New York Magazine
May 6, 2008
Vulture-Culture & Entertainment Blog: Art Candy
Peter Garfield’s Art is Complete Garbage
by Emma Pearse
Sort of like those Day of the Week panties girls wear, Peter Garfield has a pile of trash for every day and mood: Sometimes it’s a neat piece of plastic pinned to the wall by wire; other times it’s these giant photographs of rubbish dumps that look more like the immaculately stocked delis we New Yorkers are blessed with than the discarded remnants of what we buy there. Pierogi Brooklyn is one big, beautiful rubbish dump through May 19.
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Wasteland Dreaming: Reflections on Peter Garfield’s Deep Space One and The Four Seasons
by Christian Parenti
In the years bracketing 9/11, I was working on a book about the history of everyday surveillance and at the time suffered recurring dreams that were something like nightmares, but more fun. I was always on the run, chased by the state or some other omnipotent force that was never well-defined. In these dreams my companions and I were rebels, or bandits, or refugees, or the wrongly accused. I finished the book, published it, did the book tour and was done. So too were the dreams, and when they were finally gone I missed them.
Recently I saw Peter Garfield’s new video installation, Deep Space One, and I was reunited with that strange hunted, haunted, exhilarated feeling from the dreams. Garfield’s three-channel video, in which each screen relates to the others—sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially and sometimes merely thematically—begins with a close shot of falling snow. The camera pulls back and the snow is revealed to be the static signal on a television screen tuned to a dead channel.
Around this forsaken appliance lies a landscape of trash, that most familiar hallmark of everyday modern life’s implicit apocalypse. On the right screen, through the heavy snow appears a fuel truck. Its headlights sweep across the other two frames, illuminating more harshly this landscape of detritus. Then we move to a desolate wintertime airfield. The truck passes a helicopter, and we hear the helicopter’s rotors gaining momentum. The whine and clatter rises with a steady menace, momentarily overwhelming the power of the images. The helicopter lifts off, the sound fades, and we seem to rise with the aircraft into the night sky over a dark landscape of jagged snow-bound peaks. But on the central screen the trash lingers.
Thus begins something like a dream sequence. The cold mountains roll and twist beneath and around us, the chopper flies precariously close to the cold brutal massifs. Then in the central screen the twisting landscape begins to emerge as a strange glacial cave, a fake, upon which work scientists and artists, daubing the snowy peaks with white paint. The camera advances into a studio/laboratory to reveal a trompe-l’oeil wall where one of the artists lounges on a couch, his feet protruding through the wall and into the same place where we began—at the cold, nocturnal mountain air base.
Distant as that place may seem, it’s really not that far from home. Two figures sit on the couch, a man and a woman, casually watching television, the same small black-and-white set from the trash heap. On it we see someone in a lab coat running through those same snowy mountains. The viewers are entirely nonplussed, as in a dream.
At work in the lab/studio are the technicians/artists in white and blue lab coats—all are appropriately “multicultural,” as everyone here is a token. They tinker, consult, plan, and carry on unaware of the camera or the improbable overlap of their workspace with Garfield’s sinister dreamscape. On the wall behind them is a mural, the mirror extension of their workspace.
One of the technicians then casually applies a power saw to the mural and climbs through the ragged hole she has made, only to run through those same cold snowy mountains, her boots making a dry crunching sound. In another frame the camera focuses on the wall she has cut through: the wall slowly tips back and then crashes to the floor, revealing another wall, which is also pulled down and smashed to the ground, followed by another and another.
The camera next rushes through this increasingly dusty demolished warehouse interior, evoking gentrification, displacement, creative destruction and the real political economy of art in New York and other major cities. Garfield, in fact, shot this scene upon being evicted from his studio.
Throughout the seventeen-minute piece, one witnesses the political logic of the last two or three decades—a market economy run amok, culturally sensitive advertising, the military-industrial economy, dotcom bullshit, the biomedical moment, and a political culture contained by fear, surveillance, and a growing police state. (Don’t forget: it was not all the fault of the younger Bush. Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, his callous immigration reforms, and his numerous prison- and police-bolstering omnibus anti-crime bills all gave the incipient police state much of its momentum.)
The underlying politics are what gives Garfield’s work its traction. Deep Space One is technically proficient, perfectly scored, and complete with Foley sound and remixed; in other words it is cinematic in that big-budget, epic fashion we all like, but it maintains a deeply subversive, critical defiance towards what can otherwise seem to be a juggernaut of defeat. The state, its spies, the corporations, the squares in lab coats who inhabit the air bases and corporate campuses—they will always win. And you will be screwed, left to run alone through the snow, one step ahead of “The Man” with only the sound of your boots for company. Or so it seems.
Another essential theme in Garfield’s work is our society’s relationship to nature, specifically as it is expressed through the accumulation of garbage and the message that garbage brings us. Of course, garbage is text in the broadest sense, but it also contains specific texts and images, distinct messages and jokes. Opening at Pierogi in April, Garfield’s installations provide acerbic commentary on the mindless neuroses and waste inherent in modern life. The show consists of four pieces, or “The Four Seasons.” Each is a landscape of trash, similar to that seen in the opening sequence of Deep Space One. Summer is light and green, and the trash assembled here is somewhat floral and frivolous in its messages. There are children’s toys, a smashed-up bright green plastic dinosaur, a picture of Shrek, candy wrappers, a Green Mountain Coffee can, bits of grass, a plastic bottle of lemon juice, a likeness of SpongeBob, and a pack of American Spirits.
Fall is made up of red and orange hues against an earthy background of muddy water. It seems to invoke the fall from grace. Here we see a package of Brawny paper towels; a rotten pumpkin; a bottle of Thunderbird; some reddish hot dogs sticking up tumescently; a rotten banana peel; leaves; lunchmeat wrappers; a page from a porn magazine; another page from a porn magazine in which a woman offers her ass; something called “prostate helper” with an elfin gay man on the packaging and a copy offering deeper penetration; a duck head from Chinatown; more leaves; dog shit; Chapstick; a can of empty PVC glue; condom wrappers; leaves; tinfoil; and fast food containers.
For Garfield the trash pieces intend no environmental or moral commentary. “I just like the aesthetics of trash,” he says. “There’s an archeological process—picking things, signs, out of the gutter and looking for their meaning. I like a lot of the logos and package design—they get even better when they are half destroyed.”
Fair enough, but the work also has a life of its own and offers its own escapes, similar to the monad in Deep Space One who cut through the wall to run for it. The meanings of The Four Seasons go off the reservation, crossing from aesthetic statements into political commentary.
Together these pieces invoke the logic of the present in all its despotism and pathology. As the pieces comment on cultural production—especially cinema and advertising—you could say they are classic détournement, a cultural “turning” or reuse of the spectacle in order to call into question class power and other hierarchies. As such, they do important work, focusing on that which we already know but are numbed and worn down by. In the short term there is perhaps not much effective resistance against the rape of the earth or the enclosures of political life and liberty that pass as public safety. But Garfield’s subversive humor at least enables us to mock and lament our predicament.
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The North Adams Transcript
February 8, 2007
by John E. Mitchell
North Adams- The exhibit “Unhinged”, currently on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, features artist Peter Garfield’s photographic images of hosues being swept hrough the sky. Blurry, at times lacking in båsic composition and focus, Garfield’s work appears to be a collection of impromptu snapshots in the tradition of UFO photography more than any kind of gallery art. Garfield says that is entirely the point.
“I’ve always been alternately fascinated and amused by UFO photos,” said Garfield, “because you want to believe it, but then you also question it- that’s very much what I was trying to do, they are like UFO photos. I was playing on that.”
Part of Garfield’s methods is to embrace the most important component behind the UFO phenomenon- the fakery of it. The photos are not real photos of houses flying in the sky, but ther eis a back story to the images that etends perception of fiction as reality, the idea that Garfield’s photos reflect a larger effort to take houses and drop them for the purpose of art.
“I found that people were always asking me how I did it,” said Garfield. “This was just before Photoshop, so people were very intrigued and bothered by them- disturbed, amuses, all these different things. They always wanted to know how I did them and I guess I was taken a little off guard because I didn’t realize that would be such a big issue.”
Garfield’s method of utilizing the iconography he had created to expand into an entire mythology was similar, also, to the way information about UFOs is passed around popular culture- he made a book that put the images into their fictional content in the form of his artist catalogue for a show.
“I figured that most artists’ catalogs are kind of boring, they have the boring artspeak essay, very vew people actually read them.” Said Garfield. “ I thought about how I do it so it’s not just a throw away object, I wanted it to be an artwork in itself. So I started thinking that I’m going to answer all these questions about how I do it, but I’m going to answer them in a different way. I explain how I do these hosues, but it’s going to be totally fiction.”
Garfield’s fabricated a process by which he a nd a crew of helpers took real houses and utilized helicopters and cranes to drop them and phtoograph them. Garfield even used Photoshop to fashion some fake documentary images of the big machines dropping the houses for him, totall yfalse “behind the scenes” phtoos- and he created text that pushed this official story though interviews and artist statements.
“At no place in the catalog does it let on that all this is a fiction,” said Garfield. “It’s a totally straightfoward artists’ catalog that is actually an art pieces in itself.”
Garfield’s actual process is the exact opposite of the “official” one. He puts together tiny scale hosues-0 about 4 cubic inches- and, over a period of time, transforms them into the destroyed state they require for the resulting phtograph.
“When I go somewhere, I find a stick, use some nylon thread, hang it from the end of the stick, and, with my other hand, I’m holding the camera,” said Garfield. “I just hold it out in front of a landscape- but I take a lot of pictures because I need to get one where there’s enough blur so that it looks like it’s moving and also so it’s not too clear. If it’s really clear, you can see it’s a miniature right in front of the camera. So it’s this trick, an illusion of deph, then the angle, where you’re looking up to it. You see the bottom of the house and it makes it look like it’s far away and up in the sky. Through trial and error, I learned how to create this illusion- and create this fantasy.”
The documentary phtoos featured in the catalog were created with similar fakery. The crane shots were fashioned in thte exact same “nylon thread and stick” method, while the helicopter images were other phtoographs where the houses were digitally inserted.
