4.4.18 — A Flatbed Up to Nature

As a follow-up to last time on “Thinking Machines,” allow me a late review that somehow fell through the cracks. I also bring them together, with more on art and technology, as a longer review and my latest upload.

Art, they say, holds a mirror up to nature—but, honestly, why bother? Why not bring nature to art? Simply place it on the glass of a photocopier, close the lid, and push a button.

And artists have, with what the Whitney just recently called “Experiments in Electrostatics,” through March 25. The small show of works in series from its collection infiltrates the museum’s education department, which itself looks like the offices of a small business and probably has a copier. What could be more natural?

The medium seems only natural for an artist even now, working a day job that uses up way too much time and way too much paper. Imagine the temptation of the copy machine, at the office for free. There was even, briefly, an International Society of Copier Artists with hundreds of members and a show in Italy in 1986. Yet no small part of the machine’s appeal was its novelty. The company that later became Xerox had produced one as early as 1948 and brought it to market in 1959, but Robert Whitman still marveled at it in 1974, when he placed oranges on its bed. Edward Meneeley must have felt that he had entered the very heart of the beast at IBM in 1966.

Nature in their hands takes quite a beating, as is only natural, but emerges with a greater glow. The oranges take on a stranger and deeper coloring from the machine’s charged particle beams—and from Whitman’s use of fabric for equally colorful backgrounds. Meneeley’s grainy verticals might pass for Minimalism in monochrome or, up close, biomorphic abstraction, but they derive their patterning from office supplies and other detritus at IBM. A fourth artist, Lesley Schiff, blurs the borders of nature and artifice once again in 1981. The hand holding a tulip belongs to a mannequin, and the floral vision on which they rest belongs to more fabric. Yet the hand looks ever so real from its very awkwardness, and the tulip has turned a blood-stained white.

Their ghostliness has a precedent in photograms, or what Man Ray called his Rayograms. So does holding objects right up against the plane that will take their impression. Sheets from ISCA would have looked at home in Dada in Zurich at that, like the face of the medium’s creator in 1938, Chester Carlson, corrupted by cryptic signs as in a collage. Yet there is no direct imprint on the glass plate, unlike with photograms. The device mediates the results after all, much like a camera. Schiff alters the image further through copier settings and by lifting the lid.

The medium also anticipates art’s turn to newer technologies—the very technologies that led just this year to the demise and acquisition of Xerox. David Hockney was already working with a fax machine, but artists are still duplicating, manipulating, and duplicating again thanks to scanners, printers, and Photoshop. Every device promises to deliver on the perfect copy, much like a camera, and every device moves a step or two further from the original. Think of photography approaching painting and painting approaching photography. Think of those frustrating days in the office with toner running low, smears, and paper jams. A postmodern critique of the “originality of the avant-garde” takes on new meaning.

This art is self-referential, like the portrait of Carlson above the word Xerografia, but not only self-referential. Schiff points to nature’s transience in her series title, Seasons, along with her imagery and variety. And the transience can easily become a threat. A gyroscope spins in a dark woods, while the plastic props in a fishbowl come to life. A beachball in three colors looks like the blade of a knife, and the mannequins continue their role as flaccid, vulnerable, and fragmented bodies. With every copy, they seem to say, something is lost and something else refuses to go away.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.