4.10 / Review

Look Out

By Mary Anne Kluth February 26, 2013

There are many illusions at play in Elisheva Biernoff’s exhibition titled Look Out, now on view at Eli Ridgway Gallery. What initially appears to be an exhibition of carefully selected found and vintage photographs turns out, upon closer inspection, to be a show of small, carefully disguised paintings. Moreover, beneath a superficial interest in sentimentality and nostalgia, this show harbors philosophical questions about the role of painting and image making in memory and culture.

Blossom (2013) is a dreamy and wistful arrangement of two snapshot-size paintings on thin wood, standing side-by-side on a wooden base. The first is an image of pink blossoms against a blue background, and the second shows a woman in a white shirt and gray skirt standing on a lawn and surrounded by pale pink flowers. Biernoff’s color palette perfectly mimics vintage color photography with its yellowed, aging card stock, and her paint application both renders a faithful approximation of a low-fidelity Polaroid image while recalling the work of the midcentury painter Fairfield Porter.

Elisheva Biernoff. Couple, 2013; acrylic on plywood; 4.25 x 2.5 and 3.5 x 2.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Eli Ridgway Gallery, San Francisco.

Couple (2013) is more complicated. It’s also composed of two paintings shown as a unit, and it also looks very much like two old photos: one of a woman, the other of a man, both standing outside in the sunlight. The images are rendered in black and cream, and the edges of one are carefully deckled to reproduce the look of old mementos. Biernoff’s arrangement and title create a context for viewers to consider that the subjects of these images were a couple, that there exists a narrative relationship between them. Both the man and woman appear to glow like ghosts. By employing the look of improperly exposed snapshots, Biernoff evokes the spectral glow of late-19th-century Spiritualist photography, a photographic style that called into question the credibility of photographic images as proof of facts. Because Biernoff’s pieces are painted, they further imply opportunities for the images to be altered. Simple and sentimental on its surface, Couple skillfully undermines any facile narrative interpretation of its imagery. A viewer’s sense of eerie uncertainty about the subjects of the images infects her interpretation of the method of their presentation.

The work Women and Redwoods (2012) seems to reproduce travel souvenirs of a vacation. As its title suggests, it depicts two women seated in the woods. The antique quality and subject matter also recall the subjects of the 1917 Cottingley Fairy photos by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, which were famous hoaxes from the early days of published photography. Like those images, Biernoff’s Women and Redwoods evokes a sense that the glowing world it depicts is remote and only barely plausible.

Elisheva Biernoff. House of Cards, 2012-13; acrylic on plywood; 10.25 x 6.25 x 2.25 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Eli Ridgway Gallery, San Francisco.

House of Cards (2012–13) is a painted set of playing cards assembled into a pyramid shape, with each card bearing a different, hand-painted reproduction of a famous image. Included on the cards are: a portrait by Ingres, who was famous for subtly distorting the anatomy of his subjects; a Hollywood actress; a poster of John Muir, the legendary naturalist; an illustration of a Greek myth; and a unicorn from the 1495 Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry, among other images. A house of cards as such already implies magic tricks, and cards assembled in this way suggest mastery and dedication, as well as a precarious situation. By combining cards bearing images of famous myths and cultural fabrications in this particular structure, Biernoff opens up metaphorical questions about the role of images and imagination in the construction of myths.

Compared with the subtle intricacy of the painted works, Mountains of Instead (2013) comes off like a punch line. A peep-hole diorama in the tradition of Duchamp’s ‪Étant donnés (1966), Mountain also recalls the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, displaying a ghostly unicorn reflected on a piece of glass, through which sculptural horses can be seen grazing. Though this piece has a wackier, more humorous tone than the other works in the exhibition, Biernoff maintains a focus on two ideas: that the imaginary world is often more gripping than the mundane and factual and that we are prone to conjuring meaning and narrative when presented with only limited evidence.

Many of the works in Look Out are so carefully made to resemble old photos and playing cards that the question of what one is actually looking at may not be easily resolved. Though each work on its own may only point to one variation on the overall theme of illusion, together the works articulate a nuanced understanding of what it means to create an image.    


Look Out is on view at Eli Ridgway Gallery, in San Francisco, through March 9, 2013.

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