The end result of the flying houses photos began in the early 1990’s when Garfield was more entrenched in, first, abstract painting and, then, representational ones. He did some flying house paintings, but those didn’t satisfy, nor did photo/painting hybrids in which he would situate models in fronts of backdrops of his own creaion.
“It took literally almost two years of me playing around with this stuff to get to a point where I realized that I wanted it to look like a snapshot,” said Garfield. “It’s got to be kind of grainy, a little blurry, maybe shot at an odd angle as if somebody just saw this and they happened to have a cheap throwaway camera and they just pulled it up and took a shot. It’s not very well composed, it’s not a real high-quality phtoo, because if you plan it out, then it looks like a profesional photograph.”
Through those two years, Garfield had little clue where he was headed with this idea; it wasn’t as if he had a moment of epiphany where he came up with the whole idea. First, the photographs themselves were completed and, later on, the fiction of the artist catalog. He knew what he wanted to do, but he didn’t quite know why. At times, he was sure he was just going mad.
“When I was doing the phony catalog, there were some shots where I actually build a piece of house, “ said Garfield. “It’s one thing to build a tiny, little model, but I was building this piece of a house and I was going to drag it out to the corner of this part right by my studio and the cops came by and they’re questioning me, they were all these things that made me wonder ‘Am I totally insane? Why am I doing this?’”
Once al lthe pieces came together, Garfield understood and now feels a lot more comfortable with his own process- and since the original phtoos were done, the world has become more comfortable, as well. The ascendance of Photoshop as the digital imaging standard has meant that a lot more very strange images have become something that ordinary people encounter on a regular basis. This has upped the ante for what Garfield tries to accomplish in his work, second guessing the perceptions of viewers who will just recognize phtoos of flying houses as fake. On the other hand, the catalog still does its work and Garfield says there are plenty of people who encounter his work who are convinced that he hauls houses onto cranes and drops them.
Garfield now uses Photoshop more readily in his work and that has created another challenge- maintaining the illusion of authenticity. Even as he prepared old negatives for the current show at Mass MoCA, he found he had to fight the urge to go too far with digital delights like color correction.
“ That’s the thing about Photoshop, you look at a lot of the images and they’re too perfect,” said Garfield. “I thought that I wanted to resist this impulse because I want to maintain a certain kind of rawness to the imgaes. Too much of the imagery we see now is so polished that it loses the kind of edge of bad lighting or weird color that you get from a Polaroid or you get from cheap film. So I stopped the process. It could have been a more beautiful images, but I think it would have diminished the authenticity of the moment.”
In his more recent work, Garfield has actually gotten to the point where he not only fakes a fake, but allows the clues that the work si fake to be reavealed in the photograph. With so manylayers of fakery, it becomes hard to discern the authenticity of any given aspect of the image,
Garfield has also been working in video that goes back and fourth between sets that he builds and reality, creating an entirely subjective experience fo the so called reality being captured in the images. It’s just another leg on the journey for Garfield.
“A student recently asked me when I had the idea to do all this, and I think he had the impression that I just had an idea and I did all of it,” said Garfield. “I wanted to mae it clear that it was such a long process, it was lots of little ideas that I experiment with, a lot of them fail, some of them go on and morph into other ideas.”
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Issue 4, January 2007
Features: Peter Garfield
Interview with Andrew Palmer Smith
Chief Magazine: What's up, Peter? Got any upcoming shows?
Peter Garfield: I have a show coming up at Mass MoCA in January and also, I've been invited with Deep Space 1 http://chiefmag.com/issues/4/features/Peter-Garfield/resources/Deep_Space_cut.mov load edit of Deep Space 1 to the Rotterdam Film Festival, so a lot’s going on right now.
So when is the Rotterdam Film Festival?
It’s from January 24th to February 4th, but my opening at Mass MoCA is January 26th, so I’m requesting to have my premiere, hopefully, the 28th, so I can catch the opening at Mass MoCA and then go over to the premiere.
So did you send Deep Space 1 to the film festival or how did these things come about?
Well, I actually I had a residency over the summer at McDowell Colony in New Hampshire and, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the place, but there’s a lot of different creative types up there, writers, you know, poets, sculptors, painters, photographers, filmmakers and, one thing, I screened a film there. One thing, it took me a long time to finish that video for one. I was fixing up a house in Brooklyn for years and I kind of had to drop my artwork ‘cause I was doing it all myself, basically, with a couple helpers and then decided last year I really had to push this video through or its never going to get finished. I was a little worried about it though because I hadn’t done it in a while and so, the project was feeling a little cold to me. So, I had to kind of go back to it and treat it almost as found footage. I didn’t want to try to impose any of my earlier visions on it. I wanted to see where it was going to go, just that my life has changed, that everything in the country and the world has changed, since I started it. But one thing I couldn’t get to do was the sound editing, so when I showed the edit of it at the McDowell, I talked about how I just needed someone to do the sound engineering, kind of refusing at that point to put any more money into it and I wanted to see if I could get somebody to work with me, and a composer really liked it and he volunteered these two sound engineers in Washington DC, so that was great and they started working on it this fall. They’re working on that now and things just started to come together and there were three filmmakers up there as well and they all encouraged me, after seeing it, they said, “You definitely should submit this to the film festival,” which I hadn’t really considered since I’m just in a different world, different universe kind of, and I've never known much about that and I do have filmmaker friends, I didn’t really consider it much so... They really encouraged me and they gave me advice and told me about the process. So I applied and got into it and I’m waiting to hear from Berlin and Tribeca film festivals and, especially Tribeca, it’s looking pretty good. The one thing about the film festivals is that they’re going to show it as a single channel.
That’s what I was wondering. Because it's a three-channel installation.
So it’ll be shown kind of how you saw it, on one screen, and what I feel they want to do is show it as a three channel installation and I don’t know. I shouldn’t say too much because I just don’t know but I’m hoping that maybe it is done in Tribeca and maybe, since I’m here, I could actually do the three channel piece as kind of an experimental thing for them. But I don’t know, I don’t actually know even if I've been, you know, if I’m going to be accepted to that, but that’s kind of what I'd love. Ideally, it’s meant as kind of a museum piece or something like that, not kind of a commercial project.
How is that? You said you’re in a different world than the film festival circuit, so do you not consider yourself a filmmaker?
Well, this is the first project I've done. I mean, I bought the video camera to do this project. I bought it in 1999, which is ages ago now. Luckily I bought a high-end consumer camera and it’s still good but now things are moving fast. I did do some small pieces but nothing that I've shown. In fact, I didn’t really finish any of those pieces. I kind of worked on them and I was always focused on this one, this one bigger piece that I wanted to do. My ideas are kind of almost like scenes or short sequences, so it didn’t feel like a big leap and a lot of people commented that my work is kind of very cinematic, like in the way of photography, so that wasn’t such a leap. It really was just about a lot of technical aspects but the way I work, I’m very process-oriented. I tried but I could never work with a script or storyboards. I have an image in my mind and I just find a way of doing it.
So with Deep Space 1, specifically, what were some of those initial images that then created this installation?
Well, one was the mural. There’s that mural of the tromp l'oeil of this big empty space, that’s this studio with the table, the work table that goes and disappears into that wall, and then this woman cutting through it and going through but that part actually developed after but the mural actually was there in my mind, this kind of fictional space, you know. A lot of my work dealing with this border between fiction and reality and so that was an element, also. So I had this image of almost kind of aquatic footage going through mountains and that was the aerial footage and so those were the two main things but then, like in the catalog Harsh Realty, with all the whole fake documentation of the flying houses, I started working on that project, on that catalog, which I considered basically an artist book, kind of. It’s meant to look like a serious artist catalog documenting a series of work. To me, it was another piece. It was a conceptual art work and on that one I started working with the actors and this kind of role playing and continued that and this series of photographs, Objects with Potential, which was basically extended into the video of these people in the video going through the motions. It looked like they’re doing something but you don’t know what, they don’t know what. In fact, I don’t know what. I struggled with that because talking with filmmakers, you know, there’s always the issue of motivation, you know, what’s the actors motivation, and I was, I don’t know... I drew a blank on that and I felt very self-conscious about that for a long time, but then I got more confident about it after a while. It really was that there was no motivation and it was about this kind of existential emptiness, lack of motivation, everything is just kind of set in motion. It’s kind of just happening. People are doing things. There’s no motivation and it’s really about that. It’s really about kind of, I didn’t know this at the time, all my work, I kind of discover things as I go and it seems to me it’s really about free will and these things are just set in motion and in the video. There’s kind of these representations of daily activity and human concerns and just little snippets of it, like, there’s people in the lounge, there’s people working... There’s people, you know, there’s all the junk food and some people eating... There’s a lot, like, consumption and then, the make-up scene, just kind of trying to encapsulate life in a way, but that there’s no free will in a way. Everything is just, the camera is going through this space and it's just documenting everything, seems kind of inevitable.
So that’s kind of what I wanted to get at and a lot happened when I was editing last year. I started editing and I realized that I had to film this whole new scene, which was the very beginning of this snow falling then the TV screens and the garbage dump and then a whole bunch of stuff that I had filmed early on got cut out. It was hard to do but I just realized it wasn't meant to be in there at a certain point.
Just to touch on the free will and involvement of the project, I guess, just in your words, you can describe free will.
Um, it’s hard to say. I guess, well, as I see it, it’s kind of our ability to influence events, going from all the way to personal events on a personal level in our very own universe to events on a global level, you know, how much influence can we have as individuals, even as groups or communities and even when we do have influence, there’s so much self-destruction involved. The main interest in my work is psychology and I mean, just looking at the world, what’s going on today, you know, it doesn’t matter what our intentions are and what we say, it’s what we do and often what we do is... we just don’t get things right.
Well I guess branching off of that and kind of the main aspects of your work that I find is kind of like this battle or this dichotomy between the real and the artificial and how within this project, specifically, how does the idea of free will work into those two opposites, if it does?
