This exhibition directly appropriates the term first articulated by Walter Benjamin in his landmark 1936 essay, "The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and refers as well to its re-investigation by Rosalind Krauss in her book of the same name, published in 1993. Benjamin's central concern was for how photography and film had transformed perception, particularly as aligned with the practice of psychoanalysis—entwining a parallel unconscious, projections of the mind and the camera. Photography and film also transformed painting, with the assertion that it was made obsolete by them, which is still somehow taken as fact. Surrealist painting attempted to render, in part, images that only the mind, the unconscious, and the imagination could see: the reproduction of dreams. Manipulated photography, of course, would also enter into this pursuit, but nearly 80 years after Benjamin, in a world of portable computers, digital cameras and phones which capture still and moving images, early photographic works appears to represent nothing more than an antique future, a kind of promise kept. The same cannot be said of painting, which somehow always exists within its own space of time, and even in a state of suspended animation. Moreover, early photographic work ultimately led to the instantly realized pictures that almost everyone generates today, often mindlessly, reducing the photograph to a mere readymade, one which is just as instantly deleted. The photographic is no longer a site of wonder, particularly in Benjamin's sense, where the otherwise elusive details and textures of lived experience are captured, or where light and sound and larger-than-life moving images flow onto a screen in a darkened room, but of vernacular banality.
In its appropriation of The Optical Unconscious, this exhibition looks almost exclusively to painting and drawing, rather than to photography and film, to provide various points of entry for a heightened perceptual state. This is underscored by the seemingly oppositional, or even schizophrenic positions the artists occupy historically, from visionary and surrealist art to Op art and photo realism. (And it is worth noting that all of them, at one time or another, have been discredited and dismissed.) In many of the works in this show there is a tension between mechanical reproduction and images created by hand. The fact that the selection of works by divergent artists can be seen as promiscuous, is perhaps an acknowledgement that unconscious desires are not bound by the same frames that are imposed upon waking life, and by the need to order the world in order for it to be comprehensible. The unconscious, clearly, is the only place where we are unable to lie to or make excuses for ourselves, to engage in those evasive maneuvers which allow us to navigate reality. Works which insist on a heightened state of perception to both crystalize and dissolve reality, and in doing so to suggest realities plural.
Black Box, 2002, was included in:
work included in
guest editor Liz Deschenes
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