Art Seen: Chicago

SARAH CHARLESWORTH: STILLS // ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

by Stephanie Cristello

The first fall is hard to replicate. Since Milton’s original passage on Lucifer, cast out of heaven, falling unrestrained and without resistance for nine days—the severity of the fall in art has only gained in significance as a motif. The drama and spectacle of the fall has since been used, and reinvented, by the conceptualists as an iconic metaphor on the secular loss of control, on coincidence and chance. While the archetypal may have played less into the performative falls in the 1960s and 70s—Bas Jan Ader falling from trees, on his bicycle into a canal, or simply on the pavement, and Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void—it was no less serious. Within this cannon, one series stands singular—not as solemn staged performances, but as accidental captures. Opening this week, the complete collection of Sarah Charlesworth: Stills is on view together for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago, marking the first US museum solo show of the artist’s work in fifteen years. The exhibition features fourteen individual falls, closely cropped stills of figures suspended largely against the backdrop of buildings, though their surroundings are sometimes formless and less distinct. Each of the images is lifted from the media archives, depicting suicides; the photographs, appropriated and repurposed by Charlesworth, offer glimpses into a type of news that reports without words. Over her entire career, and here especially, Charlesworth is committed to the rule of the image over language.

"Patricia Cawlings - Los Angeles" by Sarah Charlesworth

Sarah Charlesworth. Patricia Cawlings, Los Angeles, 1980, printed 2012, No. 10 of 14 from the series Stills. The Art Institute of Chicago, Krueck Foundation and Photography Gala Funds,2013.129. © Estate of Sarah Charlesworth. Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone.

Ancient myth is easily applied to these works. The vertically and sense of elongated time in Charlesworth’s compositions make Lucifer an easy target. In the catalogue, Jerry Satlz is cited as speaking of Medusa, of an absolute stillness and petrification that takes hold of the photographs themselves. But petrification here would be impossible; the subject’s gaze is never met with ours. The figures in Charlesworth’s frame never stare back. They fall anonymously, like distant stars. Yet, at the same time, the images propose an affront to gravity; they levitate, appearing as if suspended in thin air. There is an element of impossible weightlessness in both the literal and conceptual heaviness of the falling figures, as if the suspension the viewer sees could at once reverse itself—or transubstantiate at any moment—inverting its trajectory and transforming into an altogether different ending. While the footage is stark and very real, the implications open themselves up to mysticism. There is a persistent mystery within the pictures that inquires: perhaps these figures float upwards? While this sentiment is something we never accept as true given the context of their source, it somehow remains a possibility we entertain, echoing in our experience.

This exact contrariness—as above, so below—is a part of Charlesworth’s own mythology and process, developed within the cropping and restaging the source images of these singular figures. Unidentified Man, Ontani Hotel, Los Angeles, 1980, pictures a man in a suit, beautifully inserted against three diagonal Bauhaus-style windows; Patricia Cawlings, Los Angeles, 1980, one of the few identified subjects in the collection, is shot against an unadorned white wall, her shadow extending well beyond her figure (it must be high noon), stretching her presence. In a preview of the exhibition, curator Matt Wittkovsky relates, “there are two figures in each of these images, them and you.” Each of the reproductions are human scale, the bodies pictured within the nearly 6ft frames could logically be contained within the frame; the black edge of the photographs acts as a of kind surrogate chamber. The equivalence of scale within these images has become so easy for us to understand in our contemporary landscape, and is indeed expected—but these images are an anomaly of their time. The scale of this work is a signal of invention. While the technology was certainly possible prior to produce these images since the mid-twentieth century, the enlargement of these photographs—produced in the 1980s—was an innovative contribution for Charlesworth’s own work and the Pictures Generation as a whole.

Charelsworth_Unidentified-Man-Ontani-Hotel

Sarah Charlesworth. Unidentified Man, Ontani Hotel, Los Angeles, 1980, printed 2012, No. 14 of 14 from the series Stills. The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky. © Estate of Sarah Charlesworth. Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone.

If Warhol’s Disaster series struck a nightmare pitch, Charlesworth’s Stills write themselves as love letters. These images are well-composed disasters. Though they are tightly contained within the limits of the photographic frame, here, the figures fall without boundaries. They are freed from their context, removed from a concrete sense of space (which brings time with it); the absence of both provides a crucial entrance into the work. The enlargement of the photographs is just yet another method of cementing this distance; the quality of the prints deteriorates into more formal passages of light and dark, stark exposure and shade. As Charlesworth masterfully demonstrates, stillness does not equal closeness. Get too close and the image evaporates.

While the inevitable fate of the subjects within the work is implied, the images remain theoretical and propositional in nature. They are forever on the verge, on the cusp of certain action—in limbo in the truest sense. The images deliver the lie of stillness in photography that is not deliberately presented as false, but is also not accepted outright as true. The veritable here lies only in the viewer’s ability to suspend their own disbelief in favor of multiple endings, never just one. There is still the hope that the camera is lying to us, tricking us in some way—like an outtake scene in a film that reveals the characters scaling the building as nothing more than a set of a glass façade on the floor, with a wind machine. A temporary heist. We stand in the gallery hoping that the camera will change its perspective, that these figures were solidly footed on the backdrops of these buildings all along.

Ideologically, the fall Charlesworth pictures is in line with the cultural commentary that the artist participated in. The image, like any in pop culture, is a free and accountable castaway—then and onwards.



Sarah Charlesworth: Stills at the Art Institute of Chicago runs from September 18, 2014 – January 4, 2015

Stephanie Cristello is the Editor-in-Chief for THE SEEN, and Senior Editor US for ArtSlant.

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