Well I guess kind of what my work is saying is that we know so little about existence, about everything that we can’t really make a judgment, maybe that we’re constantly in our minds. There is, you know, you can say reality and then fantasy but even within those, like within waking life, there are, you know, you smell things and your mind is brought back to childhood or you see something. Your mind is constantly going into memory, back to kind of temporal reality, back and forth. So I find it very hard to believe that there is this kind of linear progression and to me, the whole idea of progress is suspect, which it sounds very depressing to say that but I don’t know, which at the same time, I’m bit of an idealist. I mean, if I didn’t, if I really were a fatalist, I wouldn’t care about a lot of things but I get worked up about this war. I get really worked up about politics, so there is an idealism but maybe it’s a protective thing, self-protective thing where I try to rationalize that there is not progress. I try to temper my idealism with something else and I think nobody, ultimately no human really has the answers ‘cause we are our minds. We are learning more about minds but there always are our minds, so you can’t really get out of it to get the ultimate clear perspective. I don’t know if that makes any kind of sense.
Yeah, a bit. Maybe we can, from that, we can jump to about the project you're working on now which is this Brain Waves project? Maybe you can tell me a little bit about it, how that started and what the goal of that is.
Well how did it start? I’m not sure, but I've always had an interest in landscape, like Hudson River School since I was a little kid. I loved that and since discovering kind of Chinese landscape paintings, kind of the idea of the sublime and how it is about idealism in a way and it is fantasy, of how we see the landscape. It’s not really realism and I was interested in seeing all different types of representations of sounds, of light, of all these different things being represented in terms of waves and wave forms, being like mountains and being curious about how a lot of this was evocative of these ideals, kind of mountain scapes but they’re very kind of cold and analytical and I started thinking about that and just started working on this idea of these two opposites, one being this ideal, this sublime, and very kind of fantastical and the other being this hard analytical, mathematical reading of data that comes out into these beautiful forms.
I started the project several years ago but I hadn’t had a chance to get into it much when I was an artist in residence at a college a few years ago and I worked with somebody in neuropsychology there and I had my brain waves read as I was viewing video footage and listening to music and then I had a computer scientist there write a program that translated into topographical information, so it’s this big, vast mountain scape and I've only looked literally at, probably, one little pixel area of it in the last three years. I just have to really get nto that project and I haven't had much of a chance, so I’m not sure where that’s going to go but I’m working in sculpture and painting and drawing and I think there’s probably a video element of it as well. So I have a feeling it’s going to be kind of a rich seem to tap into but since I’m not a scientist, I want to be careful not to try and make it too analytical. It's still a poetic thing, which hopefully with have some resonance for technical people. I don’t know. I’m not sure where that’s going to go. I have people I need to talk to who are doing brain research and I haven't pursued it enough to know where it's going.
Maybe, we can switch gears and I read somewhere that you said you’re kind of sick of being the “photographer of the falling houses” and one thing, it’s not such a big deal but I was going to attempt to see how far you’d be willing to lead on the readers but having mentioned the Harsh Realities art book.
It's actually Harsh Realty, yeah.
Harsh Realty, excuse me.
Yeah, but I mean, obviously it looks like harsh realities and most people thinks that’s what it says, but if you look closely, it’s Harsh Realty.
You’re absolutely right. So I mean, one of the things, well, I mean, let’s get this straight, they’re not real houses.
No, and then, they’re models you have made based on real houses or?
They’re actually just little HO scale train models and I would embellish them a lot. I’d break them up. I did a lot of... I’d make walls and patterns and all this stuff with paper mostly and glue and I’d make them look like they were broken up and I’d put beams on the bottom and dirt and look like they were torn out of the ground and so they were these little sculptures and they would take months to work. I don’t work you know day to day on them. I would work for a while and then put them away, so and then, I take them out into a landscape and photograph them hanging from a stick and I’d move the stick and I’d take a lot of photographs between one and two hundred usually to get, to narrow it down to one photograph that I would use, just to get the right angle, so that the perspective looked like this house was up above and far away, also so there had to be enough motion to make it not only look dynamic, but to mask the fact that it was this little tiny object. If there was no blur, then you’d see this thing really sharp and it’d look like a little model three feet from the camera, so I had to get all these things right. So that’s why it took a lot of trial and error.
And I guess, part of the whole process and the project itself and the output being the photographs, but was it essentially to convince the viewer that they were real houses right?
Well, that wasn’t the original goal of the photos but that was kind of the goal of the catalog but not even that it was, kind of, it’s all kind of metaphorical, never meant to be. Well I mean, I correct myself to say I wanted the catalog to be convincing. I wanted the production values to be really high on the catalog and everything so it could be convincing but, like, when I started I did the catalog in the fall of ’97, came out in winter of ’98, I’d been doing the photographs four years before, actually like five, over five years before, but the first couple years I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I was doing paintings of falling houses. I was photographing the houses against the backdrop. I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting at and then at a certain point, it kind of clicked and I was looking for this kind of tabloid look, like something you’d see on the cover of the World Weekly News or maybe something even more reputable. I wanted it to look like it was raw from a news photo or like a snapshot, so that was another thing I had to. It was always hand held. It had to look very kind of haphazard and by chance.
Years before the catalog was even a concept, you’re taking these photos... so how did the catalog come together in terms of set up of the photos?
My original idea was maybe a dozen pages, absolutely no text, just images and no indication of what was going on, what these were from. I wanted it to be just totally, you know, totally unexplained but then I had a show coming up in New York and I kind of thought, well, I should do this book, but then I thought I should make it a catalog and it was just a series of casual decisions. I thought it should be a catalog but I hate most artists catalogs because they’re just so boring and nobody actually reads them and a lot of them get thrown away.
So I then that, coupled with the fact that I never liked being asked how did you do that, how did you do these, it started to just come together, this weird idea of doing a catalog. It would be like an authentic artist catalog and it would tell how I did these flying houses but it wouldn’t tell, it would tell one way of how one might do them and so, I just kind of, I kind of went day by day and I was never, I was excited about it but I was scared for instance. I had one writer who was starting to help me with the essay in the beginning ‘cause I needed somebody with more of an art critical, you know, theoretical background to help write that, to make the language more rigorous and she kind of got spooked by the project. She liked my photos a lot and she had wanted to work with me but then she felt I was kind of trivializing the photos and that was something I was worried about from the beginning. I didn’t want to do that but that was kind of a wake up call, although I knew that was a danger but I just kept going with it. I knew it had to be very convincing, very well done so it wouldn’t trivialize the work, so it would take it to another level and so I needed to have, like, in that first essay, to have the footnotes. I wanted it to look like a real essay and then we made up this guy. I worked with Joe Wolin. We made up this writer, just got this name out of the phone book, and I wanted it to be kind of like a German name, so then we made up this little bio at the end of the essay. He lives in, I think, it was Berlin and New York. I wanted him to sound very international and then I called a curator friend of mine in Italy and asked her if she’d let me use her name as the interviewer. I wrote the interview, had some friends go over it with me, and she liked the idea, so she let me use her name.
And you approached her saying, “Oh I took these photos of these model houses and I’m setting up this catalog that, in turn, details very descriptively the process of actually using helicopters and lifting real houses for the photographs"?
Yeah, I told her about the whole project. She had shown some of the photos in Italy and so I told her about the thing. I faxed her the interview and she liked the idea and she said, “Go ahead.” Then I started doing the documentary photos and, at the end, we were laying out the catalog and I felt it needed some more of the documentary stuff, so I got a friend at a design firm, he let me use his office and, you know. I went over there with a couple of friends and a couple of actors and we did those little, these little black and white incidental documentary photos of us in an office, kind of looking over papers, you know. I've got the Black, White, Asian, Hispanic. I wanted this kind of, very kind of PC-looking, kind of like American advertising, so I was just playing around with all these things that I consider, you know, that I think about, just threw them all in the mix.
And then, what was the reaction, the response to the catalog and the project?
Well, it was really mixed and that was one thing I was really happy of how it came out and I wasn’t surprised by any of the reactions, which I felt really good about. I really tried when I was working on it, to project myself, you know, a few months ahead and think, “Well, how would somebody think about this, picking up this catalog? How would they feel,” and I tried to build that into and I tried to, you know, kind of read and think, you know, how would this be taken. I didn’t want it to be. It was never meant to be a one liner. I wanted it to have many levels. So there were all sorts of reactions and, you know, some people just appreciated it, loved it for a project of an artists dropping houses from the sky and people would say, “You know, I loved that project. It’s amazing,” and I would just, like, in passing, meet somebody and there wasn't really time or opportunity to tell them, “Well, it’s all fake,” and that was fine with me if they liked that. It was fine. There were people I would speak with and if there was time to speak with them, I’d say, “Well, it’s actually all fiction,” and some people thought that was even better. Some people were offended by it. Some people draw different reactions. I remember there was one curator in a museum who, I guess, took at face value and he just, I could tell, he had an intense dislike of me and, you know, I wasn’t gonna. I could see why he would and then it was a lot about that. I kind of present myself as this white guy overseeing this crew and we’re dropping houses and there’s something very sick and irresponsible about it and its very flippant in a way but that was part of what I was playing on people’s preconceptions of who I am because I’m, you know, White male, heterosexual artist. There’s a lot of, you know, it doesn’t matter who you are or what race you are, people have different ideas of who you are and I didn’t want to kind of make a bitter comment about it but I just wanted to throw a curve ball, like, I’m presenting Peter Garfield as this kind of second generation earth works artist or something like that and it’s all, it’s all fiction.
And I read somewhere that you said you have no intention of deliberately misleading the viewer and I just want to know how that reconciled with the high production of the catalog and the actors.
Well, I’d rephrase that. I’m not sure how exactly you said that but it was definitely deliberate. It was deliberately misleading. I mean, I intended that, definitely. It wasn’t meant as what I had to do that was really think about, “Well, this is mean-spirited or is this, do I have a reason for doing this?” That’s what I had to establish for myself and that I felt good about, so all the reactions I got, I felt I could take responsibility for them, like, if people hated me for it. It all made sense to me.
