Scenes of Mystic Writing

John Haber
in New York City

Summer 2007: Photography's Strange Magic

In "A Note upon the Mystic Writing Pad," Freud compared the mind to a child's toy, a clear plastic sheet covering a wax tablet. As one writes, letters appear. Raising the plastic sheet, one obtains a clean slate at will, but the impressions remain and accumulate in the hard wax below. If one looks closely, they may even subtly rewrite the message above.

The impress of nature

Writing in 1924, Freud argued that sensations and their representations may come and go, but only on a conscious level. He suggests a contrast between what human beings intend to be and all that they are.

Photography, too, comes across as the impress of nature, guided by and mapping a conscious mind. It, too, can leave multiple impressions and can accept any number of overlays. One might call every roll of film or sheet of digital memory a mystic writing pad, even a magical one. No wonder that it has a claim to truth, but also the claim to a magic act. Early practitioners used photographs to "document" spiritual realms, as for Laura Larson today, often suspiciously like Victorian images of sexy women. Dada and Surrealism played with photography as easily as with any other found object. Agata Olek Oleksiak and Naomi White's The Human Condition (Supreme Trading, 2007)

In praise of Freud, Richard Rorty writes of how a poet "comes to terms with the blind impress which chance has given him, to make a self for himself by redescribing that impress in terms which are, if only marginally, his own." Like Freud, artists may insist more on the marginal. They ask one to imagine every roll of film and every sheet of digital memory as a mystic writing pad—even a magical one. It can look lovely, but it need not abstract away from the things in the name of art. It definitely counts as "defamiliarization," but it need not discard appearances in the name of conceptual critique. Transience and illusion are part of reality, too.

In the course of a summer, four different shows have looked to photography's Surrealist mode, and each puts women behind the camera rather than in the centerfold. Agata Olek Oleksiak and Naomi White bring René Magritte to one of New York's most fashionably surreal neighborhoods. "Role Exchange" includes Marcel Duchamp in its classy group show, but it also allows any number of women to play whatever part they look, often of the opposite sex. In "Strange Magic," Anne Collier, Sara VanDerBeek, Liz Deschenes, Eileen Quinlan, and Amy Granat bring a woman's gaze alive, with hardly a body in sight. And Peggy Preheim crosses media to build, ever so slowly and precisely, a dream.

Could something connect the two halves of the story—photography without documentary realism and a woman's gaze? Is it about magic or gender? Is it truly "New Photography," "Photo-Poetics," or "The Photographic Object"? It could involve not just traditions of role play or slipping off camera. It mmight also mean art's skepticism of old stories—and a woman's skepticism of Rorty's masculine pronoun.

Jacques Derrida took Freud to task for missing out on his own metaphor. The mind as "the scene of writing" and rewriting, he argued, should keep anyone from simply reading off its meanings. The artists this summer may have gone a step further. For them, images can obliterate even the handwriting. Their art has something serious in common with child's play, though not quite the way Freud intended.

That masked man

Even before summer comes to an end, I look back in disbelief. Maybe I had made it up all along, out of fantasies of "emotional freedom" and longings for a time and place "where logic does not drive one mad." Actually, I have just quoted Agata Olek Oleksiak and Naomi White, who call their summer collaboration "The Liberator."

The title notwithstanding, liberation here does not come easily. In a row of photographs, the masked heads and naked bodies could belong to a criminal conspiracy or to their hostages. The loosely knitted fabric of their ski masks, like a coarser and more colorful version of fishnet stockings, evokes another kind of bondage. At the center of the room the same fabric binds a large rock, which in turn looms over a kind of well trapping other anonymous activity on video. More disguises obliterate other faces, in a photograph that blends the textures of foreground figures with the walls behind. A second installation, along a rear wall, brings that photograph to life but with the person missing, as if the viewer belongs in the trap.

