Photographs alone aren’t enough for Charlie Rubin. In his recently completed body of work, Strange Paradise, many of his images are printed as straightforward photographs and then painted with inkjet pigments. These altered prints are scanned, and the ink becomes another layer in the new version of the photo. Although the technique of layering both digitally and physically is not particularly unique to Charlie’s work, his playful take on it is a reflection of his multifaceted practice. If you haven’t seen Strange Paradise in book form up close, its materials (embossed endpapers, orange foil-stamping, a sticker pack) are a perfect complement to Charlie’s photographic assemblages.
I’ve been familiar with Charlie’s work for a few years, but when I asked him to send me some of his newest images for this post, I noticed a quality that exists through all his recent work that I’d never recognized before. It started with these images:
It may be the prevalence of water or shimmering ripples of color in these images combined with Charlie’s love of inky washes, but I immediately thought of videos and photos I’ve seen online demonstrating surface tension. Typically these are high-speed and, like all high-speed imagery, they utterly transform even the most banal of everyday events. Take this high-speed video of water droplets snapping into a pool a water much more abruptly than it would appear at normal speed:
Charlie’s work seems to me to be capturing a moment of flux or transition, where objects and their environment are bending or just about to collapse together. Like this image of a water balloon snapping, its contents momentarily suspended in the air before gravity kicks in:
Or even something as seemingly simple as a paperclip floating on water, leaving deep impressions on its surface but somehow not breaking it:
I think what’s appealing about these kinds of videos and images is that they don’t play any tricks on us; they show us the hidden side of what’s right in front of us. And in some sense, isn’t that what art is supposed to do, too? It’s not uncommon to find artists, Charlie included, working with heaps of banal, everyday materials. In many cases, its because they know there are things hidden in all this…stuff…that is sitting right in front of us, and their job is to uncover it, and to show it to us.
Something else that struck me about some of Charlie’s recent work is the recurring images of hands, disembodied and floating in a flattened, zero-perspective space:
I asked him about this, and his response — after denying my accusation that he might have a weird hand fetish — was that the hand is a way to keep things grounded in human, physical reality. For Charlie, the hand is a counterweight to the digital space of the computer. Charlie is clearly in good company, considering this recent exhibition at MoMA dedicated to hands. And beyond MoMA’s fantastic historical examples, many of which share Charlie’s graphic sensibilities, I can’t help but think of this:
…and this image made by the longest surviving Bauhaus member, Herbert Bayer:
…which (after being transformed into this letterpress design) inspired this 2007 album cover:
…and of course, there’s Thing:
By “showing us his hand” in the work — literally or figuratively — Charlie asks us to look more deeply at the tactile world that lies directly in front of us. Images of hands have been invoked historically to represent political unity, hard work, a connection to a computer interface, or in the case of Bayer (and Thing) something transcendental, magical, or surreal. Whether we actually see an image of the hand or not, Charlie’s layering of images and washes of ink, or his unconventional materials (one of his custom-printed silk scarves appears above) remind us that touch is perhaps the most powerful human connection with both the physical and the digital world. Look no further than your pocket for proof:
If you’re in Los Angeles, you’re lucky enough to have a chance to stop in on Charlie’s first solo exhibition with Kopeikin Gallery through June 6th. If you’re elsewhere, here are a few shots of the show:
Charlie’s website can be found here.
A few years ago, I started giving an assignment to my students; usually it’s the very first assignment of the semester. I send out a pdf of 10 photographs from a wide variety of sources. I provide no context; titles or supporting text is cropped or removed, and the students see nothing but the photograph. After a few basic remarks on formal terms like composition, lighting, focus, etc., I ask my students to look at these decontextualized images, and formulate a written response based on on what they see, where they might expect to find such an image, and whether they think it is even worth discussing in the first place. Ideally, they’ve never seen any of the photographs before. I also ask them to please not do a Google image search because providing the “right” answers is not the point. The point is, of course, to initiate the process of investigating and unpacking the internal logic of a photograph; I want to know what they see in the most literal sense of the word.