I mean, it’s totally misleading. Nowhere in the catalog do I divulge that it isn’t, you know, all real because I felt that would really kind of ruin it in a way, the whole concept I wanted it to be very kind of hermetic thing, which existed on its own. I send it out there and I no longer control how the public reacts to it and it’s also kind of a comment on that, about the artist making art and once it’s out, you know there’s nothing you can do about it. The artist doesn’t even control the message because so much of the message is subliminal, unconscious, and artists can argue forever that that’s not what it’s about. Well, it’s untrue but sometimes it is true, you know, an artist puts things in their art that they don’t intend and so, this was a lot about that in a way.
I guess going with that, like, one weapon in the artist arsenal is to, you know, continue doing what they’re doing and in the case of Harsh Realty, which sort of gives a second life to the whole project and yet reveals it for what it truly is. I mean, what was the emphases behind that and the decision-making involved, like, to kind of unmask the mobile home project.
How do you mean? Rephrase that. I’m not sure what your asking.
I guess, what I’m curious about is, what kind of prompted the Harsh Realty project? What made you put together this book that effectively said, “You know what? That whole houses falling series? They were really models.” What brought you to that point?
Well, I think one thing is I truly believe a lot of people--and I think our current and recent political situation and world situation supports--don’t really want to know the truth. In fact, they really don’t want to know the truth, which I find amazing and it really makes me angry but you know, on the other hand, I’m sure there are a lot of ways I don’t want to know the truth and I think in certain ways there’s something healthy about kind of a little denial sometimes and you can look closely at the catalog and probably figure out that it’s fake but what I do is I give enough indications in images, text, you know, with having footnotes, all these little things added together are convincing, but if you look at any one element, it’s not really. It’s kind of not plausible.
So you think that's the general public sort of, for lack of a better word, complacent with what they’re given?
There’s that, but I don’t want to sound completely elitist. I’m sure I am in a way but as I said, I’m guilty of the same thing and what I was saying earlier about our living in reality and fiction and so much, you know, like Carl Jung’s studies about mythology and how we’re often, we’re kind of living out mythical fantasies of our own and different figures in public life are living out our kind of mythical fantasies in a way too that have been passed down, you know, throughout human history. Whether it’s Bradgelina or, you know, like the Dallas Cowboys are like these gladiators. I don’t know. I just think we want to be entertained and we want to believe things. There’s a certain need for some kind of magic and I kinda liked the fantasy and in a way, I am creating in that catalog this fantasy of myself, like making myself into this other person and that is kind of a human, a natural human longing to be something else, to rise to another level, so it was kind of about that, that longing.
Also, I’m not sure I’m even answering the same question at all. I just was influenced a lot by travels like to China, to Cuba, and generally, I’d always been interested in that whole period of the early 20th century, of all the different streams of idealism and how they manifested themselves into different forms politically, artistically and so when I was traveling in China and Cuba, but in particular, just being very aware of the propaganda and kind of the socialization and how much of that we are bombarded with, here, in our culture. It’s very different. It takes on different forms and not necessarily as in cities, but I don’t know, it’s pretty sinister some of it. So, I don’t know, I’m kind of rambling.
So, you lived in Europe for a while, right?
And that was in Germany?
I lived in France for several years, went to art school there, studied French. Yeah, that was an invaluable experience, definitely. It kind of just, getting out of, getting perspective even though it’s still, it’s industrialized. It’s Western culture.
So, I guess invaluable to you, personally. I mean, what kind of importance would you put it on for an artist? I guess, so, just in general, to live abroad?
I think to just to be confronted with things that are foreign but, I mean, not just a foreign culture but, I mean, when I first went out to France, I lived in rural and southern France and I lived about 100 feet from a Roman arena there. It was like a miniature Coliseum and I would often look out the window and just for me, for someone growing up in Connecticut, a house that was 200 years old was a major relic. So then, I’m living a 100 feet from this structure that was built in 40 BC, so basically 2000 years old or more and just things like that, just getting thrown into a new perspective, I don’t know how else to explain it. I was kind of shocked when I went to China. I had been in New York for quite a while and hadn’t been, hadn’t really traveled for like eight years and I wanted something that would just kind of shock my system. So I felt that’s what I needed. I went there. I didn’t speak any Chinese. I was alone and it totally shocked my system and it was amazing. I didn’t know what to expect, like, I just figured... One thing I found traveling alone, that when you’re with another person, people don’t really approach you because you’re a group. When you’re alone, you’re vulnerable, which a lot of people find to be a fearful experience and it can be but it’s also a very exhilarating experience and that’s what leads to interesting things, you know. It’s hard to do that now given the global environment as an American.
Right, as an American.
It’s really unfortunate but maybe it was kind of inevitable, I don’t know.
You know, it is interesting, kind of the inevitability of it all and, I don’t know, I saw Apocalypto earlier today and it opened, I mean, it was…
Yeah, what is it? Somebody told me about it, what is it?
It’s the latest Mel Gibson joint.
Oh yeah, the thing about the Mayans.
Exactly. But it opens up with this quote that’s, um, I’ll have to paraphrase it – “A civilization must be destroyed from within before it can be conquered from without,” or something like that and I just kind of thought that was interesting and I didn’t know exactly where Mel Gibson was trying to go with that, in terms of the Mayan civilization, trying to say maybe that they were already on their way out before the conquistadors came and started slaughtering people? How does that kind of fit into, you know, your view of the country today? I’m trying to think as Mel Gibson also, you know, and just feeling like, “Oh, as long as we stay true to our ethics and our, you know, we have this Christian morality then we won’t be able to be conquered from without,” or are we already dying from within? What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t know, we seem like a civilization in decline to put it very briefly because I don’t think it has to be that way but it’s, and that kind of is what I was saying earlier about free will, almost like as a civilization or the American culture, it’s like self-destructive. It’s like we have enough to know how to not let this happen, but why does it just happen anyways, you know, we have the President we voted for. Not all of us individually but we as a culture. This is, we asked for it and even if he didn’t win in 2000, he got close enough so that I still find it hard to believe that he can even have 30 percent approval. I don’t know who that 30 percent are. I just don’t get it. So I mean, I’m just I’m totally out of touch, so what do I know.
I guess, in kind of running with this thing, I kind of just want to touch, one big last thing is this kind of like, this theme in your work, specifically Objects with Potential.
Yeah, I was actually going to interrupt you to talk about that and... what is your question?
Well, Objects with Potential does this similar thing like what you did with the Mobile Home project and the Harsh Realty, but this one seems to kind of happen simultaneously, this idea of, again, the real or the artificial, you know, the documentation verses this kind of staged set up or this photojournalism yet, you know, hoaxed, I guess, and it feels like it’s happening in the larger scheme like pop culture and such. How did they kind of come together as like a simultaneous event within these Objects with Potential.
What, the actual scenes?
Well, kind of like the idea of the real verses the artificial and how Objects with Potential, like the photography kind of, it feels simultaneously like both real and artificial and if that was like, I guess, the impetus behind it?
Yeah, pretty much, yeah. It’s kind of, in a way, it’s kind of the reverse of the mobile homes. I’m taking actual real buildings and kind of making them look fake and that was, I mean, I actually did retouch the images so that, like, they were airbrushed in a way, I would take out imperfections so that they would start to look like they were little models and even in that catalog, which I think I sent you, right?
There’s the documentary stuff with people building the models and stuff like that. It’s not very convincing and I didn’t mean it to be in this case. It was meant to be kind of more metaphorical, like this is all, like a big game and I’m not trying to convince anybody but in those, they’re called Objects with Potential because I was thinking of, in going back to my consideration of the world and politics and all this stuff, of this future place or even not so far future. I don’t know but it’s a kind of distopia/utopia ideal, like where everything is just reduced to its necessities, like the architecture has got like no ornamentation, just really simple. The landscape is just totally flat. There’s almost nothing living. The only kind of living, the only sign of life, is this kind of this human flesh but they’ve got lab coats on and just very little identity left and so, this is kind of, so the title came from just the idea that everything being reduced to being an object with potential and I didn’t think of it as a Marxist critic but several people, after they saw it and read the title and stuff, said, “Wow, Peter. You’re a Marxist,” and I was, like, shocked.
I’m just kind of like mostly fascinated, you know, with your work as a whole, it seems almost as if as soon as the viewers is settled, especially with Deep Space 1, then everything real is revealed to be artificial, kind of places this giddy skepticism in the viewer that I think, with Objects with Potential is a little bit different because, you know, in that the skepticism isn’t exactly giddy.
No, you know, it’s funny you say that because after I did the flying houses, I said, “Man, I gotta do something more uplifting. You know, it’s just too dark.” So you know, I kind of forgot about that and I was working away and I was almost finished working on Objects with Potential, and I suddenly kind of remembered that and I looked at what I was doing and I was like, “Oh man, I've done it again,” but it’s even darker, just so depressing, and the titles, they have a number on them and I put that in there to make it even more kind of nightmarish and arbitrary. The numbers are totally arbitrary. You see these numbers, seven objects with potential, so you look at the photograph. You’re looking for seven of one particular thing and it doesn’t match up, so there’s just this totally disassociation because I wanted the viewer to kind of feel, not just kind of see, have a illustration of what I was trying to depict in the photographs, but to kind of feel it like this disassociation, this detachment, and like some nightmare they can’t quite remember, you know, which was very much part of the project, not a very good marketing ploy, it's very hard to sell these images, you know. It’s kind of, I think, they’re hard to live with. They’re kind of beautiful in a cold stark way.
Anything you wanna add or maybe wished I asked you?
Wow, I don’t think so. I don’t know. Anything that you wanted to know that I have quite touched on?
Well, there is one little thing that I’m curious about ‘cause earlier this evening, you described yourself as "a white heterosexual artist."
Yeah, not that needs to matter.
Well, I’m looking at the Objects with Potential book. There are a couple of photographs…
Oh my god, I totally forgot about that. [laughs]
…Of the artist as a tall black man.
In the set for Deep Space 1 [title image of interview]. That’s so funny. That’s my friend James. He’s a writer and I met him up at this art residency years ago and, uh... oh my god, that is so funny that it hasn’t really ever come up. People don’t really ever notice that and that was just another one of my little things I just, I don’t know, we just did it for fun. I had thoughts of doing that with this catalog and I wasn’t sure about it and I asked James what he thought of it and he laughed and he was into it. So just another curve ball.
