On a brisk day in Brooklyn last fall, a small group of art enthusiasts gathered in the MetroTech Commons for the unveiling of a sculptural exhibition [on view through Sept. 14] under the auspices of the Public Art Fund.8 One of the works, made of painted aluminum, looks like a partially unfolded origami form. The piece, titled Sculpture for Snow, by Erin Shirreff, is based on an iconic work by Tony Smith, Amarylis (1965–68). But of Smith’s original composition—an angular Minimalist abstraction composed of equally proportioned horizontal and vertical elements—Shirreff’s retains only the vertical element, because the photographic reproduction on which she based her work obscures the horizontal element. The Smith-inspired piece is one of several works by Shirreff that investigate photography’s “cyclopean eye,” specifically in relationship to documenting sculpture.
Shirreff earned an MFA in sculpture from Yale in 2005, but she has become better known for her photographs and videos. These delve specifically into the problem of representing three-dimensional works in two-dimensional form. For an ongoing series titled “Signatures” that she started in 2010, she cuts abstract shapes from card stock, then paints and shoots them using lighting that makes them look like modernist steel sculpture. Separate halves of different constructions are then juxtaposed within a single print, which is folded down the middle, like a spread in a book—except that the two halves do not make a whole. The image “breaks” the sculpture, or rather creates a new one of already purely invented parts. The series, which is photographed in an austere black and white, evokes the dismantled signatures of old books about modernist sculpture, but the sensibility behind the work’s wry juxtapositions and fundamental fiction is unmistakably contemporary.
Sculpture for Snow is not the first work Shirreff has based on Smith. A 2006 video titled Sculpture Park (Tony Smith) comprises five episodes depicting individual works by Smith becoming gradually invisible as each one is covered by snow. But the snow is artificial (Styrofoam shavings), and the entire tableau (which consisted of spray-painted card stock and seamless paper) was produced in the artist’s studio. Shirreff has created videos composed of hundreds of different iterations of a single still image, often of an iconic artwork, including an image printed from the Internet of James Turrell’s massive earthwork Roden Crater. She shoots the source images in her studio, using a range of analog lighting effects. These images are then stitched together and animated as videos. In Roden Crater, it seems as if the sun is rising and setting. A video from 2010 that appears to be of a lunar eclipse was made from analog photographs of the moon waxing and waning over the course of a month, which were then compiled in Final Cut Pro.
Gordon, who graduated with an MFA in photography from Yale in 2006, has long played with the artifices of photography. As an undergraduate at Bard College he made a series of self-portraits “in flight” in various landscapes. Taking a running leap, he would launch himself in the air, torquing his body so that it was parallel to the ground. An assistant photographed him in midair before he came crashing back to earth.
Lately he has turned to a studio-centric (and safer) mode of working. For a show at Wallspace gallery in New York last fall, he created a series of C-prints called “Still Lifes, Portraits & Parts,” based on three-dimensional setups constructed of images culled from Google Image searches. The photographs are monstrous, Frankenstein-style heads or arrangements of fruit and flowers that allude to classical still-life paintings. A row of potted plants is composed of a range of photographs of succulents, while a bouquet of lilies is made of pictures of unconnected petals. Gordon finds imagery online, prints it out, crafts it into an approximation of the object it represents, and then creates a flat, two-dimensional image of the result.
Gordon has called his studio a “physical manifestation of the Web.” He embraces a slightly rough esthetic, saying that he is interested in “showing my hand and letting people see the imperfection.”9 In Portrait in Red, Blue and Green (2011), cut-out profiles cast silhouettes on surfaces behind them, making the third dimension of his setup explicit. Some of the images he cuts and tears apart are naturalistic, others have a glossy sheen and vibrant colors that create an illusion of slick digital effects, yet the overall quality of the construction announces, “Someone made this.”
Here, unlikely juxtapositions come together to form a logical, transcendent whole. Sara VanDerBeek, who graduated from Cooper Union with a BFA in 1998, co-ran Guild & Greyshkul, a gallery in SoHo, from 2003 to 2009 while also developing her own practice of collecting and creating objects and images, assembling them in her studio into delicate structures that she then photographs before dismantling them. Her choice of mate- rials and images is never random, and her allusions to politics and history are carefully considered. In one panel of the six-photo sequence Four Photographers (2008), an oval photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron of her niece Julia Stephen, who was the mother of Virginia Woolf, hovers over one side of a circle painted on a pane of glass, which, in turn, rests on a square plaster form that has been bisected into two triangles. This construction was destroyed after the photo was taken. That Cameron was one of the first women photographers to achieve fame, and that Ste- phen was famous in her own right as a Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model, are not incidental facts. VanDerBeek’s intricate compositions address topics both broad and personal, such as feminism, art and her own family lineage. (Her father is Structuralist filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek, and her brother is also an artist.)
Over the past few years, VanDerBeek began taking her camera outside the studio, shooting documentary photographs which she then integrates into her temporary sculptures. For a 2009 installation at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, A Composition for Detroit, the artist tightened her conceptual focus to address an American city in sharp decline, while simultaneously expanding the scale of her imagery. In an interview with MoMA curator Eva Respini, VanDerBeek explains that after visiting Detroit and taking pictures of architectural spaces there, she decided to base the composition on “a bank of broken windows that I encountered in these factories.” She organized the movement of images through- out the work’s four panels to reflect the rhythm of the remaining panes.10 Each panel is 65 by 48 inches and combines the artist’s own photographs with found imagery mostly drawn from MoMA’s collection, such as Walker Evans’s 1935 photograph Belle Grove Plantation. The panels—whose continuity is not unlike that of the frames of a film—create a subtle portrait of not only the city’s decay, but also its resilience. In 2010 she showed a series at the Whitney Museum of American Art called “To Think of Time,” which included images of an abandoned schoolhouse in Treme, a neigh- borhood in New Orleans that was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and constructions that she made in her childhood home in Baltimore, which was being put up for sale.
Increasingly turning to deteriorating architecture, VanDerBeek captures the entropic effects of time and economic dissolution. Like so many human enterprises, her fragile constructions—a few poles tied together, images hanging by bits of string—are destined to collapse.