It’s All Been Done Before at FORUM artspace

A common conundrum for the contemporary artist is the cachet associated with “the new” coupled with there is a limited amount of terrain that has been left unexplored. How does one contribute meaningfully to cultural dialogues that have been taking place for centuries? Through the introduction of new chemicals, technologies and materials, artists sometimes attempt to present different perspectives to age-old conversations. In the grand scheme of art history, photography is a relative newcomer, but it still grapples with similar, if not the same, visual and conceptual concerns with which other 2D and 3D artists have dealt for generations—spatial relations, shape, line, color, value, texture, objectness, representation, abstraction, performativity, fictions, “truth,” and the undeniable burden of history. Yet photography also benefits and suffers from a proliferation unknown to other mediums: cell phone and other digital cameras are in more and more hands taking more and more pictures.

It’s All Been Done Before‘s premise acknowledges photography’s unique predicament and embraces it. What do you do when there is nothing new under the sun? Curator and artist Brandon Juhasz proposes a few different avenues—construction, appropriation, new materials and alteration. These areas overlap in each featured artists’ practice.

Referencing Joseph Kosuth’s seminal One and Three Chairs (1965), Lauren Davies plays with the semiotics of her title, Construction by using a blue plastic tarp both as a frame for an image of a crate made of OSB (oriented strand board) panel and a platform for an actual OSB panel that juts out under the blanket like a continuation of the box in the photo. Unlike Kosuth’s piece that sought to make the chair-ness the focus and the material inconsequential, Davies points at the material. She makes the image a soft, warm, cheesy object in contrast to the hard, practical construction materials. The image itself is plain and uninviting, yet the image as an object is comfortable and calls to you in a cold Cleveland winter.

Jerry Birchfield brings his monastic drawing process into digitally manipulated photography.  Maybe Questions Are Always Dumb maintains his typically monochromatic formal concerns—an arrangement of studio detritus on a board placed on the floor and photographed from above. The color of the image is then heavily altered in Photoshop resulting in a largely black image only revealing the edges and textures of the now abstracted forms. In effect he has silenced the subject matter from revealing too much, and by doing so raised his own questions about the representational habits of photography.

Greg Ruffing’s Happiness Is… is a carousel of found vintage slides that are projected in a staged kitschy room adorned with kitchen chairs, a fake potted tree, and benign framed photographs of someone’s front yard. The slides are clustered in groups of nine, and curated by Ruffing to flow in and out of brief themes. There are adjacent slides of military men with their sweethearts, people at parties, a parade for Nixon, and individuals playing by the pool. There is a curatorial problem in including Ruffing’s work as it doesn’t seem to be attempting a new twist. Found slides are a popular new genre whose value is only in resurfacing the nostalgia and curiosities inherent in the medium, but rarely do artists actually introduce an interesting operation to the found material. Ruffing’s installation suffers from this. It lacks volume, narrative, inventive juxtapositions, novel presentation modes, or rare subject matter to lift it above the din. It functions as a generic placeholder in the exhibition for how appropriated images can be universal. The work is worth the time to look at, but doesn’t add much to the dialogue.

Erin O’Keefe and Juhasz’s own work come from the same vein. They both appropriate images and reconstruct them into some new whole. In this exhibition, O’Keefe’s photographs are of three-dimensional pedestals and objects, both of which are assembled from existing images. The result is similar to work being done in the painting world where areas of illusory space fight against non-representational marks that float in ambiguous space. Her repeated textures, competing light sources, and forms that have been abstracted through cropping create mysterious objects and situations that draw the viewer in to find solutions.

Sadie Wechsler’s scenes of a retro sci-fi rocket toy launch and tourists observing a volcanic eruption are rendered as rephotographed photo collages with a subtle lo-fi quality. Some of the cut paper edges are visible and the variable lighting, textures and grain of the different layers wink at the viewers to let them know that this is a fiction. What’s more, these images are printed in highly saturated colors onto Fatheads—vinyl wall decals—that are adhered directly to the gallery walls, giving them the feeling of a projection, like a B-movie or vacation slide. Wechsler appropriates, constructs, alters and employs new materials in her wonky fabrications to exemplify all the paths Juhasz posits through this exhibition. Now that Juhasz’s and his cohort of artists have used the fact that “it’s all been done before” as a new tool and lens, where do we go next?




It’s All Been Done Before (curated by Brandon Juhasz) is on view at FORUM artspace in Cleveland, OH from January 16 – February 20, 2015, with a closing reception February 20, 6 – 9 p.m.


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