Art thrives on context, and good art sets up complicated relationships between context and content. Stripping out the peripheral information about a photograph and handing it to my students is partly an experiment on my part to see what sticks when all that’s left is the image. If I tell my students that I am showing them the work of an artist, they are already primed to see and respond to it in a particular way depending on what assumptions they carry about art — good or bad. Some of the images might look like they could be art but aren’t; I’ve used abstract NASA satellite imagery of the moon prior to the Apollo program, and more recently the Rosetta orbiter’s selfie from last year:
I always look forward to hearing what my students have to say about the work from Corey Arcangel’s Photoshop Gradient Demonstrations:
Usually the responses to this work range from, “I think this would be in a book about color theory,” to “This would probably be found in a hippy dorm room.” Fair enough. Which brings me to the picture at the top of the post, from Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. It probably should come as no surprise that Stephen Shore is having a good time on Instagram. But the fact that he is, and the fact that the my students — who know nothing about his work— echo the obviousness of this connection is oddly striking. Here are a some of the responses this photograph has gotten over the past few years:
“This image of breakfast would probably be found on a social network.”
“This photograph looks like it would be found in someone’s phone.”
“Overall, I think it is a boring image.”
“Due to the poor quality, I’d probably find this image on social media.”
“I would expect to find this on Instagram, because it would look better if cropped to a square.”
This last one was especially good, because the student drew the square frame onto the printout that you see at the top of this post. And yes, some of these responses might seem funny on the surface, but I think they show with razor sharpness the weight that we give to the context of images when we decide to call them art. I’m not sure if it’s cliché to say that I learn from my students, but…I do. A lot. Especially when it comes to talking about art. Talking about art with artists or with experienced art students is easy; on some level, we all take the value of art for granted. But starting the conversation with just the image —with ONLY what you can see — is a valuable tool in reminding myself as a teacher and an artist that taking the value of things for granted is the cardinal sin of art making.
And by the way, if you were wondering, of course Stephen Shore take pictures of his food like anyone else. But there are only a couple, and this one of a mutton chop is his 3rd least-liked image (but please note the comments on it). Somehow, Stephen Shore’s food pictures on Instagram zipping past his followers without being liked seems a little weird considering this, this, and this to name a few. Don’t worry though, his photo of chicken fried steak did considerably better in the likes department. I tagged him in a shot of my students comment with the drawn-on crop marks and he liked it. That’s good enough for me.
I’ll leave you with this response to John Baldassari’s Wrong, which makes absolutely no sense to any of my students.
“This picture is not worth discussing because it is too simple.”
It’s likely you’ll recognize the names of at least a handful of the more than 100 artists who have participated in Oranbeg Press’ Interleaves (a current list is at the bottom of this post). Interleaves are 2-sided inkjet prints measuring roughly 12″ x 15″ which are designed to be folded in half, twice, making them about the size of a small paperback book. It’s one of several ongoing projects orchestrated by photographer and Oranbeg’s Founder John O`Toole in which the traditional photo book is a format is ripe for re-imagining. Oranbeg’s seemingly boundless enterprise — there’s always something new in the works— takes full advantage of the instant-gratification digital photography offers, and the press functions in equal parts as an unconventional art publisher and a community hub. Running through all of Oranbeg’s output is a DIY inclusiveness that is sometimes missing from the ultra-exclusive-limited-edition scene of art book publishing.
A perfect example of John’s all-hands-on-deck approach to publishing took place under the name Imprint as part of Pratt Institute’s RiDE initiative (Risk/Dare/Experiment). Over two days, John rolled wide-format printers and multiple computer stations into the main corridor of Pratt’s photography department for collaborative production sessions. Students/faculty as well as the general public were encouraged to stop by, design an Interleaf with John on the fly, and come back a few hours later to pick up their free copy. Projects like Imprint — fast, and with minimal premeditation — are fantastic opportunities for artists and art students to engage in a low-stakes yet highly-rewarding project. It’s a refreshing reminder to students and everyone else that this whole art thing is supposed to be fun, after all.
As of today, John has commissioned exactly 110 artists to take part in the Interleaves, and according to him, the project will end with the 150th iteration: only 40 more to go! One of the things I love about the project is that John brings a high level of technical skill to the project (his day job is as a photo lab technician) and yet manages to keep the project fun, accessible, and most importantly tactile. These aren’t pristine inkjet prints encapsulated in a frame, they’re meant to be folded, handled, and worn. And they are all the better for it — some of the older contributions to the project have become soft and fuzzy around the fold lines after being folded and unfolded, and carted from book fair to book fair. They remind me of fold-out posters in magazines or CD’s, or National Geographic map/infographics like this one of the Orion Nebula from a 1995 issue (maybe someone should submit an Interleaves design of an unfolded poster?):
Not every design specifically incorporates the fold-lines as a central element, but there are more than a few clever artists that take the act of folding and unfolding as an opportunity to reveal and conceal elements of the imagery. What’s appealing about this format to me is the intimacy it fosters with the work it contains; paper is ultimately vulnerable and fragile and so the act of turning this material in your hands requires a soft touch. The Interleaves take what’s best about zines—DIY, democratized production with little-to-no barriers to entry— without putting quality reproduction and nuanced subtlety on the shelf.
