Throughout her artistic career, from the late 1970s until she passed away in 2013, Sarah Charlesworth plunged into the vast sea of omnipresent imagery that constantly threatens to devour us – and took control. She collected, dissected and reappropriated images cut from fashion magazines and science journals, from art history books and newspapers, into works that are at once sophisticated and somber, elegant and elegiac. According to Hal Foster, hers is ‘an art that looks good and hurts a little’. Her precise and serene investigations into the historical, cultural and emotional meaning of photography still appear bold, fresh and imminently contemporary.
The artist’s first large solo presentation entitled Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld at the New Museum can now be seen until February the 4th at LACMA. In spite of her extraordinary contribution to the image world of the Picture Generation, her name never became household or incorporated into the great canon of contemporary American photography quite like her peers Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman. Yet it is apparent that her influence on contemporary photographic practices has been profound and far-reaching. Furthermore, her work resonates deeply with a range of artists working with the potency and impotency of images, from John Baldessari to Elad Lassry.
Like other members of the Picture Generation in the late 70s and 80s, Charlesworth put photography right at the centre of the artistic debate, making it the very subject of her images. As she herself expressed: ‘I don’t think of myself as a photographer … it is an engagement with a problem rather than a medium.’ The impact of images on our everyday lives and how they shape our personal and social identities were key matters for the group. Yet Charlesworth took this a step further by engaging so precisely and profoundly with the image surface itself.
Her method was to subtract or strip the images of every reference to their original context, focusing on their formal qualities, such as colour, shape and surface. The inherently fetishised quality of images thus came to the fore, but also the ideological undertow lurking beneath every image surface. Few did this quite as sharply or as deadpan as Charlesworth. And rarely is it more emotionally gripping than in the falling figures in the Stills series (1980), or more seductive than in the Objects of Desire series (1983–88). The latter are colour-saturated collages of appropriated images depicting often fetishised items: religious, cultural or exotic artifacts, animals, female bodies. The images are photographed against bright, monochrome backgrounds with matching lacquered frames. The artist thereby creates an interaction between surface and illusion, abstraction and figuration, highlighting the object-quality of the pictures. It is as if she wishes to conjure up the very essence of photography as it hovers between surface and depth, object and illusion, presentation and representation. And, in Charlesworth’s case, between warm and cold, since her work appears so flamingly engaged with the emotional impact of photographic images, yet at the same time reveals their chillingly numbing surface quality.
To revisit Sarah Charlesworth’s art is an instant diving lesson into the lives and loves of images, a lesson not to be missed.