Claude Monet’s painted waterlilys and haystacks, Eadweard Muybridge’s film-based motion studies, Marcel Duchamp’s multiple readymades of found objects: serial explorations of subject, form, and media has been a hallmark of modern artistic practice since the advent of photography in the mid-19th century. As the influential philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) noted, art in the age of mechanical reproduction ignited a profound shift in notions of authenticity, originality, and value: if an image can be produced by a machine, what is its intrinsic value, and how can it be deemed original or true, a documentation of reality or an illusory sleight of mechanical hand?
The infinite slippage between reality and illusion is the now-familiar territory explored by the six artists whose works are featured in the inaugural exhibition in Metropole. From otherworldly figures by Loretta Lux, Annie Kevans, and Kay Ruane, to Sarah Lyon’s object portraits, to the multi-media, contemporary mythologies mined and mixed by Jay Bolotin and Sanford Biggers, the art in OFF-SHOOT repeats imagery and ideas in a wide-ranging investigation of identity, history, and the liminal, alluring spaces between fantasy and reality.
Rendered in soft palettes punctuated by bright red lips, the faces in French painter Annie Kevans’s oil-on-paper portraits appear dreamy, with heads sometimes leaning to the side, and eyes gazing into a undefined distance. All the Presidents’ Girls are not portraits of power or privilege; these are the artist’s envisioning of the women (and a man) who purportedly were the lovers of US heads of state. “My paintings reflect my interests in power, manipulations, and the role of the individual in inherited belief systems,” says Kevans, “It is important for me to examine the duality of truth and falsehood through my work, which I do by creating ‘portraits’ which may or may not be based on real documentation.” Like gossip, Kevans’s portraits combine the known with the imagined, highlighting the manipulation of truth in the recording of history, while excavating, with imagination, those marginalized.
Imaginary portraiture also serves as site and subject for Kay Ruane and Loretta Lux. The carefully drawn, well-dressed figures in American Ruane’s Spoon Sisters and To The Tracks evoke other eras, emerging from an undefined past. In fact, the artist uses herself and those familiar to her to create scenes varying in time and space, plumbing imagined pasts to explore present identity. Past and present merge with futuristic fantasy in German photographer Loretta Lux’s eerie, painterly portraits of ethereal children. Pale, with large eyes, and clad in clothing too small or large, or in costume, these stylized children’s features appear exaggerated, either digitally or in contrast to the spaces in which they are deployed. Lux is also a painter: the bucolic backgrounds of her Renaissance-style portraits are sometimes photographs of Lux’s paintings, digitally combined with the head shots of her subjects, which while reading as children, appear to be willed into existence. Some, such as Troll 2 and Portrait of a Girl 2, seem to belong wholly to the realm of art: their profiles, poses, clothing, and props are selected by the artist in homage to centuries-old works by Old Masters such as Velazquez, Goya, Bronzino, Piero della Francesco, and others. Contemporary portraiture, as practiced by Lux, Ruane, and Kevans, subverts the form’s documentary convention into a platform for discovering more nuanced truths through illusion and fantasy.
Louisville-based Sarah Lyon engages in a literal and conceptual interrogation of photography in her Camera Collection, a series of portraits of cameras. Invoking Marcel Duchamp’s legacy of adopting found objects into art—his famed readymades—Lyon transforms instrument into concept, object into subject, and reverses the standard trajectory of the viewer’s gaze. Varying in make, model, or size, the cameras face the viewer, trading places, and, powerless to perform their usual function, instead illustrate repetition and variety, while alluding to the narcissism that drives the desire to be seen, to be documented, to be an image—desires thwarted by Lyon’s collective object-portrait.