In the game of forced presence and absence, one recognizes easily enough another missing person—and one candidate for the missing liberator as well. The works all respond to well-known paintings by René Magritte, some impressionistically and others like glossy illustrations. The rear wall borrows its title from The Human Condition, and the rocky isle hovers over the sea in his Castle in the Pyrenees. The dialogue of entrapment and freedom appears in his Menaced Assassin or On the Threshold of Liberty. Magritte's lovers kiss through shrouds, and his Seducer among so many others toys with object and landscape. Magritte supplies the original for the bowler hats, textures, and any number of other puns as well.

The artists are clearly enjoying their homage, but they mean it sincerely, too. A woman lying on her back displays cash, the silent call of a mandolin, and most obviously her legs amid desert shrubs and gravel. White, having missed Gibraltar or the Pyrenees, looked all the way to the American West for rocks like these. She has, however, also updated them for Williamsburg. Everyone looks ever so young and artistic, insofar as people without faces can, and they wear tight athletic gear, sheer stockings, or nothing at all. White's previous photographs, "The Makeup Eaters," make me think of the lipstick arrayed like an antiaircraft battery in James Rosenquist, but with the heat of advertising today instead of Pop Art's chill.

The border between photography and installation or between conceptual art and abstraction supplies a further art update. So does the theme of gender, as in Oleksiak's chosen medium, the fabric. Repression may have political meanings for her, too, as a Polish artist. The one obvious authority figure present, a seated figure with a glowing sphere in place of a head, has one hand stuck in his military uniform—the security bureaucrat as aspiring Napoleon. He also has an apple before his chest and more fabric the other hand. Like him, the artists hold out both the temptation to transgress and the punishment.

This is fun stuff, in part for the familiar allusions and in part for their elusiveness. One need not push it too hard. If I completed the installation by my presence along the rear wall, the artists in fact intended a live actor. However, the gallery amounts to an open garage space adjacent to a Williamsburg bar, and the blistering hot afternoon did not go well with ski clothing. Fantasies of entrapment and liberation, whether in sex or in art, have their conventions and their limits, too. The results may not match Magritte's metaphysics of representation, but they make explicit the desires behind it all.

From dressing up to a dressing down

"Role Exchange" builds on another icon of early Modernism and another master of role play and gender reversal, Marcel Duchamp. Yet it sticks to a contemporary American canon, to the point of a greatest hits collection. Despite its title, it all comes down to that wonderfully American preoccupation with sex—or, for you postmodern types, gender. Almost all the contributors photograph themselves cross-dressing, including Duchamp himself.

They run from Andy Warhol decidedly in drag to Cindy Sherman on the modest and incisive scale one forgets she had back in 1978, Adrian Piper with an eye to a young black man's identity, and Matthew Barney or Barney drawings with all eyes as ever on himself. It becomes almost refreshing to experience other exchanges, such as Marina Abramovic as a prostitute, Robert Morris as the king of S&M, Gillian Wearing as her grandmother, and Janine Antoni's parents as one another.

Brought together and after so much repeated exposure, even these offer more thrills than shocks. Whereas Diane Arbus leaves one wondering whom to call a freak and whom to call real, a show this smooth makes it hard to see nagging questions rather than artistry. The power of a "museum-quality show" allows the aura of a museum to wash out the fluidity of art. It almost suggests that, when it comes to the unconscious, women really do need a room of their own. Only then, perhaps, can role exchange go past a change of clothes to the selves beneath. Perhaps only women can move echoes of Surrealism from a dressing up to a dressing down.

Remarkably, the five women in "Strange Magic" say much more about gender without really trying. They offer merely their strangeness and their magic, with hardly a naked body, a trace of the photographer, or at times even an obvious subject in sight. One could call it a passionate detachment, as for Sarah Jones in the darkness of a ideal garden. Yet the very entrance supplies the first hint of a woman's reply to the infamous male gaze. The creepy close-up of an eye by Anne Collier—reminiscent of another Magritte—contains within it another eye, more raw and personal in its color than the first. Naturalism gives way to Surrealism, which in turn gives way to an affection for the individual and the real.

