Installation view of 'Handless Operative' at Casemore Kirkeby, with works by Hiroshi Takizawa (left), Anouk Kruithof (center) and Sean McFarland (right). (Courtesy of the gallery)
In most spaces intended for leisure or entertainment, it’s the infrastructure that decrees how we arrange our bodies. A theater has seats. A stadium has bleachers. An amusement park line has stanchions. But a gallery only has walls—and a hard bench if you’re lucky.
When we walk into a space intended for viewing art, it’s not uncommon to become crudely aware of your body and its surroundings. This may be why we often feel so self-conscious within art spaces; the gallery instructs us only to recognize our own existence.
In Handless Operative, the current exhibition at San Francisco’s Casemore Kirkeby, curator Petra Bibeau organizes a group show of work by 12 contemporary photographers around the idea of the photograph as the product of a “handless operative.” This manifests as a show of works that can be categorized as having either hidden, exposed or liberated means of production.
The photographs included in Handless Operative rely on the semiotic limbo between what is represented and the act of representation. This limbo brings the viewer’s attention into what Bibeau describes as an expanded perceptual realm, a space that is physical and visceral. Bibeau expresses this sensation as “the distance is the space where the viewer may accept what they thought they witnessed as ‘close enough’ or, one may question further. That space is where production comes into question as a measure of reality: ‘I assume it is this, but I know it can’t be this.’”
What we see when we look closely at the works in Casemore Kirkeby is not just the conceit of each artist’s vision, but the invisible gesture organizing all the works in Handless Operative—Bibeau’s curatorial index. When asked if she thinks curatorial work entails hidden, exposed or liberated production, she replies “all of the above.” Bibeau believes a group exhibition cultivates a new identity for an artwork that provides freedom from previous expectations.
In Handless Operative’s categories of production, Sean McFarland’s photograph Falls can be filed under “hidden production.” It’s representational, but only as long as it can deceive you. The black-and-white image appears at first glance bucolic; foliage frames a mountainscape and gives form to the term “picturesque.” But past the assumption of a landscape, there’s a disjuncture—as if a backdrop of a waterfall has been unfurled behind the trees with its horizontal creases intact, the product of a mis-exposed negative. Our misgivings about the image only become apparent once we withdraw from the presupposition of “I have seen this before.”
Moving through the show, it is Anouk Kruithof’s work Never Ending Pile of a Past that best embodies the category of “liberated from production.” Ten thousand identical photographs of a pile of papers sit as takeaways in a neat stack in the center of the gallery. The artist is absent; it’s the viewer who activates the piece. By retrieving a print we make the piece more closely resemble the image in hand—and the space between what’s shown, what’s seen and what’s experienced conflates.
“I think photography can share versions of truths, it can act as a document but it is always and forever a stand-in for time as a marker,” Bibeau says. In the case of Kruithof, the depreciating nature of the stack of photographs mirrors the precarity of the image featured—a stack of papers itself. In the same fashion as Felix-Gonzalez Torres’s 1991 installation of a 175-pound pile of wrapped candies, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), Never Ending Pile of a Past shifts from object to experience, and therefore memory—the takeaway becomes a marker of a moment in time.
Meanwhile, two drastically different images expose their means of production. Lindsey White’s photograph ManPlow alludes to the commercially intended function the found object (a snow pusher) might serve, while its embolden brand “ManPlow” aptly fills a role in contemporary feminist narrative. The breadth, momentum and necessity of that narrative extends far beyond the intended use of the object pictured. White’s image wryly suggests the utility in physically shoveling patriarchy out of the picture entirely. In her photograph, the object sits perfectly lit, like a product for sale, promising solutions.
The second image, Larry Sultan’s Kanin Road, features an off-kilter view of desire—a porn shoot in a suburban home. Southern California light filters through gauzy drapes, glinting across naked bodies. But the image is interrupted by the reach of a stylist adjusting the woman’s blindfold mid-intercourse while a production assistant watches ambivalently in the distance. The periphery of the scene diffuses its erotic potential to the point of humor. The intended function of the subject matter is confounded with the means by which that function is produced.
Within the theory of the “handless operative” both White and Sultan’s photographs intentionally circumvent the obvious. They offer images that stare right back at us, deadpan.
While the production process of each individual artwork in Handless Operative directs how we view it, the artist’s influence still provides space for us to see a work on its own terms and through our own means of interpretation. But viewing artwork in a gallery setting, especially in a curated group show, is anything but incidental. The curatorial hand is ever-present in guiding our gaze.
In Handless Operative Bibeau brings our attention to the mechanisms of the photographic medium: the way the camera’s mediation subverts or reinforces an image’s authority, and how the transparency of its production or lack thereof lead us to that conclusion. Turns out the handless operative isn’t so hands-free after all.
'Handless Operative' is on view at San Francisco's Casemore Kirkeby through May 25. Details here.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.