whitehot | May 2009, Christopher Russell @ Circus Gallery
Christopher Russell, Untitled, 2009, Scratched Ultrachrome Print, 24 x 36 inches, courtesy Circus Gallery
Christopher Russell at Circus Gallery
7065 Lexington Avenue
LA, CA 90038
April 11 through May 16, 2009
Christopher Russell has presented his work twice in Los Angeles recently; Darin Klein curated a Hammer Project of the artist’s work, and as soon as that exhibition closed, another opened in the mezzanine of Circus Gallery in Hollywood. Both exhibits showed text pieces as well as photographic prints in series, upon each of which print the artist intervened to marvelous and sadistic effect.
I will confess that I have not yet read any part of Russell’s novella, Budget Decadence – not when its first chapter was printed to cover the wall of the Hammer’s exhibition space, not when subsequent chapters were printed and displayed as four artist’s books at the Hammer, and not when the wallpaper was displayed small and editioned at Circus. I am told that the content of some of Russell’s text deals loosely with the Baltimore Snipers – the control of their violence and “how they held it in so close, so tight, that their killings were ways of expressing the love they felt for each other, but couldn’t express sexually.”
More destabilizing, visually, than the text pieces, and more decadent, are the strange, handled photographs, by turns “scratched”, “gouged”, and “flayed”. Russell has said, in fact, that he began scratching prints as he was writing about the Snipers – that the act of removing emulsion was in some sense the “aesthetic equivalent to putting one’s fist through a wall.” The photographic images are of non-descript domestic spaces. The artist prints them between three times (at Circus) and six (at the Hammer), and then he takes out his knife. The cuts vary in technique and in effect.
“Scratching” is a scratching of the photographic emulsion off of its white paper backing. “Gouging” is really hard scratching, so that Russell’s knife goes through to the actual board to which the print is adhered. “Flaying” is a technique in which Russell outlines a shape and then peels away the photographic emulsion, leaving a flat area of white paper without fuzzy scratches. Sometimes he scratches so that his imagery follows the perspective and dimensions of wall planes or windowpanes in the pictures; at other times, the scratches seem to sit on top of the photographic surface, rather than pretend that they are a part of the image itself. Scratched images range from impeccably rendered treetops to the childish Hangman of some bored prisoner.
Any one of these types of incisions remind viewers that photographic emulsion has a paper backing, a paper support, and that that paper support is often further supported by a mount of some kind. Were the incisions to emphasize the rectangularity of the paper rather than the shapes of walls or the imaginative renderings of dreamers, I would almost say that such handling has its roots in Modernist questions of supports and parameters. (Perhaps it still does.) Certainly, the work in general brings up questions about the medium of photography, especially in terms of its use of serial prints of the same image. This can suggest an undermining of the conventional edition of a print in photographic commerce, as well as a reworking of the conventional series of images documenting the same or similar subjects.
The work bears some relation to that of Marco Breuer, whose abrasive techniques of scraping, gouging, folding, and burning photographic paper are always practiced to precise effect. Breuer’s pieces are resolutely formal; they do not generally ever involve images other than those incised or coaxed out of the paper through pure handling. This is not to say that they are not psychological; they surely abstract the idea of control. The resemblance between the work of Russell and Breuer is in the physical handling of the prints as well as in the metaphysical implications of that handling.
Russell’s work also reminds me of that of E.J. Bellocq, whose early 20th century negatives of prostitutes in the red light district of New Orleans were found concealed in a sofa after his death. The artist Lee Friedlander then printed these negatives. Many of the faces of the prostitutes had been completely scratched out of the wet emulsion of the negatives, but otherwise, the photographs were utterly banal. Bellocq, it seems, intended to crop out some of the background information of clotheslines and family photographs that appears behind the naked bodies of the prostitutes, but Friedlander included them in his prints. Both the mundane nature of the domestic scenes and the violation of the photographic surfaces link Bellocq’s interests to Russell’s.
In the show at Circus, Russell included a small grouping of found photographs of children – enlarged, framed, and propped on the floor. He has said that he feels that “adding figures helps an audience read the work as narrative, to think in terms of psychology as much as [in] formal terms.” Although I appreciate the links between damaged surfaces in found photographs and those intentionally damaged by the artist in this exhibition, I am satisfied by the psychological argument of the scratched series on the walls. It is these narratives and these eccentricities of which I’d like to see more and more and more. I’d like to see the dialogue between the pictures and the cuts emphasized and pushed and exaggerated, and at the same time I’m curious as to how they might continue to be kept in check by Russell’s admirable sense of control.
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