Sara Greenberger Rafferty often works large, as she did with a multi-panel piece shown in 2016 in a group show at James Cohan Gallery, New York, that measured about three by nineteen feet. For her first solo exhibition at Document, the Brooklyn-based artist has scaled down with a group of thirty intimate, process-intensive digital photo-collages on plexiglass, none more than twenty-two by seventeen inches. The imagery, which includes pictures of comedians, desktop icons, women’s shoes, mannequins, bathroom tiles, figure drawings, faces, honeycomb patterns, and a text by Lacan, is dense and layered.
Aron Gent, who founded Document in 2011, is a master printer who specializes in digital technology. He not only exhibits artists’ work but also collaborates with them in producing it. Rafferty began the pieces in this show (all 2016) by printing imagery onto clear acetate film. After she painted on the acetate with acrylic polymers, it was mounted onto colored plexiglass, a process that results in irregularly textured, sometimes slightly bubbly surfaces.
The works hover ambiguously between photography and painting, with some veering more in one direction than the other. In Pattern 1, the photos of overlapping Band-Aids form an allover field, producing some of the most obvious and unobscured imagery. But Rafferty often uses the paint to shroud, mark, and even deface—almost graffiti-style—the imagery underneath, as she does in Pink Picture 1, with its twin stills of Joan Rivers hosting “The Tonight Show.” Even after one has an understanding of Rafferty’s working methods, it can be difficult to determine how she achieves certain effects, enhancing the elusive nature of her imagery.
Little is overt or direct in these works. Rafferty tends to provide only snippets, glimpses, and shadows. A good example is Fly Paper 1. (It is one of two similar compositions; the artist likes to offer multiple takes on the same imagery.) The top of a sunglass-ed woman’s face appears behind a white rectangle printed like wallpaper with flies and overlaid with black schematic lines. White splotches and a craquelure effect across the top of the composition as well as the bleeding of the rectangle’s whiteness into the blurry gray background give the work the look of a vintage photograph that has been somehow damaged over time.
Rafferty frequently portrays elements of domestic life (cans of food, bathrooms) and elements of pop culture. Other themes include injury and death. The former is referenced, for example, in the three related Band-Aid pieces and in a haunting all-black, monochromatic work titled Wound Picture, and the latter is suggested by a menacing noose, almost unseen behind washes of white paint, in an untitled piece. Although Rafferty keeps specific meanings or conclusions just out of reach in her works, the engrossing clues and conflicting moods she evokes—from bemusement to unease—provide reward enough.
A century or so ago, championed by Alfred Stieglitz and Camera Work, the Pictorialist photographers emulated the visual characteristics of painting, often through extensive darkroom manipulation, in a bid to establish photography as an art form. Today, although photography’s legitimacy is inarguable, Sara Greenberger Rafferty follows in this tradition, making her photographs resemble expressionist paintings. She prints a digital photograph of an image—usually appropriated from mainstream cultural sources, such as TV— using water-based inks, and then douses it with water, allowing the inks to bleed, blend, run and pool in arbitrary ways. She then rephotographs the result.
Rafferty’s recent exhibition—the Brooklyn-based artist’s second at Rachel Uffner—was titled “Remote.” Accordingly, little detail of the facial expressions or gestures of her inscrutable subjects remains in these highly mediated photos (all works 2011). Leslie (20 inches square) suggests a Rembrandt-like half-length portrait washed in golden light and set within a dark, indistinct space. Sam (25 by 20 inches) gives us a bit more to go on. The subject is female; she faces the camera; she appears to be illuminated by candlelight. Although their faces are blurred beyond immediate recognition, we discern in Kim and in Allie the extremely physical comedians Andy Kaufman and Gilda Radner, despite the pictures’ deliberately misleading titles. Their poses are unmistakable. The images’ derivation from TV suggests one meaning for “remote”—namely, the appliance used for channel-surfing.
The eccentric installation of the exhibition made the viewer aware of his or her bodily relation to the work—often anything but remote, offering an ironic spin on the term. Twelve of the photos were hung in a rough grid on a black-painted, freestanding partition wall just inside the entrance, an arresting arrangement that blocked sightlines into the rest of the gallery. And, in a narrow space near the gallery office, the viewer was unable to stand at a comfortable distance from four larger works. Described as “direct substrate prints on plastic,” each features a distorted photo of a long-haired brunette in gym clothes. In the 68½-by-47¼-inch Fig (Jump), the nearly life-size figure’s legs and feet are legible, but the torso, head and arms are obscured by an unruly blotch of indigo. Like its companion pieces, the photo was printed on clear plastic film and displayed unframed. The enforced proximity to these images delayed any visual resolution and induced a funny kind of anxiety.
Frame, another print on plastic, which the viewer likely saw last, was the only work in the show without at least an oblique reference to the human figure. Framed by a relatively dense and splotchy margin, a limestone-block pattern of wall emerges, listing to the left. In the center is a vertical pink shape, an orifice or scar, fringed with purple rivulets. Of all the manipulations and alterations in this show, this reeling, wounded wall most pungently evoked bodily damage.
Photo: Sara Greenberger Rafferty: Kim, 2011, C-print, 31 by 18 inches; at Rachel Uffner.