Yeah and just another difference between the real and the artificial again.
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The New York Times
January 23, 2005 (Connecticut section)
Stage the Scene, Then Point and Shoot
By Benjamin Genocchio
The man with the clilpboard stands on the edge of a suburban housing estate looking up at the sky. Beneath him lies a dead cow which, as crazy as it sounds, might as well have dropped from the heavens for all he knows about how it got there. He furrows his brow and tries to think of another, more plausible explanation for his boss.
There is no explanation for this is a staged artwork by Gregory Crewdson in a photography exhibition at the New Britain Museum of American Art. It is just one of a number of photographs here in which the artists eschew traditional modes of picture making (find subject, point and shoot) in favor of elaborately constructed and staged realities.
The origin of this kind of photography lies in film, with its actors, sets and stages. It also comes out of agrowing discomfort among some photographers, beginning in the late 1970’s, with so-called realism and authenticity in photography. These photographers wanted to arrange and exlore their own, new, artificial pictorial worlds.
The next decade saw a rush of this kind of photography, from Jeff Wall’s pedantically assembled and artfully lil stage-set street scenes to Cindy Sherman’s “film stills” and Les Krims’s narrative tableaus.” By the 1990’s, the constructed photographic image was ubiquitous throughout the international art world.
This history is glossed in a catalog brochure for the present exhibition, which takes on surveying contemporary trends in constructed photography. Overall it does a pretty good job, even if the selection of artists and works seems idiosyncratic; why Mr. Wall is not included is just one of the show’s many curratorial mysteries.
Focusing on the work that is here, it is good to see some of Jimmy DeSana’s pictures. They usually involve the artist, or his friends, dressing up in kinky costumes and parading about the house. Sometimes these images have an undercurent of sexual violence, like “Pool” (1980), showing a naked figure in high heels lying face down in a swimming pool.
Mr. DeSana, who died at age 43 in 1990, produced a large, thoughtful portfolio of nude studies inspired by pornography. Some of them are here, one of two of which might give a jolt to some visitors. But for most people, there is little to worry about, so long as the sight of men in drag and alittle nudity does not offend.
Then there is Christophe Draeger, who builds imaginary worlds just to be photographed. Really more of a model maker than a photorapher, he constructs miniature models and jigsaw puzzles of disaster areas. They can be quite disturbing too, especially in light of recent media images of the tsunami destruction in Southeast Asia.
Ms. Sherman makes an appearance courtesy ofa few intersting if unimportant works. The best are a pair of 1980’s dress-up photographs, one showing Ms. Sherman as a man, the other as a 1960’s hostess. It was these early experiments with sexual stereotypes that led to her film stillseries, making her perhaps the most influential art photographer of our era. More examploes would have helped.
I am not sure what Sarah Charlsworth is doing in this company, but her laminated surrealist still lives in heavy, lacquered wooden frames give much pause for thought. They seem to display magic tricks, like a flame dripping upward from a lighted candle. To me, this is more about the art of illusion than a constructed or staged reality.
The same kind of spooky visual effects dominate Peter Garfield’s photographs of what look like mobile homes flying through the air. Like Ms. Charlesworth, Mr. Garfield creates illusions, holding a camera in one hand and a small model of a house suspended by a fishing line from a stick in the other. It is a simulation of real-life events.
Spencer Tunick ia a more conventional reality-arranger photographer, convincing large groups of people in cities around the world to take off their clohes and lie naked on city streets and in other public places, whicle he takes their picture. It is a novel idea, and has dramatic visual appeal the first time you see one of his phtogoraphs. But after you’ve seen one or two of them, you’ve seen them all, for the idea never changes.
Mr. Tunick has five photographs in this show, more than most of the other artists, including Mr. Crewdson and Ms. Sherman. This seems a little odd to me, given that he is a minor contemporary phtoographer. This is just another example of some very idiosyncratic curating.
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Peter Garfield's "Objects with Potential"
01.19.02-03.03.02 Feigen Contemporary, New York
by Martha Schwendener
It's not clear what objects Peter Garfield's current show, "Objects with Potential," is talking about, but you get the sense that their "potential," whatever it is, may not be entirely positive. On the surface at least, all is at peace in this series of color photographs depicting a multiculti crew in lab coats outside long, windowless, hangarlike buildings. Here are employees taking what appear to be cigarette breaks, though sans cigarettes. At times, the human groupings seem positively utopian: People wave to their coworkers across vast stretches of asphalt; a biracial couple holding hands strides confidently through the spare "campus." But the presumably scientific activity happening inside the buildings—perhaps a biotech version of the Manhattan Project whose outcome we will never know—remains hidden from view. Garfield hints at the secretive—and potentially scary—research performed by people who might be personally very nice and harbor only good intentions, but who are nevertheless at the helm of human destiny, deciding in hermetic surroundings what this world needs and which objects have potential.
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Tema Celeste Magazine
(no. 86), Summer 2001
Peter Garfield, Kapinos Galerie, Berlin
by April Elizabeth Lamm
Peter Garfield’s photographic series “Mobile Home” (1998) documented a situation that revived our childlike belief in Dorothy’s hurricane-tossed house in The Wizard of Oz. Suburban houses were methodically dropped from a blue sky-as an efficient way to demolish cheaply-built homes- typically to make space for a new Home Depot or Toys-R-Us. The catalogue essay by a fictitious German professor Alexander Uhr, and snapshots of on-the-scene “destruction” workers, furthered our own fall into Garfield’s fake narrative trap. His latest show proposes a video work-in-progress. Five large digital C-prints depict a stark post-industrial landscape- one emptied of its architectural flourishes and whims. As in his earlier photographs, reality is tweaked to depict a fiction that makes the fear of new technology its theme. Garfield takes the über-functional landscape of storage facilities as his subject and digitally reworks the pictures, peopling them with multicultural, smiling-faced fake employees in laboratory coats. The effect is eerie. And the ambience of Garfield’s imaginary workplace, with its clean lines and absence of distractions, is reminiscent of those created by American “precisionist painters” at the turn of the century. However, the high technology form and content of these prints work in direct contrast to the extremely low-technology papier-maché sculptures that seem almost molded into the gallery walls and floor. (Some Presidents I know next to nothing about) are the tongue-in-cheek auxiliary titles for a series of entangled papier-maché mountains. Taft resembles unearthed slabs of of asphalt and concrete. Madison is a papier-maché heap of quotidian trash: plastic lids for coffee cups, an empty egg carton, a cigarette box, broken seals to wine bottles. These amusing, patina-colored sculptural monstrosities- what Garfield calls “monuments of forgotten history”- testify to the tactile need of an artist discomforted by his first dip into the cold realm of digital photography.
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April 7-8, 2001
Entropy In Cosmic Capitalism
by Harald Fricke
The setting is sober, functional, estranged; and dwellers don’t get in the way of its emptiness. Peter Garfield’s photographs and objects at Kapinos Gallery describe an uneasiness with alienation and the obliteration of history.
“The aliens made it”, says Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Total Recall”, when discovering the secret of the dome-shaped construction that allows the city on Mars to breathe. Though in his thick Styrian accent it sounds rather like “deh ehliåns mehd itt”. Still, the setting of this science fiction cityscape looks amazing.
In Peter Garfields’ photographs at Kapinos Gallery the world itself seems created by creatures of a different breed, not wholly alien but hardly human. Everything revolves around a settlement of aluminium buildings: functional, sober, cubo-futuristic gray. A few employees in gray work outfits walk among the containers, vanishing in the vast terrain. Those who saw Garfield’s exhibition two years ago might think of this arrangement as an ironic counterpart to his earlier photographic work twhere spectacular exploding “Mobile Homes” were flying through the air, paying tribute to the burning hell of Hollywood. Recently, though, the trend has shifted from splatter to mystery series- in movies and in art.
However, Garfield has little interest in fantasy. Set on a kind of military-hi-tech terrain, these images can be seen as a metaphor for the obliteration of history, reminiscent of the architectural ensembles in De Chirico’s paintings. For more than a year, the artist, who was born in 1961, has been working with spaces, buildings, and landscapes, which induce a feeling of generic abstract emptiness. His research has resulted in a series of photo-strips, panoramas, each stretching up to four meters across the walls, and a twenty minute video. A space is inspected: imaginary yet concrete, more dystopia than utopia.
The title of the project is “Objects with Potential”. This allows the viewer “more space for associations”, says Garfield. Contradictions are welcome. Could anything at all have future potential in this wasteland? In fact, all activity has banished from the images and people are standing idly in the shadows cast by the halls. Everyone is waiting for something to happen, caught in some weightless dynamic. So much for the fallacy of progress through science. For Garfield, this situation relates to the New Economy that uses up all creative resources, eventually leading to the standstill of all markets. In his vision the cycle ends with entropy, the void becomes a metaphor for the different activities annihilating each other, as one final, huge, cosmic capitalism. And alienation is just another word for estrangement.
All this unease calls for subtle stage-managing, wherefore the photographs are digitally manipulated: the tarmac receives a clean finish, the people are arranged to not obstruct the void. At the same time, Garfield reduces the individual features of the people to a minimum: skin and hair must suffice to identify life in the maelstrom of globalization.
Even the counter-model fits into this allover: two shapeless trash-heaps made out of paper-maché, whose individual components have been kneaded beyond recognition. Here, Garfield thinks of those mountains in the United States, which are named after presidents. But the rock- like objects can also be used as seating accommodation: a living room for Mad Max, the angel of history.
(Translated from the German)
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(Vol. 99, no. 2) February 2000
Lights, Action, Camera!
by Barbara Pollack
Taking it’s cue from movie directors, a generation of photographers is creating staged pictures to depict suburban nightmares, adolescent fantasies, and futuristic daydreams.
High above the small-town streets of Lee, Massachusetts, Gregory Crewdson surveys the view from his position on an elevated crane. Below him, a team of electricians, stagehands, and actors is working hard to get every detail right. The lighting director, Rick Sands, has moved 15 high-powered Xenon lights into position, and the local police have cleared the street of traffic. After eight hours of preparation, Crewdson moves his camera into place.
