Considering the Images in “The Glass Ceiling”

Editor’s Note: After this post was published we discovered that the author has mistakenly claimed that the artist had created the images associated with a commercial assignment. The photographer contacted us and informed us that, “the series was an entirely self-funded body of work inspired by a [commercial] assignment in 2008.” She tells us that many of the images were staged well after the commercial assignment itself.

Jill Greenberg, “Untitled (Glass Ceiling 1-1017)” (2008) (all photos by the author)

If you were to ask any passing New Yorker about the glass ceiling, he or she might tell you about how an incompetent boss is promoting people who don’t deserve it, or that the government defends the Defense of Marriage Act even after repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But unless you’re at photographer Jill Greenberg’s recent show at Clamp Art, I doubt a description of a translucent disembodying threshold will enter the conversation. For Glass Ceiling Greenberg takes a literal interpretation of the phrase and turns it into a situation that perpetuates the power struggle it’s meant to combat.

The literature surrounding the show claims that this series of headless mannequin-like women floating in a pool is a critique of sexual exploitation, and that the view from underneath the water that excludes their heads and faces accentuates the work as such. Yet the photographs’ waist-level close-ups and Polly-Pocket color palette overpower and extinguish the irony necessary for such a critique.

Jill Greenberg, “Untitled (Glass Ceiling 2-650)” (2010) exhibited with (foreground) “Glass Slipper” (2011)

Many photographers will claim the lines between their commercial work and their artwork are often blurred, and if they’re like Greenberg, they’ll even admit to shooting a commercial editorial and then exhibiting the outtakes in a Chelsea gallery. Such a situation begs two aphorisms: being a commercial photographer doesn’t grandfather you into the artists’ club, and sometimes it’s hard to appreciate commercial projects in their own right if all they do is objectify women.

Jill Greenberg, “American Girl Doll” (2010)

In my opinion, Greenberg hasn’t made any art of any note since her senior thesis show at RISD twenty years ago entitled The Female Object. Greenberg references her thesis project in her artist’s statement as an attempt to cast Glass Ceiling in a feminist light. Yet none of her work made between then and now resembles either series. Instead, the context she’s built over the last twenty years is a highly commercial one, exemplified by her online portfolio’s genre distinctions that clearly aren’t artistically considered like “Dogs,” “Shiny Faces,” which shows a thumbnail of Glenn Beck, and “Conceptual,” which includes a photo of a bikini-clad girl raising a beach ball like she’s Atlas.

Jill Greenberg, “Untitled (Glass Ceiling 2-428)” (2010)

Greenberg is just one of the many poster children for why the differences between art and commercial photography should be more distinct. If viewers and buyers did more than just ignore shows like Glass Ceiling, if they spoke out against utilizing the art world simply for commercial means, if they emailed gallerists and artists about what’s art and what’s not, then work that attempts to to deal with important social issues, like feminism, might stop resembling what’s on the pages of magazines with a predictable dash of theory thrown in.

Jill Greenberg: Glass Ceiling was on view at Clamp Art (521-531 West 25 Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) from June 16 to August 19, 2011.


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