Secondhand

Shotgun Review

Secondhand

By Danica Willard Sachs September 25, 2014

The exhibition Secondhand opens with a quote from John Baldessari: “I really don’t think imagery should be owned, including my own. If it’s part of our world, it’s like owning words. How can you own words? It’s just stuff to use.” In this spirit, all of the artists in the exhibition transform found images into new works, though some are not as successful in their results. 

Manifested in physically and visually overwhelming installations in three of Pier 24's twenty galleries, Erik Kessels’s sentimental investigations of photography are a thematic centerpiece of the exhibition. Both Album Beauty and in almost every picture (both 2014) draw on the artist’s vast collection of vernacular photographs. Album Beauty virtually immerses the viewer in the pages of a photo album, with enlarged portraits and snapshots encompassing the walls of the gallery. In the center of the space, vitrines filled with found albums are placed between two wall-like structures covered with printed paper, like the patterned covers of an album; stacks of photo albums in neatly tied bundles abut the walls. The effect is highly precious: Kessels’s work seems to yearn for a time when physical photographs were more treasured. 

Erik Kessels. Album Beauty, 2014; installation view, Secondhand, Pier 24. Courtesy  of the Artist and Pier 24 Photography, San Francisco.

A more interesting investigation of vernacular photography lies elsewhere: in the three galleries devoted to displaying selections of the Archive of Modern Conflict, a mysterious collection that evolved from photographs from the two World Wars. Theatrically lit, and with plum-colored walls, these rooms juxtapose images of the natural world and famous figures with those of modern warfare. Cyanotypes of plants and scenes of meteor showers are placed next to aerial photographs taken from warplanes and images of mushroom clouds. The disjointed viewing experience traces the literal and emotional history of photography, reminding the viewer of the medium’s unflinching ability to reveal the spectacular and to document the tragic.

More subversive works in the exhibition stray from the sentimental, drawing attention to the pervasiveness of images in our increasingly digital world. Daniel Gordon constructs elaborate still lifes from online images. Culling the Internet for images of fruits and plants, Gordon cuts up two-dimensional prints and haphazardly reconstructs them into three-dimensional objects that are then staged and re-photographed. Printed in vibrant, garish colors, the resulting images echo Matisse’s paintings. Crumpled paper and visible seams reveal the labor of Gordon’s practice and serve as reminders of the constructed nature of the digital world from which they are drawn.

Secondhand is on view at Pier 24 Photography, in San Francisco, through May 1, 2015.

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