Below, on the edge of a little picnic area, a park maintenance man encounters a strange situation. A portable toilet is emitting a glowing cloud of smoke. The family holding a barbecue nearby doesn’t seem to notice.
Is Crewdson making a movie? No, he is making an untitled photograph for his “Twilight” series, works that depict surreal occurrences in small-town and suburban settings. With the aid of special effects and the cooperation of the towns’ citizens, Crewdson tweaks reality, setting up suggestive narratives more reminiscent of the “Twilight Zone” television series that the candid scenes associated with photography.
Crewdson is not alone in choosing this approach. In the 1990’s, an international array of photographers, including Jeff Wall, Tina Barney, Tracey Moffatt, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Mariko Mori, Inez van Lamsweerde, and Sam Taylor-Wood, have embraced this new direction in photography, taking postmodern theory into the realm of constructed narratives and fabricated realities. Unlike Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, who have used similar techniques to examine identity as a construct of the mass media and photography as a tool of advertising, these photographers are more concerned with suburban nightmares, adolescent fantasies, and futuristic daydreams. Like painters and filmmakers, all of them feel free to take liberties with facts to achieve their highly individualistic results.
“Right now, we have this very interesting phenomenon where photographers are combining observation with intervention,” says Darsie Alexander, assistant curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “It has to do with wanting to control the image, not relying on chance, and this approach produces a heightened sense of drama. It’s got a real intensity to it.”
As Crewdson explains, “It is probably as close as you can get to making a movie without making a movie. The only reason I go through this enormous production is that I have an idea about how I want the picture to look.”
The degree of control exercised by these photographers results in exceptionally well crafted photographs, more akin to the careful compositions of oil paintings than to the spontaneous perspectives we associate with snapshots. Formal concerns, such as composition, lighting and framing, are evident in the work of Canadian artist Jeff Wall, who draws on history painting as a model for his elaborately staged pictures. Is photograph A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) (1993), an image of businessmen trying to gather scattered papers in a field, appears spontaneous but was in fact meticulously planned. Wall often displays his pictures on large light boxes, up to 16 feet long, that add another layer of grandeur to the works. In an entirely different vein, Tina Barney’s mannered portrayals of her immediate family members, taken over the past 20 yaers in their upper-crust homes, have been compared to paintings by Manet and Sargent. Barney had to exercise inordinate control over her subjects because of her use of a large-format camera, which demands long exposures, requiring that her sitters be posed. “In the early work, I would be screaming out, ‘ One second, two seconds,’ yelling for everyone to stay still,” says Barney. Now, the family is accustomed to posing and needs less direction. “This fine line between truth and fiction,” she says, “comes from half what I want and half what they, my subjects, are, despite my wishes.”
This generation of photographers is in part reacting to docudramas, infomercials, talk shows, and tabloid journalism, which regularly take liberties with the facts to make their points. “In the past, we would see a caption such as ‘Birch Tree at Windsor Castle,’ and we would expect to see a tree in front of a castle.” Says Robert Sobieszek, deputy director of strategic and artistic initiatives and curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Today, artists dealing with irony and ambiguity simply ycall their works ‘Untitled’ ad then play with the viewers’ expectations of a photograph.” In some of these pictures, it is relatively easy to spot the fiction. Mariko Mori’s sci-fi futuristic settings, for example, are recognizable as digital creations. Despite the traditional title of Tea Ceremony III, technology clearly had a hand in Mori’s depiction of herself as a cyborg-geisha greeting visitors at the Osaka airport. On the other hand, diCorcia’s early interiors recall movie sets but could just as easily be well composed snapshots. Now diCorcia creates street scenes that are spontaneous, though viewers sometimes assume they are staged.
Filmmaking has exerted the strongest influence on much of this work. Crewdson offers Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an inspiration for his photographs. He humorously compares his own set-ups to Richard Dreyfuss’s maniacal pursuit of aliens in the film. Barney cites Martin Scorses and the director’s consummate attention to period costume and gesture as having had an influence on her work. Some other photographers, such as Taylor-Wood, Moffatt, and Mori, have even branched out into filmmaking while continuing to produce still images. With their photographs, “they are interested in suggesting a narrative in a single frame,” says Sylvia Wolf, Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “A dramatic moment is set up by the photographic work as a point of departure. The viewer then carries on for himself or herself.”
The staging of photographs represents a far cry from Berenice Abbott’s impassioned plea for the medium “to reveal and celebrate reality”- the raison d’être for mid-20th-century modernist photographers engaged in what was then called straight photography. As Barney explains, “I came from the school of street photographers who did not alter reality So when I first directed, I felt it was a sacrilegious thing to do.”
In the past two decades, however, the belief among photographers that the camera captures reality in an unaltered fashion has seriously eroded. Photography has lost what leading photo theorist John tag calls “its privileged status as witness to actuality.” Curators such as Sobieszek think that this recognition is late in coming. “Photography has been undermining its own authenticity since its inception- by adding color to daguerreotypes or restaging the flag-raising at Iwo Jima to get a better angle,” he says by way of example. Artists, photographers, and historians are familiar with this legacy.
Theatrical scenes “have been a part of photography since day one,” says Darsie Alexander of the Modern, pointing to the tableaux vivants of 19th-centuray photography Julia Margaret Cameron or the famous images by F. Holland Day in which he posed as Christ. Wolf, who recently curated an exhibition of portraits by Cameron, agrees. But she also points out that “Cameron was trying to illustrate. Today’s photographers are not illustrating, they are fabricating.” According to both curators, fabrication was an important theme in photography throughout the 20th century and can be seen in works by French Surrealists and Russian Constructivists (such as Man Ray and Aleksandr Ridchenko) as well as 1970’s Conceptual artists (Sandy Skoglund, William Wegman, Eileen Cowin, and Nic Nicosia). The “Untitled Film Stills” series, which Cindy Sherman started making in the late 1970’s, remains a key influence on this new generation of photographers. In fact, as early as 1979, photography critic A.D. Coleman coined the phrase “directorial mode” to describe this approach.
However, Alexander sees something playful and free0spirited in the photography that emerged in the 1990’s, especially among younger women photographers such as Anna Gaskel, Kate Belton, Julie Becker, and Dana Hoey. Gaskell, for example, has staged a modern version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in her series “wonder,” turning the rites of adolescence into a children’s story. More recently in the series “by proxy,” Gaskell created dreamlike scenes of girls in nurse’s uniforms, loosely refereeing to the female protagonist of the film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and to Genene Jones, a pediatric nurse convicted of killing several patients. Hoey poses teenage girls in seemingly simple scenes that suggest an undercurrent of tension and danger- for instance, two girls swapping secrets on the lawn, in After School, or a young woman guiding four other women on a hike, in Hikers. The pictures appear to hold clues to a larger secret.
Despite the abundance of these fabricated visual narratives, photography critic Andy Grundberg, author of Crisis of the Real (Aperture), focusing on critical debates in photography over the last 35 years, maintains that viewers can detect constructed images. “In this media-saturated world, people are still able to draw distinctions between what is real and what is not,” he says. “They can still sort this out.”
Or maybe not, as photographer Peter Garfield found out when he fooled the public- as well as reviewers- during his recent exhibitions at Feigen Contemporary and the Queens Museum of Art in New York. Garfield’s photographs portray suburban ract homes flying or falling through the sky. In fact, the artist produced the work by flinging tiny models into the air. But the accompanying catalogue- a pure work of fiction- described the photographer as being engaged in a complex production with a crew of engineers and construction workers dropping full-scale houses over residential neighborhoods. “People were always very focused on how I made the photographs which I never really wanted to talk about,” says Garfield. “So I decided to clarify by adding a whole new layer of deception.”
“If anything has happened in the last 25 years, it is that we have freed the photographer from being a slave to reportage,” says Grundberg. Indeed, wit the advent of digital technology, the manipulation of images is an experience available to anyone owning a computer and Photoshop software. No longer do so many people believe that the photographer merely lies in wait for the “perfect moment” to snap the picture.
But as fabrications receive greater critical acceptance and public exposure, people will no longer be surprised by manufactured pictures. Who knows? Maybe, in the not so distant future, the unaltered image will be a shock, and artists will revisit the once cherished straight photograph.
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(vol. 6, nox 2) March-April 1999
The Sky is Falling
by Alexander Jordan
Peter Garfield’s mysterious images of airbourne houses in arious states of destruction are alternately humorous and enchanting, disturing and unsettling. The blur and grain of their casual composition suggest amateur snapshots or tabloid photography; however, this technique is cleverly and strategically fabricated by the artist. In Garfield’s photographs, uprooted homes magically “fly” over landscapes of city neighborhoods, countrysides, deserts, and oceans. Ripped from their foundations, disintergrating in midair, these suburban houses still manage to appear more dreamy than disastrous. In the twilight of dusk, their living room lights might been seen as they sail above before crashing down. Like movie stills, Garfield’s photographs are enigmatic fragments of an unfinished narrative hinting at some dark psychological undercurrent. A provocative book project created by Garfield titled Harsh Realty serves as an exhibition catalogue and also touches on issues of reality vs illusion and fact vs fiction. In the book. Photos show helicopters hovering and work crews at drop sites. In truth, however, the only massive effort expended by anyone invluved as on the catalogue itself. The photos were staged and manipulated and the flying houses are scale models not more than five cubic inches large. The elavorate hoaz was, in Garfield’s words, “meant to make people reflect on their own relationship to reality.”
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(Vol. XXXVII, No. 4), December 1998
The Best of 1998:
#7 Peter Garfield, Harsh Realty
(self published) Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, “How do you make those houses fly?” Domestic domiciles sail through the air, a mobile home crashes to earth, falling past power lines, splitting open like an English muffin. In “Split-Level, Babylon, New York,” the house goes to pieces in midflight. The catalogue features photographs – proof in pictures – of, for example, a helicopter lifting the house off the ground, while the artist and his team in hard hats stand by, conferring. The best part is that none of it is real – it’s all a fake: There is no house, there is no home.
