Phil Chang at LAXART: Thinking about representation

They’re the color of dried blood, but are shiny; and briefly, upon seeing seeing Phil Chang’s unique photographic prints, I think of monochromatic paintings. (I have to begin somewhere, and with me “somewhere” usually is visual and from my past.)

In a few of the greatly over-exposed photos the original image remains visible, as though – I suppose – through a haze of time. I imagine that, as with drawing, the original mark-making has such depth that it prevails.

After seeing this show at LAXART a friend commented to me “…It doesn’t really matter that these pictures disappear, in fact by this means Phil may have resolved the problem in photography of what one chooses to photograph.” This choice is burdened with the subjectivity that all classes of representation must bear.

In 2010, Phil Chang showed a similar series of photographs which he installed unframed, behind small black felt drapes. In order to see the pictures one needed to lift the curtain and so expose the unfixed prints to darkening, destructive effects of light. The images in this earlier work, shipboard scenes of native attendants in colonial era Hawaii, were appropriated from an academic archive (note: the images were hijacked, not the photographs). The vignettes that I momentarily saw showed unidentified dark-skinned crew members (ship’s boys, if you will) who were made invisible in their own land by virtue of their darkness as against the white of their masters. Powerful stuff.

There is violence in the destruction of an image, even when the obliteration completes a work of art. While this previous work was successful in many ways, it is possible that by forcing a viewer to be complicit in his violence the artist introduced one too many ideas. Guilt is a disincentive for a viewer to think about anything else. Lost in the (unknowing) participants’ emotional reaction were the artist’s interest in exposing our passive reliance on images as representations.

This new work preceded its time of exhibition as photographs composed and taken by the artist, and this moment is where and when a relationship btwn person and image first developed. (I wonder what is this relationship? “There is a thing, and here is another thing, not a copy, not necessarily an object, but still matter and not idea. Why does this surrogate feel powerful?”) In their moment of creation did these pictures “do” anything? Given the artists title for the show “Cache, Active” are they doing something now? Once they were exposed in the gallery they begin to decay. Here I use the term “exposed” with care: by showing me that his images disappear after four hours under the gallery lights, Phil Chang presents me with an opportunity to consider – in a still moment, undisturbed by emotional or aesthetic concerns – the action and the potential for failure of images as bearers of information.

Several recent exhibitions in our town have posed questions about image making and our perception of them. It’s a rich time. More later.

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