Alternative facts—no problem.
I'm thrilled to present Unreliable Narrator with co-curator Arthur Bruso. The exhibition will run until December 8 at Art House Gallery at Cast Iron Lofts, 300 Coles Street in Jersey City, NJ.
…A milk glass tabletop.
A blue-and-white cup from the Five & Ten.
Pencil, paper. Heavy cardboard sheet
Over which the letters A to Z
Spread in an arc, our covenant
With whom it would concern; also
The Arabic numerals, and YES and NO
What more could a familiar spirit want?
Well, when he knew us better, he’d suggest…
—James Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover, 1976
“Alternative facts” aren’t a problem for artists. Not when the alternatives are of service to their work. Artists have no responsibility to facts. They are not documentarians who try to provide the most accurate depiction of an event for historic purposes. An artist’s responsibility lies with their idea and how to best serve the spirit of the work. They needn’t slavishly render what they see in front of their eyes. If a landscape painter depicts a tree in a different location or removes it altogether the decision is in the service of the composition.
Ingres was well-known and celebrated for his manipulation of human anatomy to enhance the features of a portrait, for the vanity of the sitter, or to clarify a pose that would otherwise seem awkward if rendered as seen. He would paint noses smaller, or necks longer according to the demands of a commission.
Of the innumerable depictions of the likeness of Christ, none of them can claim to be a true portrait. There are only vague and conflicting descriptions of him in the Gospels. What we have are artist’s imaginative renderings. Most often these images take on the characteristics of the community where the artist lived, because of the accessibility of the sitters, and the desire for people to find in Christ a reflection of themselves.
Unlike painting, photography is presumed to be a truthful medium. The camera is a mechanical device without human emotions and desires—a passive recorder of whatever its lens is trained upon. In truth, photo-manipulation was practiced almost as soon as stable photographic images were created. Early photographers tried to emulate painterly effects in an effort to legitimize photography as an art form. In the mid-1800s, Gustave Le Gray was celebrated for his seascape photographs. He would employ separate negatives for the sky and the water, splicing them together in the darkroom to make one image composed of dramatic clouds over luminous seas. Even without the use of darkroom or Photoshop tricks, how a photographer frames a scene communicates an intention. What is included within the frame, what is left out? Too, the meaning assigned an image can change over time. As Susan Sontag wrote, “The photographer’s intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career; blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it.”1
The exhibition Unreliable Narrator, explores the stories artists tell through their work, and the truth of their images. Can we trust what we see, or have the facts been adjusted to further the artist’s goals? Both Tatiana Istomina and David Horton have created characters out of their imaginations and “proven” their existence with “evidence.” Istomina’s Blumenthal Project, consists of photographs, documents and artwork that offer the biography of an obscure Russian artist who never existed, but from the artifacts presented, we are convinced that she did. Horton takes a similar tack with The Life and Times of Thelonious Tinker, Cosmic Archeologist. Here Horton provides a two-page spread from a book that reproduces the notebook of eccentric scientist, Thelonious Tinker. The caveat is that there is no real Thelonious Tinker, no notebook nor a publication facsimile of the notebook. The entire project has been created by Horton and exists only in the drawings and text he provides.
Similarly, with Mounds of the Gila River Basin, Jimmy Fike has created a montage that conjures multiple meanings; either the dredgings of a pollution clean-up site, or the documentation of ancient Native American burial mounds. Fike is reluctant to specify exactly which since the images are neither, they are free images of piles of dirt and gravel, from the Gila River Basin community, culled from the internet.
Spencer Merolla also plays with our heads. Her sculptures Cupcake, Molasses Cookie, and Sucker, all look appetizingly like the real item, but a second look makes us realize that they are not edible. In fact, one of the main components is ash, giving the sculptures the sinister edge of the evocation of mortality.
Like Felix González-Torres, Stephanie Serpick takes our unmade beds and imbues them with emotion and pathos. The landscape of the tossed pillows and bedclothes, empty, forlorn; showing evidence of a person, but not the person, has become in her paintings a symbol of separation and despair. Her still life is telling a story, but how much of that sad story is the viewer bringing to it because of preceding artists like González-Torres’ evocative imagery and how much is the true story of Serpick. This uneasiness adds to the painting’s power and complicates the message.
John Paradiso’s Tulips and Pansies takes the time-honored maneuver of adopting the disparaging language of oppressors and lays claim to its power and retells his story on his own terms. While the homophobe jeers “pansy,” Paradiso embraces the hardiness and beauty of the flower as a point of pride. His collages celebrate “fluid masculinity.” Daniel Morowitz with The Great Red Dragon also asserts a queer visual vocabulary culled from gay erotica. He places it within an art historical context that includes depictions of epic religious and historical scenes.
Anna Riley uses chemistry as her artistic aide. Transparency in Which Certain Things are Crossed Out, is a sculptural piece that illustrates a process of glassmaking. Clear glass can be made from recycled amber glass, by the addition of zinc during the molten stage. This removes the amber color, leaving the blue-green glass announcing the presence of iron. This can be further decolorized by removing the iron and creating a more acceptable clear glass. Through this piece, Riley is illustrating not only the process, but also the notion of our visual perception of colorlessness.
In a move toward more timely and political content, Brett Wallace presents a video, Universal Basic Income, that touches on the complicated social ramifications of job automation creating job loss. What happens to the displaced workers and their income? As employers move steadily toward more automation and ever fewer employees, this displacement has become one of the major economic and social issues that we now face. Wallace does not in his 4 minutes and 30 seconds provide the answers to this issue. Universal basic income has been proposed as one solution, but how it would work has to be determined and indeed, has not really moved beyond a discussion. By using speech bots to narrate the video, Wallace is seemingly joining the automation side of the argument. But the entire work quickly becomes a hall of mirrors as the craft of the presentation collides with the automated voices and we begin to wonder which side the artist is on.
The truth is complicated. We do not live in a fairytale land where good and evil are clearly demarked. We live in a world where fiction and truth can be intertwined like a beanstalk and murky as a crystal gone dark. Artists are used to this territory. It is where they conceive their most creative play. It may be frustrating to those who are wishing for a clearer and more orderly vision of things, but like the unreliable narrator, it tells a more fascinating story. •
1 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003), 39.
ARTWORKS, top to bottom: John Paradiso, Tulips and Pansies, 2014; Jimmy Fike, Mounds of the Gila River Basin; Spencer Merolla, Cupcake, 2017; Brett Wallace, Universal Basic Income, 2017, video still.
Arthur Bruso | Raymond E Mingst
Emanuele James Cacciatore
Amanda J. Thackray