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vol. 10, no. 3, Fall 1998
New York Summer Tour
by Cecilia Andersson
In this show Neighborhood Watch at Julie Saul Gallery, we find Peter Garfield’ series ‘Mobile Home’ where entire houses are dropped from hovering helicopters and photographed as they fall to the Earth. The result is a completely absurd scenario where it also becomes difficult to distinguish fantasy and reality. The visual references on the ground are perceived as dysfunctional since they no longer serve the purpose of locating this fly that they might be witnessing a catastrophe. Garfield can also be found at the Brooklyn Museum in the show Exterior-Interior. On display is his untitled series where an axe is being thrown up in the air. The dark clouds in the background emphasize the impression in this challenging act.
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(no. 18) September 1998
House of Shards
by Grady Turner
It is difficult to believe that Peter Garfield’s photographs are what they purport to be. Like the tabloid snapshots allegedly documenting UFOs, Garfield’s pictures of objects in the sky are grainy and blurred, implying authenticity despite their improbable subjects. These flying objects are easily identified as suburban houses.
Collectively entitled Mobile Homes, garfield’s series of large color C-prints shows homes suspended in mid-air as they fly or tumble through skies over suburban neighborhoods. Against gentle cumulus clouds, a small wooden home is a suspended blur above similar, presumably occupied, dwellings. There is a cinematic vérité to the image, though it is hard to predict the final outcome of the scene: Is the house hurtling toward earth, or floating upward?
Another photograph depicts a neighborhood at dusk. Below, a single lamp glows from the window from a home settling into the evening. Above, a silhouetted house catapults through the darkened sky. An illuminated window indicates that it is also occupied, a suggestion made al the more disconcerting by the apparent dissolution of part of the house.
Several pictures leave no doubt about the imminence of destruction. One blurred but distinguishable snapshot shows a split-level home breaking up as it crashes toward a field. A pink ranch-style abode splits in half against a brackish sky, its garage door flapping helplessly. A shingle0style home with a bay window is plucked from a neighborhood in Babylon, New York, and destroyed by gravity as it plummets, spraying chunks of soil and fiberglass insulation into the air.
Others have made the inevitable comparison to Dorothy Gale’s home in The Wizard of Oz. Like Auntie Em’s farmhouse, the mundane houses occupy two irreconcilable sites. On the one hand, they may be on fantastic journeys somewhere over the rainbow. On the other, the houses are dangerous, even murderous, instruments of destruction that can demolish communities as readily as witches. Descending upon working-class neighborhoods, they appear to imperil other homes and the unseen families within.
Whatever the case may be, Garfield’s pictures are implicitly critical of suburban ideals of tranquility, safety and inviolable property ownership. With the force of tornadoes, they demonstrate the fragility of such expectations. By pitting the verisimilitude of his imagery against the impossibility of that which is depicted, Garfield extends this critique of suburbia to implicate photography as a documentary medium.
An exhibition catalogue explicates Garfield’s process. The artist has been reluctant to reveal his secrets in the past, he tells curator Marcella Beccaria in an interview: “I’ve never intended the process to be a concern for the viewer… I’m a lot happier when people react to the actual image.” Nevertheless, as viewers have been so intrigued by how his work is made, Garfield relents by describing his methods.
According o the catalogue, Garfield acquires houses that are already slated for destruction. He explains that “whenever a mall or new highway interchange- some big public project like that- is in the works, it often means some old residential neighborhood has to go.” Descending on these doomed neighborhoods, Garfield and his crew carefully lift houses by crane or helicopter, then drop them on fields. Accompanying photographs documented how this is done: Suddenly detached from a helicopter’s harnesses, an abandoned Texas home plummeted to earth as Garfield snapped pictures. The normally secretive artist went so far as to allow a “house drop” to be witnessed by critic Alexander Uhr. Comparing the scene of destruction to “the set of a low-budget disaster movie,” Uhr described in detail how “engineers, riggers, crane operators, carpenters” worked with the artist to orchestrate the lifting and dropping of a clapboard house. Uhf compared Garfield’s massive effort to the projects of earthworks artist, specifically citing Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark. He might also have mentioned Rachel Whiteread’s House, in which the artist cased the interior of a London tenement in cement.
While Garfield describes the staging of these events in some detail, he is unconcerned by the local implications of his work. Left unaddressed are questions like: What does it mean to dislocated families whose homes are destroyed by an art project? What are the social implications of an outsider creating elaborate and expensive artwork from the destruction of a working-class community?
Garfield seems undisturbed by such concerns. He is more impressed by the waste of labor involved in his projects, explaining, “it’s the elaborate preparation which interests me. I realy like the idea of this uselessly massive effort which you don’t see in the final photographs.” The artists’ nihilism is confirmed by his later description of “ history as a kind of epic novel-in-progress in which most of us are minor characters, and we have no control over the plot.”
For Garfield, it seems, human endeavor is pointless, as most people are irrelevant in the larger picture. Perhaps the social implications of Garfield’s art are not so crucial as I suggest. Certainly they went unnoted in a review by New York Times critic Ken Johnson. While impressed by the laborious process behind his projects, Johnson stuck to aesthetics in forming his final judgment. “Like certain big-scale earthworks,” Johnson said, “the payoff just doesn’t justify the investment.”
Johnson’s critique was called into question by Vince Aletti of the Village Voice, who revealed the operations of the man behind the curtain. As Garfield readily admitted, the catalogue was a compete fabrication. Uhr, the German professor, was his own invention. The artist wrote the interview with Beccaria’s permission .The process described in the catalogue was fictitious, as was the artistic persona of its arrogant “Peter Garfield” character. Informed of his mistake, Johnson was good humored: “I find it highly amusing.” He told Aletti. “I appreciate what he’s doing a lot more now that I know it’s a fiction, even if it was at my expense.”
In fact, Garfield photographs scale models suspended by wire against the backdrop of sky, allowing blurs and careful depths of field to create the illusion of larger scale. As his work questions the authority of photographic truth, he now asserts that Johnson’s honest misunderstanding only enriched his project. “For me, it’s all about the authority of the New York Times. If you read something in the Times, it must be true. After the review was printed, I heard about an argument in which a gallery director told a woman, ‘Of course the photographs are real; look at this review in the Times!’ The woman said they were all models, because she knew my work, but the director refused to believe her. The review was proof that the director was right.”
Garfield denies that he intended to mislead viewers with the catalogue. “I wanted to play with that whole idea of artist’s intention and the viewer’s need for information. People always want to know how I do my work, and I was interested in that need for the truth. In a way, the catalogue answered that question without telling the truth. I wanted to demystify my art, then remystify it. So I falsely demystified it.”
“The work is irrational and I wanted the catalogue to be a testament to that irrationality.” Setting out to question the veracity of photography and authoritative texts, Garfield undercut the myth of the infallible art critic. Like any viewer faced with ambiguous imagery, critics attribute authenticity to credible texts such as catalogue s, labels and press releases. Presenting fiction in a nonfiction context, Garfield’s catalogue offers a cautionary moral to viewers and critics alike: Ascribe truth to art at your own peril. He suggest that sometimes it is best to cede the desire for authoritative description in favor of one’s own subjective responses.
“The catalogue is very much about the need to always question. There’s no way of really knowing the truth when you have to depend on others for information.” Or as Dorothy Gale finally learned, the answers you seek may be inside you after all.
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Time Out New York
Issue 147, July 16-23, 1998
“Exterior/Interior- The Way I See It: Five Photographers Working in Brooklyn”
Brooklyn Museum, through Aug 16
by Peter Nagy
One of the nicer things about this small selection is that it doesn’t look like the majority of photo shows one is likely to see in Soho or Chelsea. Entirely black and white, these images do not mine lowbrow culture or mimic computer effects- and none of them are influenced by either Steven Miesel or Nan Goldin.
Even so, the work of Susan Daboll could make it in fashion magazines. Her images focus on female figures awash in silks and satins, and she uses a chiaroscuro lighting that imparts a certain film-noir feeling. Still, Daboll’s disembodied forms could stand a more commanding scale and a bit more background detail. Similarly, Martin Dixon’s images of a fancy Flatbush wedding depend on the idiosyncrasies of clothing for much of their appeal. The photographer engages in a curious sort of sidewalk sociology, but given that he works in his own community, one might have expected a more revealing view.
Michael Spano and Peter Garfield are concerned mostly with crafting blatantly seductive images. Spano layers portraits of New Yorkers into dense, confusing profiles that seem to meld together. While these photos effectively evoke the city’s polyglot culture, each person within them wears the same stony, don’t-mess-with-me visage; I began wishing for a little glimpse of emotion. Garfield’s “Annunciation” series, meanwhile, is made up of vertical landscapes that feature more sky than earth. He shows clouds that are generally thick and impenetrable but sometimes form magical, UFO-like apparitions.
Anne Mandelbaum presents perhaps the ripest and most interesting photogrphas in the show. In them, details of a figure are isolated and solarized á la Man Ray. They seem more alien than human- especially one ghastly shot of a turkey neck that would send anyone running to the plastic surgeon.
It may be unfair to conclude that the serious tenor of these images is due strictly to the fact that they were made in Brooklyn. Yet it’s obvious that the photographers have all benefited from keeping their distance from the tinsel and hype of Manhattan.
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March 10, 1998
Stuck inside of mobile: Peter Garfield, after the fall
by Vince Aletti
The photographs in the series Peter Garfield calls “Mobile Homes” (at Feigen Contemporary, 535 West 20th Street, through March 7) look like big, grainy blowups of amateur UFO snapshots, only in this case, the flying objects are suburban houses. Ripped from their foundations, disintegrating in midair, these split-levels and wood-sided ranches still manage to appear more dreamy than disastrous, as if they’d been uprooted by the hand of some particularly playful god or filmmaker.
According to the show’s catalogue, the mechanics behind the work are dauntingly labor-intensive. In an interview with Italian curator Marcella Beccaria, Garfield describes locating condemned homes, lifting them in helicopters, and releasing them in fields around the country. An essay by Alexander Uhr compares the work to the “grand macho gestures” of Michael Heizer and Chris Burden. Photos show helicopters hovering and work crews at drop sites. “I really like the idea of this uselessly massive effort which you don’t even see in the final photographs,” Garfield tells Beccaria.
