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Exiting the big, steel elevator to enter Doubleworld, the first major survey of Sarah Charlesworth‘s work currently at the New Museum, one steps into another, double, world and directly into the gallery of Stills: 14 photographs of people jumping or falling from tall buildings. The bodies appear as if caught or trapped inside the cropped photograph, each body held in space forever. We know, of course, the bodies will hit the earth, but this is not what is captured. Instead, the bodies are dropping and flying through space, cocooned in the ephemera of the black-and-white photograph. What does it mean to capture these moments of near death?
Like an animal glassed in an aquarium or a mannequin trapped in a storefront window, the bodies seem fixed in space as if preserved, as though Charlesworth were attempting to save them. And each body is framed, each photograph framed. Some of the photographs take up all the edge of the frame’s border, some are ragged, and some are cropped, allowing for space to surround the image. These three attempts at framing show the artist’s hand, reminding the viewer that what she is looking at is a creation, an artifice. Furthermore, the framing acts as a way to “fix” the body in place the way a lepidopterist pins a butterfly into the shadowbox. The butterfly becomes a specimen.
In an interview with Betsy Sussler in BOMB Magazine, Charlesworth explained her technique:
I abstract objects that socially, carry a strong emotional charge or symbolic significance. I’ve abstracted them from the context in which we normally confront them, a fish out of a natural history magazine or a heart out of an anatomy magazine and recreated another context which is within my work … I’m trying, almost to cast into imagery a specific feeling.
In the same interview, when asked whether she is a photographer, Charlesworth replies, “I don’t think of myself as a photographer. I’ve engaged questions regarding photography’s role in culture for 12 years now, but it is an engagement with a problem rather than a medium.” By removing images from their original context and placing them in an alternative space, Charlesworth is in essence creating a new language. Again, in the same BOMB interview, she stated:
I’m exploring a level of unconscious engagement in language, a covert symbology. There’s a level on which this involves a personal as well as a societal confrontation. In other words, I think that a symbolism is attached to particular images, becomes marked in the unconscious. To exorcise it, to rearrange it, to reshape it, to make it my own, involves unearthing it, describing it, deploying it inform, and then rearranging it. In each individual piece, I’m going for a different kind of emotional psychic chord.
At its core, Charlesworth’s work appears to be an ongoing study of meaning and language, or of semiotics. In fact, her insistence on the double meanings of symbols seems to be referring to the semiotic terms “denotation,” the most basic and shared meaning of a word, and “connotation,” the secondary, cultural meanings of signs, or the myriad ways people understand a word based on their personal cultural backgrounds. Which brings us back to the “fixing” of bodies inside their frames: how else can one truly begin to examine what one is seeing unless the object, itself, is removed from context?
Charlesworth created Stills in 1980, three years after Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 series of paintings based on photographs of the Baader Meinhof Group. Richter’s paintings of photographs as well as his archive of photographs explore and interrogate the meaning of photograph while attempting to deconstruct it. Asked in an interview in 1972 with Rolf Schön, “Why is photography so important in your work?” Richter responded:
Because I was surprised by photography, which we all use so massively every day. Suddenly, I saw it in a new way, as a picture that offered me a new view, free of all the conventional criteria I had always associated with art. It had no style, no composition, no judgment. It freed me from personal experience. For the first time, there was nothing to it: it was pure picture. That’s why I wanted to have it, to show it—not use it as a means to painting but use painting as a means to photography.
I do see a connection between Richter and Charlesworth’s deconstruction of photography in their respective series. This isn’t, of course, to imply Charlesworth was in direct conversation with Richter, though, of course, they may have been. Richter has called his series on the Baader Meinhof Group a “leave taking,” which implies a moving away from the events. By “fixing” the images into the artwork he draws a border between those episodes and himself, not unlike Charlesworth’s “fixing” of figures into frames, removing the bodies from their death.
Each of Doubleworld’s six rooms introduces a new series, and each series is one more attempt at removing meaning from context. In the second room, American History, made from 1977–1979, explores the power of images in the media. In what Charlesworth called “Unwriting,” she photographed the front pages of newspapers and then removed the text, leaving only the image and masthead. By freeing the images from their accompanying text, she allowed the images to “speak” for themselves. As with Stills, here, again, she removes an idea or image from its context and fixes it into a kind of emptied out frame. The blank space surrounding the now-floating image, like the blank space surrounding the falling bodies in Stills, creates a silence which previously would have been filled with the voices of the newspaper’s writers explaining and contextualizing the image.
In “Available Light (2012),” also in the second room, Charlesworth introduces a series of shapes and colors, mostly spheres that play with darkness and light, and appear like tarot or playing cards. The series’ similarly shaped objects create an optical desire to find likes. I found myself standing before the line of images, pointing out the moon-shaped objects. The simplified language of these works acts as a kind of blanking of the slate. The series O+1 (2000) in the next room is similarly sparse, completely drained of color, as vitrines appear filled with fog.
In a corridor at the back of the gallery are a series of small, framed human figures. This collection of 40 works, titled Figure Drawings (1988/2008), was conceived in 1998 and completed in 2008. Presented from floor to ceiling, the images are a map of human behavior. Like Charlesworth’s other works, these are also made from prints. All of the figures derive from public sources. It is interesting that Charlesworth titled the series Figure Drawings: the figures aren’t “drawn.” But, again, the title questions language and meaning. What does it mean to “draw” something? The word “draw” originates from the Old English dragan, meaning “to drag, to draw, protract.” What, then, is Charlesworth “dragging”? And here I’d say she’s dragging meaning through each of her works, each of the series, each of the rooms. To title this series “drawings” is to force the viewer to question her conception of drawing. Also, to draw means to pull someone or something in another direction. In journeying through the exhibit, Charlesworth draws us away from one idea to another.
In Renaissance Paintings (1991), a series reimagining Renaissance paintings, Charlesworth photographs images from Renaissance paintings and essentially “fixes” them onto lacquered wood frames. Again, as in the Stills and Modern History, these works, removed from their original work of art and “re-fixed” onto a blank space allow the viewer to consider the images alone, the cut-outs presented on a large, blank space like a specimen on a petri dish. The result is uncanny. Like a phantom limb, the redacted imagery lives on, but only as a shadow. Standing before “Transfixion” I found myself dredging my mind to recall the original imagery now removed.
In Doubleworld (1995), cibachrome prints of still lives appear within mahogany frames. The term “still life” can also be called “nature mort,” meaning “dead nature” and in both Doubleworld and Objects of Desire Charlesworth presents “dead objects.”
Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes’s meditation on photography, was published in English in 1982. One year later, in the panel paper she presented for the Society for Photographic Education, Charlesworth wrote, “To live in a world of photographs is to live in a world of substitutes—stand-ins—representations of things, or so it seems, whose actual referents are always the other, the described, the reality of a world once removed.” Charlesworth was loath to be considered a writer, correcting Betsy Sussler in an interview. When asked “Tell me about doing the research for these,” Charlesworth responded, “You’re using a writer’s word.” But Charlesworth was, in fact, a writer: authoring artists books and, of course, The Fox, an art theory magazine she co-edited with Joseph Kosuth. But perhaps, more accurately, we might call Charlesworth not a “Writer” but instead an “un-writer” who un-wrote: removing, redacting, and then showing us our world anew, through her eyes, in her Doubleworld.
Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 20.