Sarah Charlesworth makes the kind of art that’s easy to respect but hard to feel passionate about. Born of a rigorous curiosity, carefully thought through and impeccably crafted, her big Cibachrome prints display an admirable commitment to cutting through the dense fog of images perpetually rolling over modern life. Yet the capacity for her photographs to compete with that seductive torrent falls somewhat short, lending an unexpected poignancy to her endeavor.
“Sarah Charlesworth: A Retrospective,” which opened recently at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art, brings together 47 works made during the last 20 years. The earliest are prints made of photographs as they appeared on the front pages of newspapers; one series follows a total eclipse of the sun as it was reported in papers across North America, the other records an infamous act of terrorism as reported across Europe. Together, the two series announce that Charlesworth’s aim is not to be a photographer in the traditional sense, but to understand how photographs actually work in the world.
Born in 1947, Charlesworth is one of a number of (mostly) New York artists who make up the photographic wing of appropriation art. A mini-movement of the late-1970s and 1980s, appropriation is a technique similar to traditional found-object art, in which borrowing images that already exist is favored over making new ones. (An appropriation artist literally takes photographs, as it were.)
As a technique, appropriation has somewhat limited, sometimes provocative uses. Found pictures are put into an unexpected context, in order that we might see them anew.
Louis Grachos, director of SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico, where the retrospective originated, erroneously writes in the accompanying catalog that it was born of the pervasive prominence of Conceptual art in the United States and Europe. The error is a common one. For although it’s certainly true that Charlesworth’s work is deeply informed by Conceptual art, photographic appropriation was established as an important artistic technique almost a decade before Conceptualism even appeared on the scene. Witness Wallace Berman’s great Verifax collages in L.A., or Robert Rauschenberg’s memorable photo-transfer drawings in New York, both flourishing by 1958.
A very direct connection to Pop art is also evident in Charlesworth’s first affecting work: 1980’s “Stills,” which recall a famous print by Andy Warhol. Four grainy, 6-foot-tall, black-and-white enlargements of tabloid-style photographs of men and women falling from urban buildings show human bodies ambiguously suspended in space. These anonymous figures, arms and legs akimbo, are frozen between rapidly receding life and the imminent likelihood of death.
Were they pushed? Did they jump? Does the intention finally matter?
Strangely enough, these haunting appropriations picture the viewer’s own suspended state in the gravity-free zone of our modern image glut. As we try to find our footing, survival is an open question.
Significantly, in these works Charlesworth begins to take into full account an audience actually standing in front of her own images. That critical awareness of a physical viewer looking at a photographic object quickly becomes a prominent leitmotif in her work, one that belies the vaporous dematerialization of the object so often ascribed to conceptual art.
Take the extensive series of Cibachromes titled “Objects of Desire” (1983-88). Fragments of appropriated pictures are isolated against solid-color grounds: a white, bias-cut satin evening gown, redolent of Jean Harlow, against black; a pink lotus blossom above a golden bowl against green; a painted crucifix against crimson.
The solid colors seem like blaring signs. Black equals death, green stands for nature, crimson is passion. Coupled with a specific image-sign, the color-sign starts a conversation.
Sometimes image-panels are paired as diptychs. In one, a golden bowl and an alabaster column are each isolated against bright blue grounds. In another, an ancient sculpture of a man with an enormous phallus is shown against a green ground, while the black panel adjacent shows a voluptuous, vase-shaped doorway in a garden wall, opening onto a verdant path.
Because we tend to look right through photographs, casually assuming that they’re faithful windows on an absent subject, Charlesworth goes out of her way to emphasize the material presence of her pictures as fabricated objects. Most of these pairs are framed so that the Cibachromes abut, but one picture is in a thicker frame than the other; so, one image stands slightly in front of the other, refusing the flat, planar seamlessness of ordinary photographs.
To return to the punning title of the series, these are indeed objects of desire. The term describes both the images in her work and her aspirations for the work.
Appropriately, the most compelling feature of this group is its flashy glamour, which is brought to a high pitch by the use of brightly lacquered frames and slick lamination over already glossy Cibachrome surfaces. These pictures are in fact so glossy that they function as quasi-mirrors.
Always you see yourself reflected in the photograph, whether in the womb-like golden bowl and phallic alabaster column, the Harlow-esque evening dress or the elaborate crucifix. The projection of your desires participates in creating meaning for the pictured signs.
Charlesworth works in series, exploring one idea to its conclusion. Subsequent series also play with the formal aspects of presentation.
The life-size images in “Academy of Secrets” (1989) seem to be symbolic portraits. Their matte, unreflective surfaces make the symbols appropriately cryptic and private, somehow psychologically impenetrable.
The “Natural Magic” series (1992-93), in which obviously faked magic tricks are Charlesworth’s first non-appropriated images, is shown in black, vaguely funereal frames. Their oval shape quietly suggests that “it’s all done with mirrors.”
The series “Doubleworld” (1995), in which still-lifes photographed in the studio allude to specific art historical subjects, is made from glossy laminated Cibachromes now mounted behind glass. The layering of Charlesworth’s art and the established history of art is echoed in the double reflection that results, one in which you see yourself constantly being shadowed by a kind of ghost-self.
This conscientious commitment to exploiting the viewer’s visual experience as a tool to elucidate the artist’s intended exploration is the strongest feature of Charlesworth’s work. The nature of photographic experience in the modern image fog is her academically fashionable subject, but at least her emphasis on the capacities for visual sensation struggles against the tendency of most such analysis to become dully theoretical.
* Museum of Contemporary Art, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla, (619) 454-3541, through June 14. Closed Mondays.