Sarah Charlesworth (1947–2013) treated photography as a weird science, producing perfectly toned, spectral images. “Natural Magic” (1992–93) is a series of bright, crisply colored Cibachrome prints of isolated objects that appear on stark black fields as if summoned from nothing, like a rabbit from a magician’s hat. Shuffled cards flit in the air. Seven flames float over a candle’s wick. Fire rises from a pair of white-gloved hands. A book, a woman’s body, and heads in profile all appear shrouded in satin. To produce these images as serenely mysterious artifacts, Charlesworth employed an array of manipulations: double exposures, trick lighting, and darkroom wizardry. All the images appear in lacquered oval frames, of the sort used to advertise traveling magic shows in the nineteenth-century, suggesting that Charlesworth saw photography as an arcane art of conjuration. —Brian Droitcour
Pictured: Sarah Charlesworth: Red Veils, 1992–1993, Cibachrome with lacquered wood frame, 44½ by 54½ inches. Courtesy Maccarone, New York.
Each work on display in “Doubleworld,” the first major Sarah Charlesworth (1947-2013) retrospective since the 1990s, is an elegant subterfuge of photography. Often, the visual narratives need no text to be understood. To create the haunting “Stills” series (1980), for example, Charlesworth re-photographed newspaper shots of plummeting figures in midair. Similarly, the lushly saturated series “Objects of Desire” (1983-88) isolates and reduces images from ancient art history to contemporary newsstand magazines to create minimalist, collage-like photographs. The underlying idea behind all of these works is that pictures have the power to speak for themselves. And in freeing these images from their original contexts, Charlesworth challenges the viewer to explore the alternative implications they conjure.
Pictured: Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld, 1995, cibachrome print with mahogany frame, 51 by 41 inches. Courtesy Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone Gallery, New York.
Among the more than 20 thematically linked series of photographs Sarah Charlesworth (1947-2013) produced, “Objects of Desire” (1983-88) may be the most striking and alluringly enigmatic. Most of the works in the series present images of ritual objects from various cultures—white wedding dresses, Buddha statues, ceremonial masks—within monochromatic fields. In some cases, individual human figures, apparently engaged in ritual practices though here excised from that context, are also depicted. The works propose a complex notion of the photograph, one in which representation coexists with abstraction, and images are treated as physical objects. Lacquered wood frames in colors matching the dominant color of each photograph lend the works a quasi-sculptural quality. In Charlesworth’s hands, photography retains a fundamental sense of magic and tragedy, qualities as integral to the medium’s historical development as any technical process or theoretical discourse.