Collier's not quite identical images from The Eyes of Laura Mars would be even more puzzling, even if the eyes did not belong to Faye Dunaway as a photographer. Sara VanDerBeek allows a vocabulary for art and the feminine to enter just as indirectly. She photographs assemblages that look like living-room display cases for family photographs, except that the photos crop and abstract away from art history. With due respect to Richard Rorty, they become both far more and eerily less than marginally her own.

At the opposite extreme, Liz Deschenes allows a sense of the physical to emerge from photography as abstraction, like Sara VanDerBeek, with large moiré patterns. With her abstract radial patterns, Eileen Quinlan makes wonderful use of color and texture, as if Mark Grotjahn or Torben Giehler had an understanding of fine fabric. Amy Granat gets the back room to herself for photograms of destroyed material—like what Man Ray, the inventor of photograms, called an Object to Be Destroyed. The objects, together with the darkness and spotlights, suggest an underground movie, but also a clearing for fresh organic growth.

Body doubles

After all that, can anyone remember photography's claims to truth, as in the cut-paper documentary photography of Thomas Demand? Peggy Preheim, too, traffics in past genres, small images, fragile media, and precise execution. Work like this cries out for the term exquisite, but it will not settle so easily for a left-handed compliment. It pulls one close to admire it. Yet it also makes one aware of each image's isolation and, conversely, its place in an enigmatic narrative.

Small, white plaster profiles rest on black-and-white striped cushions, like a memorial to a doll's house. The pencil drawings nearby, many of animals and all barely larger than a postage stamp, approach the delicacy of silverpoint. On the far wall, simpler outline sketches of bones contain segments in vivid detail, as if to put flesh on the bones. They could glimpse past structure to reality, except that they may represent other body parts entirely. In a side room, graphite gives way to photography, still in black and white, as the eyes and flesh expand to fill their sheets. Their silvery hues make them even ghostlier than the drawings.

Plainly some story cries out to be heard, but it has a lot to explain. I did not even mention a couple of alterations to French banknotes, which divide the faces like Picasso's Girl Before a Mirror. In fact, the presentation insists on not adding up. The small display cases for the plaster emphasize their apartness. So does the largely empty paper surrounding each drawing. The photographs look as if a Surrealist had taken them some time ago, if only I could pin down who. In more than one way, then, Preheim presents fragments of a dream.

A somewhat larger display case in the side room supplies one clue to the dreamer. The plaster skin of a naked female body covers a sleeping girl like a blanket. Have the girl's desires taken shape and run free, or are they smothering her? Or is the girl a mature woman's dream of freedom and innocence, along with the dogs and horses? I liked Preheim's questions almost as much as her skill. I can forgive her if the installation ever grows precious or diffuse.

Downstairs in the main space, Jason Meadows spells out everything quite well, thank you. Frankenstein in psychedelic colors says hello on the way in, as if anyone needed to parody the Whitney's "Summer of Love." Presumably for his lab equipment, a large open rectangle of thick black beams has zigzags along the sides, like a wiggly Tony Smith. Another monster in metal and wood adapts Joel Shapiro for the art world's freak show. Shelves, embellished with colored plastic, cross the Bauhaus with the worst suburban furniture, and so on. One needs work like this, I suppose, as a reminder of how knowing Chelsea's premature stars must behave.

Preheim knows much better how to misbehave, although I wanted her display as small and measured as the work. The white of the paper speaks for itself about isolation, without a well-spaced hanging on long walls. Brought closer, too, the repeated motifs could come closer a redoubling. They could make one image the false double of its neighbor, just as the use of past styles insists that "we have all been here before." For Freud, the uncanny turns on just that. Then again, it cannot be easy redoubling Surrealism, even when the redoubling keeps changing its gender.

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"The Liberator," by Agata Olek Oleksiak and Naomi White, ran at Supreme Trading through August 5, 2007, "Role Exchange" at Sean Kelly through August 3, "Strange Magic" at Luhring Augustine through July 28, and Peggy Preheim and Jason Meadows at Tanya Bonakdar, through June 16. Jacques Derrida's "Freud and the Scene of Writing" appeared in Writing and Difference (University of Chicago Press, 1978). I quote Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989).


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