And Interleaves is far from the only project on John’s plate. He also organizes Oranbeg NET, a series of online group exhibitions that recruits outside curators for an online exhibition and digital PDF of the show. So while part of the charm in the Interleaves project is its physical presence, Oranbeg’s reach extends into exclusively digital spaces as well. All of this is to say that what Oranbeg does particularly well is act as an inclusive and participatory hub for current photographic practices. The list of artists involved in one project or another is already substantial and “in a constant state of update”. At $3 apiece, it’s not a significant investment to pick up one or several Interleaves and the poster-like format takes all of the cost-effective advantages inherent to digital publishing without falling prey to the preciousness that can keep artist publications hermetically sealed on bookshelves in plastic sleeves.
As for what’s next, the second edition of Oranbeg’s newest publication venture SoSo — described on Oranbeg’s site as “A periodical released every once in a while” — will be released at the Philadelphia Art Book Fair and will feature Alex Thebez, Nat Ward, Everything is Collective, TJ Elias, Hannah Solomon, Lauren Wansker, Sarah Frohn and an essay by Colin Todd. SoSo will also have a companion zine, Gutter, which was sourced through one of Oranbeg’s many open calls. Check Oranbeg’s Tumblr for the most up to date news.
Here’s the full tally of Interleaves artists (current as of 04/17/2015 and bound to change soon):
Ben Alper, Michael McCraw, Timothy Briner, Colin Todd, Daniel Augschoell, Varvara Mikushkina, Michael Vahrenwald, TJ Elias, Irina Rozovsky, Carlos Lowenstein, Maggie Shannon, Jay Muhlin, Michael Marcelle, Sophie T. Lvoff, Pauline Magnenat, Nat Ward, Ginevra Shay, Dan Boardman, Leigh Van Duzer, Mark Daniel Harley, Meghan Schaetzle, Curran Hatleberg, Tristan Hutchinson, Lynley Bernstein, Mike Finkelstein, Quinn Gorbutt , John M. O’Toole, Joe Lingeman, Josh Poehlein, Patrick Hogan, Matthew Austin, Seth Fluker, Nicole White, Tammy Mercure, Eric Ruby,Carl Gunhouse, Daisuke Yokota, Ben Huff, Aaron Canipe, Nelson Chan, Jake Reinhart, Claudio Nolasco, Tara Wray, Sara Stojkovic, Sara J Winston, David Oresick, David la Spina, Amy Lombard, Andrew Hammerand, Solomon Schechman, Clayton Cotterell, Shane Lyman, Susana Zak, Jeremy Haik, Jesse Hlebo, Coley Brown, Erin Jane Nelson, Andrew Frost, Colin Stearns, Magali Duzant, Jordan Baumgarten, Stephen Hilger, Lindsay Metivier, Jane Tam, Kai McBride, Kim Hoeckele, Ryan Arthurs, Nicole Reber, Caitie Moore, Jesse Untracht-Oakner, Peter Hoffman, Stephanie Powell, Amiko Li, Matthew Mili, Sean Stewart, Joe Leavenworth, Casey Dorobek, Mona Varichon, Matthew Gamber, Melanie Flood, Nathaniel Grann, Skylar Blum, Matthew Cronin, Brittany Marcoux, Jamie Hladkey, Erin O’Keefe, Keith Yahrling, Erik Schubert, Eli Durst, Matthew David Crowther, Vivien Aryoles, Daniel Terna, Zachary Norman, Hirokazu Kobayashi, Jesse Crimes, Brian Ulrich, Annie Solinger, Benjamin Davis, Jenna Garret, Katie Shapiro, Ron Jude, Alex Nelson, Stephanie Bursese, Melissa Cantanese, Mike Slack, Susan Worsham, Dru Donovan, Laura Heyman, Eva O’Leary and Dylan Nelson.