Form and function, media and message intertwine in Jay Bolotin’s multi-disciplinary masterwork, The Jackleg Testament, which includes opera, film, woodcuts, drawings, prints, and paper reliefs. A visual artist, musician, and storyteller based in Cincinnati, Bolotin began The Jackleg Testament Trilogy in the 1990s as a series of woodcuts. The project now includes drawings, prints, an opera, and the first woodcut motion picture. Part I transforms the Biblical story of Adam and Eve into a tale about Eve being lured from Eden by a jack-in-the box. This “Jackleg” character is derived from the Southern colloquial figure of a ne’er do well, a troublemaker. Part 2 references the story of Enochs, a character said to have who gone and returned from Heaven, drawn from one of several books of the Old Testament that were rejected from the sanctioned version of the ancient text. In Bolotin’s transformative tale, Enochs is also the son of the only Jewish coalminer in Kentucky. Like his 18th-century predecessor William Blake, Bolotin spins a range of cultural and historical references within a fantastical, mutable, and visionary mythology.
Allusions to multiple, interconnected cultural legacies is a hallmark of New York-based Sanford Biggert’s sculptures, performances, and installations. His series of illuminated Plexiglas and LED smile sculptures reference popular culture, African-American history, European literature, and Eastern philosophy. The bright colors and blinking lights of Cheshire (2008) and Smirk (2009) suggest carnival signs, while the forms—broad red lips surrounding white teeth—allude to the racist images of African-Americans used in early advertisements for Banania chocolate, Little Black Sambo, Darkie toothpaste, and more. Biggers mines the history of blackface and its role in race relations in numerous videos, performances, installations, and sculpture; like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat—from which the title and imagery are drawn—the artist’s work remains ambiguous and provocative at once. In Alice in Wonderland, the cat offers brief, sometimes befuddling philosophical statements, or koans. Biggers, who has lived and worked Japan, samples deftly from seemingly disparate mythologies in his illuminating explorations of contemporary identity. At the dawn of the age of mechanical reproduction, Walter Benjamin praised the French poet Charles Baudelaire for his multi-sensory engagement with urban life; Baudelaire’s synesthesia perfectly expressed the new, industrial modernity of turn-of-the 20th century Europe. Today, Sanford Biggers’s self-described, “syncretic, creative approach” illuminates the cross-cultural construction of contemporary identity by looking forward and back, east and west, inward and outward, in series of works that give voice, vision, and form to reality and fantasy in this age of digital, global reproduction.
–Alice Gray Stites, 21c Chief Curator and Director of Arts Programming
Jay Bolotin (Cincinnati-based)
Excerpts From the (Formerly) Lost Manuscripts of Benjamin Weill
Restored and Drawn by Jay Bolotin, 2009
Graphite drawings on paper
Annie Kevans (British)
All the Presidents’ Girls
Oil on paper, 2009
Alice Glass (Lyndon B. Johnson)
Kay Summersby (Dwight D. Eisenhower)
Lucia Gilbert Calhoun (James A. Garfield)
Lucy Page Mercer (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
Maria Halpin (Grover Cleveland)
Monica Lewinsky (Bill Clinton)
Venus (George Washington)
William Rufus DeVane King (James Buchanan)
Anthony Goicolea (American, born Cuba)
I’ll Show You Yours if You Show Me Mine, 2002
Related 1b, 2010
David Harpe (American)
Unhappy Presidents, 2007
Giclée dry mount
Abe is not happy $5 (Abraham Lincoln)
George is not happy $1 (George Washington)
Andy is not happy $20 (Andrew Jackson)
Tommy is not happy $2 (Thomas Jefferson)
Sarah Lyon (Louisville-based)
Camera Collection, 2009
Archival pigment prints
Kodak No 2 Folding Cartridge Primo
Loretta Lux (German)
Milo 2, 2004
Portrait of a Girl #1, 2000
Portrait of a Girl #2, 2000
Troll 2, 2000
Sanford Biggers (American)
Aluminum, Plexiglass, LEDs
Kay Ruane (American)
Spoon Sisters (Two Women with Spoons), 2010
Graphite on paper
To the Tracks #1, 2010
Graphite on Dura-lar
To the Tracks #2, 2010
Graphite on Dura-lar
Vee Speers (Australian)
Immortal #3, Penda, 2010
Cibachrome on dibond
Zilla Leutenegger (Swiss)
Single-channel video projection and tempera paint