November 3rd, 2016
The Pleasure of the Text
Merging images and words, conceptual artists in the 1970s advanced a new visual language.
By Travis Diehl
The four artists featured in Photography and Language, recently on view at Cherry and Martin in Los Angeles, worked in San Francisco in the 1970s and ’80s in a scene anchored by NFS Press, run by Lew Thomas and Donna-Lee Phillips. With dry, structuralist wit, Thomas and Phillips, as well as Peter D’Agostino, Hal Fischer, and their peers, probed the confusion between “conceptual art” and the sometimes-maligned genre “conceptual photography.” This often meant both mocking and reaffirming the abilities of the medium. Included in the exhibition were six panels from one of NFS’s more famous titles, Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics: A Photographic Study of Coding Among Homosexual Men (1977), a subcultural typology of gay signifiers like key rings and amulets and silk shorts that pokes gentle fun at the clichéd language of cruising—and the limits of signs.
For the latest installation of Deposition (1974–76), Lew Thomas wallpapers one gallery wall with several copies of the August 3, 2016 Los Angeles Times. The splayed-out daily reveals its particular proportion of image to text, reiterating that the mystique of the photograph always comes connoted; in print and otherwise, we are told what pictures tell us. Mounted to this topical mess is a panoramic storyboard: a man has barricaded himself in his apartment during a string of racially motivated murders—the sensational “Zebra murders” of the mid-’70s—as if to protect against news itself. Strips of mundane photographs are captioned by increasingly involved, handwritten synopses. The denotative authority usually attributed to photos instead dissolves into a slurry of words. In another mode, Thomas’s LAVERNE’S PORTRAIT EQUALS 36 EXPOSURES (1972), a six-by-six grid of unflinching headshots, depicts the same man’s face thirty-six times, but Laverne remains a mystery.
If the disembodied, technological nature of photography suggests systematic or even scientific control, these artists nonetheless found an eroticism in mechanized speculation. Peter D’Agostino’s Suburban Strategies: LA (Century City) (1980), is a kind of nonlinear soap opera shot in the style of surveillance cameras. A monitor plays the video beside a row of stills. Supposedly a romance, the story takes place in a granulated anonymity of freeways and malls. Whatever tenderness there might be is conveyed not so much through images as with plaintive intertitles (“Is everything alright?”). Both registers, text and image, leave us wanting: one definition of desire.
In Donna-Lee Phillips’s Anatomical Insights: The Abdomen (1978), the artist overlays her own body with illustrated, labial incisions from a medical textbook. When process encounters the contingencies of flesh, desire offers an interface. Phillips’s piece is one part of thirteen total; as such, it feels like a token in a show that could have included work by JoAnn Callis, Ellen Brooks, and Barbara Kruger, among other women artists in the NFS orbit. Photography and Language takes its name from the press’s influential 1976 anthology of over a dozen artists, yet the show is weighted towards Thomas and Fischer, who are represented by Cherry and Martin, and augmented by just two more. Intriguing but unbalanced, Photography and Language is best considered a prompt for a full-scale treatment of this conceptualist coterie.
Travis Diehl is a writer based in Los Angeles.
Photography and Language was on view at Cherry & Martin, Los Angeles, from August 6–October 29, 2016.