Curated by Cleveland-based artist Brandon Juhasz, It’s All Been Done Before fills the modestly sized Forum Art Space with lots of ideas and propositions, exploring “photography’s blurry edges and multifaceted approaches in contemporary art and culture.” A more specific through line is the productive tension between sculpture and photography: the ways in which images are built up (literally, through collage); built for (things made only to be photographed); or actually deployed in space (as props or three-dimensional objects). This dimensionality applies not only to space, but also through time (time in the making but also time in the passing, delays, slippages).
As the exhibition’s title suggests, a certain sense of nostalgia permeates the exhibition. This is most explicit in Greg Ruffing’s installation Happiness Is… (2014), a slideshow presentation of family photographs c. 1970s, in a viewing environment replete with house plants, banal furniture, and cheaply framed snapshots. The space is living room-esque, but also a bit uncomfortably corporate. As a viewer, it’s fun to flip through the slides, with the kind of voyeuristic fascination that looking at other people’s intimate and casual moments inspires. While the images focus on moments of joyful expression, the overall effect is less specific. Is it the empty chairs? The lack of context? Or a more general sense of loss, the type of ennui inspired not only by the passage of time, but the phasing out of photographic practices and technologies.
Juhasz’s works, from the series Green, Hot, Jungle, burst with lush tropical colors and oddly morphed, melded elements. Assembled from stock footage Juhasz gathered online by searching the word “JUNGLE,” the work has a frenetic energy, as if the images are scrambling to pull themselves together. The elements seem to have a desire to mean something, a desire thwarted by their vague detachment and general perfection. In their composition and subject matter they recall grand art historical traditions: in his artist’s statement, Juhasz references Henri Rousseau (the self-taught artist who painted the jungle never having visited it; and in Citrus, Denim, Grass (2014), he invokes Cezanne’s still lives. These images deflate specificity, speaking to the way that pictures exist both in the world (floating, breakable, anonymous), and in our minds (amalgamated, idealized).
Sadie Wechsler also makes use of ambiguous found imagery, but in less declarative ways. Eruption July 2013 shows a crowd (not unlike the tourists you might find huddled around a look out over Niagara Falls) overlooking a bleak, burning landscape. T+0000000000000:54 shows a rocket’s tip surrounded by billowing clouds of smoke glowing red, blue, and yellow, which reads more like a small-scale special effect. Both images are painterly; their compositions, lighting, and depiction of space have a sappy gloss to them, a grandness shrunk by artifice.
While Ruffing, Juhasz, and Wechsler engage with symbolism and narrative to varying degrees, Lauren Davies, Erin O’Keefe, and Jerry Birchfield are more concerned with structure and object/image tension. Davies’s Construction is the only explicit sculpture in the exhibition: here, the photographic element, a picture of wood construction material, is printed on a soft, fuzzy blanket and “framed” with blue tarp material. It’s draped over an OSB panel leaning against the wall, resulting in a disorienting doppelgänger effect: the surface of the object reads like an image of itself. The piece rises from a grounded strip of tarp to create a peculiar sense of space: shallow, hollow, and sheltered.
O’Keefe’s images also pretend—she describes them as capturing “fictional sculptures.” They consist of photographs of other sculptures that are printed, cut into bits, and re-assembled into two-dimensional compositions that create the illusion of three-dimensional presence. Viewed from across the room they coalesce into solid, complicated forms; up close they fragment into thin pieces, held together by bits of tape. They have a gravity-defying energy, and their organic forms suggest continued growth as opposed to fixed states.
Birchfield’s single piece Maybe Questions Are Always Dumb (2014) also depicts an arrangement made for the camera: an all-black field of detritus and small, vaguely recognizable objects (nails, wire, tape, off-cuts). The smattered arrangement resembles an energetic Suprematist composition, and the surface, entirely coated in black paint, reads like a shallow Louise Nevelson. Physically and perceptually confusing, Birchfield’s piece is quiet but persistent. The playful title, an inversion of the often spouted axiom “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” eloquently describes the work’s own uncertainty. In league with the exhibition’s title, it suggests something like resignation (to unknowability, to unoriginality), but also something like inhibition. Photography proceeds, as always, in a state of perpetual—and productive—insecurity.
It’s All Been Done Before is on view at Forum Art Space in Cleveland, Ohio from January 16, 2015 to February 20, 2015.
Rose Bouthillier is Associate Curator and Publications Manager at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. Her writing has been published in C magazine, frieze, esse, and Art Criticism & Other Short Stories. View more articles by Rose Bouthillier.