One of arts greatest assets is its ability to reinvest the visual detritus of the past with contemporary significance, creating something that ties today to yesterdays gone by. This is not necessarily a nostalgic endeavor (though one may use nostalgia as a vehicle for such action). Art that inspires us to see the world anew doesn't propagandize a desire for a halcyon past (which never existed) as much as use the wreckage of history and the storm of progress for centrifugal momentum to give us better bearings as to our present situation. Such work most often outlines the mess we're in, while thankfully withholding any didactic roadmaps pointing to an exit. The selected works for this collection resituate familiar and often banal images, experiences, and places mined from the past, and invest what was once perhaps taken for granted with newly excavated critical resonance.
Greg Reynolds' Jesus Days, 1978-1983, presents selections from the artist's own collection of photos taken during his time as a young evangelical Christian. The images are first and foremost snapshots taken by a budding amateur photographer: daisies captured as if part of a depth-of-field study, women at lunch, guitar-led sing-a-longs. This collection of everyday images gains resonance primarily because the artist has returned to them after many years, after he left the ministry and came out as a self-identified gay man. Images like Beach Evangelism Project, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, 1979, where a mustachioed man emerges from a swimming pool, his "I'm The Coach" t-shirt and short swim trunks clinging to his wet body, speak to the spillage of libidinal desire outside of what at the time probably seemed inconsequential to Reynolds' straight missionary cohorts. Perfect examples of photos taken "in the closet," these images read within a temporal framework in a way similar to how Roland Barthes viewed an Alexander Gardner photograph of Lewis Payne, a man sentenced to death for attempted assassination of members of Lincoln's cabinet in 1865. For Barthes, the punctum of the Gardner photograph was the realization that the man pictured was about to die and, at the time of viewing, is also long dead. Reynolds' images present a far more optimistic punctum, the realization that, imbedded in the gaze so understandable given the passage of time, that the photographer is gay and was always gay, something almost emancipatory given that the closet has led to physical and psychological death.
Jason Lazarus also uses the sign value of snapshot photography to create works that gain their meaning from a historical lineage, one that reflects the identity of a larger culture. In one of his images we see a teenage boy who stares directly at the camera as he stands in jeans, t-shirt, and a flannel shirt atop a wet cement slab amidst a verdant palm tree-dotted landscape. The title of this work, Spencer Elden in his last year of high school (January 2008) gives us little to go on, until we discover that the boy in the picture is / was the naked baby swimming towards a dollar bill on the cover of Nirvana's pivotal Nevermind album. The image speaks to the time elapsed between the creation of both photos, when the subject (Elden) becomes "subject," the nude infant passes through the Freudian gauntlet towards sublimated and repressed late adolescence. This image is particularly devastating given that Mr. Elden is at the beginning of his adult life, while those who remember him when Nirvana was still in ascendance are deep into their own adulthood, inheriting the despotism and crushing pointlessness so eloquently framed in the band's lyrics.
Nanna Debois Buhl's Dearest. I'll be there on a Sunday, 2009 uses over two-dozen postcards to chart the history of the town square of Roskilde, Denmark over a hundred year period. Buhl has installed the work in the corner of the gallery, with the postcards presenting multiple perspectives on the square. At first glance, the work brings to mind the particular endurance of landmark architecture, and makes one think about just what makes a site "postcard worthy." Additionally, the work addresses questions of the souvenir; the postcard functioning as an "I was here" statement; something designed to be shared with others. Taken together, the many views of the same image first duplicate its banality, and diminish the particularity of any individual framed scene. Yet Buhl makes available the written text on the backs of each postcard in an audio component to the work, creating a narrative space where personal memories, announcements, and reminders such as, "Dear Sister. I have paid for your dress, so you no longer have debt." speak to the postcards ability to address individual experience. The overall effect insists that we recognize the memorializing habits that give a place particular importance, investing it with a sort of timelessness.
In Get Lost, Daniel Bejar directly intervenes via guerilla tactics into the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, providing his vast audience with an opportunity to consider the city's distant pre-colonial past. For this project, Bejar placed custom decals over destination names on subway signs, transforming Manhattan into Manahatta, Brooklyn into Breuckelen, etc, resurrecting the original Lenni Lenape Indian names of these locations. Additionally, he pasted maps of New York as a green, un-colonized expanse over everyday NYC subway maps. These images, devoid of not only subway lines, but also borders and place names, provide a blank slate for viewers to ponder, wondering where exactly they are in this wilderness. In this project, Bejar ties a humorous and critical thread between the present and the past, insisting that something as everyday as place names have great historical resonance, something one is not usually asked to consider, especially when en route in a bustling metropolis.
Tucker Neel is an artist, freelance writer, and curator living and working in Los Angeles, CA. Neel utilizes project-specific media to create works investigating how modalities of communication contribute to the production of history and culture. To view his complete projects please visit tuckerneel.com. He holds an MFA from Otis College of Art and Design and a BA from Occidental College. You can read his published writings at tuckerneel.wordpress.com. He teaches professional practices, critique, and critical theory in the Communication Arts and Liberal Studies departments at Otis College of Art & Design. He is also the founder and director of 323 Projects, a phone-number exhibition space. To visit 323 Projects simply call (323) 843-4652.