regards everything with a peculiar indifference, even while it seems to emphasize difference: This result is the implicit paradox of every photographic document. 

The “disembodied shadows of human beings,” as the press release refers to them, that haunted the great outdoors in Brea Souders’s “Vistas,” the photographer’s solo exhibition here, epitomized the self-alienation of capitalist technological society. The figures were anonymous, but their darkness suggested a melancholic—or even apocalyptic—sort of import, for they evoked a canceled reality, a denaturalized nature. “While researching Google Photo Sphere images of [national] parks,” the press release continues, Souders “observed that the algorithm removed people from its shared photos, seemingly for privacy reasons, but left behind their distorted and artifacted shadows,” i.e., traces of their appearance, which is one way of understanding what a photograph is. Souders appropriated these phantoms, along with the rugged settings in which they appear, by taking screenshots of the digitally doctored images and accenting them with watercolor.

It’s easy to envision Souders’s subjects as long dead or as simply having vanished into anonymity (yet the ruptured figures of Untitled #33 [from Vistas], and Untitled #34 [from Vistas], both 2020, suggest something a bit more ominous and feel as though they were cut into pieces by giant blades or were carefully mauled by some weirdly exacting creature). And while the national parks are still there, for Souders they exist only in an artificial form. These backdrops are merely found objects, indexes of experiences she ostensibly never had. No need or reason to visit Yosemite National Park and photograph the great falls there, as other artists before her have. All one requires here is a photographic simulation received through a novel algorithmic form. She sits safely before her computer’s screen, creating a digitally generated picture that conveys some unconscious feeling she might have about herself, or about the capital-C Conceptual approach behind her project. The work doesn’t necessarily take any aesthetic or expressive risks. Her choice of scene is predetermined by the idea she wants to convey. 

Souders’s art is sure-footed, competent, and reminiscent of certain subtle truths—above all, that our seemingly personal experiences are impersonally mediated by machines, subtly alienating us from ourselves via some form of mechanical objectification. Her presentation reminded us that the photographic reification of appearances is a kind of defensive substitute for actual experience. Mediated by the computer, existing in virtual or simulated space—a sort of secondary, unwittingly ironical space—Souders’s perversely positivistic works betray the tragic point they want to make, which is the existential failing of so much Conceptual art, where the image is finally beside the point of the idea that assigns it meaning.