In truth, however, the only massive effort was that ex-pended on the catalogue itself. Uhr is an invention; Gafield interviewed himself; the photos were staged and computer-manipulated; and the flying houses in the photos at Feigen are scale models not more than five cubic inches large. The elaborate hoax was “meant to make people reflect on their own relationship to reality,” Garfield says. But critic Ken Johnson, receiving the show for the Times, Not only believed the hype but used it against Garfield: “Like certain big-scale earthworks, the payoff doesn’t justify the investment.” He concluded. Garfield says he doesn’t feel the joke backfired because Johnson was critical of the fiction rather than of the actual work. Besides, “I’m making fun of myself but also making fun of the seriousness of art.” And Johnson, tipped off, doesn’t feel burned “I find it highly amusing,” he says. “I appreciate what he’s doing a lot more now than I know it’s a fiction, even if it was at my expense.”
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The New York Times
Friday February 20, 1998
by Ken Johnson
Peter Garfield, Feigen Contemporary, 535 West 20th Street, (212) 929-0500 (through March 7). Large, droll photographs of real houses falling from the sky. Although there’s no evidence of it in the pictures, Mr. Garfield goes to considerable effort and expense to orchestrate his house drops. Like certain big-scale earthworks, the payoff doesn’t justify the investment (Johnson).
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Photography Quarterly #69
Vol. 17, No. 4
by John Paul Ricco
Half a Life- idealization as it is projected across check-out line glamour magazines and onto the not-so-big screens of suburban multiplex cinemas, despair that follows from this cult of beauty, fame, and wealth, and violence as a feeble last attempt to fight downward mobility and the anxieties that accompany dreams which turn into nightmares.
Carl Phillips captures one of these moments of literal visualization, of seeing what no one else believes- moments typically isolated childhood, yet for some of us extended into later lives- in his poem Visitation:
“When it was over, they told me that the creak of wings
folding was only the bed, that shutters
do not clap of themselves. Morning was what it had
always been, any woman marooned in the air,
the nicked blooms of suggestion, in the lamp, in the
lemonwood stool, every seam or pocket slowly retrieved,
were the usual ones, what everyone knows. Father
into the unswept yard below, as if it too were an
and passed through the door.
I am no mystic. I know nothing rises that doesn’t
know how to already. In my ears, only the clubbed
foot of routine, no voices, no
clatter of dreams: but I saw
what I saw.”
Through this voice, seemingly juvenile yet doubly mature, myths are shattered as they are literalized. Visions are taken to be just what they are seen to be, rather than being filtered through the mandates of symbolic representation, and are therefore seen in all of their mundanity, anchored to the everyday and “rising only if they know how to already.” Resistance to this literalization insists upon looking (into the) beyond, to something else, to some higher or deeper meaning, and ironically rendering the site that much less visible. Might this not also be the way in which to see Peter Garfield’s black-and-white photographs of axes and hammers flying through dark and cloudy skies, and carrying the names Angels and Annunciations? For these photographs show us the raw elements that constitute myth, and still allow us to call them angels and annunciations even though they convince us that they are literally hammers and axes. To philosophize or photograph with a hammer…literally, deadly literal.
And so I sense that somehow we have returned to the queer childhood bedroom: space of fantasy and imagination, built out of the very real things that fill that everyday world and offer escape routes from it. For if anything is to come of it, it may be less a matter of photography than of a different kind of visual theory, one that articulates things that are visualized yet remain unseen. As Guibert notes, blurred or fogged images do not sufficiently render these blind spots visible, since in their semblance they reaffirm the very strategies of representation. What I desire is to theorize the negative of photography, just as the six photographers in Anxiety visualize it.
by Joseph Wolin
The fast-encroaching century will be starting with a whimper, not a bang. Any millennial visions, utopian or otherwise, seem to have atomized in a fine mist of petty dystopias and familiar circumscriptions. Our last nerves have been worked, our teeth set on edge, and comfort and assurance are the chimeras that trouble our restless dreams. We seem to exist in a state of distemper, “a social and cultural anxiety that permeates the West as the end of the millennium approaches.” Like the last fin de siécle, this one is producing its fair share of neurasthenic aesthetics, art that invokes and embodies contemporary unease. The photographs under discussion here do not easily allow themselves to be sorted into the compartments of epistemological certainty. Rather, they fall into the spaces between. They are unsettled images, ambivalent and anxious. They are photographs that fidget under the cold glare of a transfixing gaze. More an operation than a theme, anxiety in these works is not so much pictured as incited; these images provoke and produce apprehension and frustration. They do not provide one with an unmoving place to stand, nor a stationary point of view from which to see them. These images place the viewer in a region between knowing and doubt, reality and artifice, meaning and nonsense. As much as choosing to signify, these photographs, like an abstract painting in an Ad Reinhardt cartoon, ask what we represent.
Peter Garfield’s large-scale-images of objects flying across expanses of cloudy skies bear the titles Angels and Annunciations. Distance and shutter speed collude in some of these black-and-white photographs to permit the recognition of the blurred items hurtling through space as tools: axes and hammers. Like strange birds, the utilitarian implements travel across the stormy heavens (Angels) or, irresistibly drawn by the gravity of the earth, glimpsed in the lower edges of the picture, begin their rapid acceleration downward (Annunciations). Monumentality, religiosity, and the implacable knowledge of the trajectory and velocity of sharp or blunt instruments combine to imply a divine visitation coupled with impending violence. Axes and hammers, speeding through the ether in place of any celestial messenger, stand as both sacred and profane, comic and portentous, allegories of contemporary foreboding.
But while the near sublimity of turbulent skies and supernatural intervention, inflected by the displaced mundaneness of the airborne hardware, achieves a black comedy, Garfield images allegories without referent. The angel carries no particular message, the annunciator stays mute; the pictures elicit a generalized apprehension that feels palpable yet remains vague: signs without signifieds taken for wonders without cause. Garfield conjures metaphors of unreasonable dread, pictorial analogues to conditions of paranoia or delusion, tempered only by their steadfast grip upon the literal. It is impossible not to remember that household tools have been flung into the air and photographed before they fell back down to the ground. This collapsing of the allusional onto the quotidian, of an uncanny proleptic economy onto an awkward rattletrap materialism, effects a discomfiture of its own and enunciates a doubled apprehension: a crisis of a crisis of category, an anxiety of anxiety.
Beck and Garfield each employ inanimate objects as symbols, emblematizing personal and social conditions that are conflicted and nervous. Applying paradox and enigma, their photographs set in motion a mechanism of artifice and revelation, uneasiness and deferral, uncertainty and doubt. Conceptually discontinuous, the objects depicted become implausible metaphors, the images anxious poetry.
Within the convention of the unadulterated photographic print, these six artists confound traditional denominations by producing failed portraiture, frustrated narrative, and unstill life. Generating uncertainty, deferring closure, multiplying apprehensions, and compounding investments, these photographers fashion realities consonant with the psychic and intellectual disposition of the fin de siécle, the extremity of an age in which even its most fundamental beliefs, “paradigms of modernist physics-uncertainty, entropy, relativity- evoke an inscrutable, alienating world, where absolutes give way to incommensurable subjectivities, order fizzles into randomness, and progress seems overshadowed by a fallout cloud.” At the close of an uneasy century, these artists decline the presupposed and the soothing to create phantasmatic spaces of high anxiety.
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New Art Examiner
by Audry Mandelbaum
For each of the ten color photographs installed in Feigen’s lower gallery, Peter Garfield created the illusion (using hand- constructed models suspended by wire) of lone clapboard houses hurtling through the sky in varying states of disassembly. A blurry glimpse of landscape is visible at the bottom of each frame. With tilted horizons, a pronounced grain, and a pinkish-yellow cast, the images resemble stills from an eight-millimeter home movie.
With its icon of comfort and safety broken and airbourne at a dizzying speed above a vast Amercan landscape, the work alternately evokes feelings of suburban unease and cinematic exhilaration: a flight of fancy haunted by an aura of denial. The series’ depiction of a range of landscapes, from natural to civilized, and a variety of phases of daylight creates a compressed narrative of time and space. Psychological shifts occur from frame to frame: The dusky desert scene and nighttime ocean bluff are enchanting and mysterious, whereas the stark cityscapes of suburban rooftops are dreary and unsettling.
Garfield merges the fuzzy-snapshot/home-movie aesthetic that so permeates recent photography with the film director’s prerogative of creative control- a distinctly ‘90’s blend of the derivative and the imaginative. And although other more obvious pop references surface- from Dorothy’s Oz-bound farmhouse to fabricated UFO photos- the work oddly recalled, for me, a story line from Todd Haynes’s enigmatic film Poison, in which a disturbed young suburban boy accused of murdering his parents mysteriously escapes by flying through his bedroom window. Similarly, like dream fragments emerging from a film-saturated subconscious Garfield’s group of stills suggests its own version of the fantasy of escape from a stifling existence, a fantasy which is simultaneously euphoric, violent, and funny.
Least successful of the series are three smaller prints depicting the airbourne houses isolated against the sky with no visible horizon. More like sketches, their scale and lack of context lends considerably less impact, although they did lead me to wonder how varying the size, composition, or perspective of the images’ background murals may have altered their effect. In the end, their repetitive formal attributes endeared these photographs to me, like those recurring dreams of flying which, though predictable, continue to fascinate and confound.
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Santa Barbara, CA
Jan. 9, 1997
by Allison Lee Solin
What is not often seen in landscape art is the human impact on the envirornment. In many landscape exhibitions, the beauty of Nature is exalted and the role of humans is almost nonexistent. However, in a 1990’s landscape, the “man-made” is dominant and cannot be ignored. The Lie of the Land, the current exhibition at UC Santa Barbara’s University Art Museum, addresses the relationship between humans and the Earth through the work of 13 contemporary artists.
Some of the most immediately startling and unconventional work comes from photographer Peter Garfield. His large color prints show houses flying through the air over city (L.A.) or countryside. The effect is at once humorous and unsettling- the next moment, in each photograph, brings inevitable destruction.
University Art Museum curator Elizabeth Brown wants to show that every artistic subject is problematic and susceptible to controversy: “Landscape painting, and other lyrical subjects, is sometimes the most fraught with a political subtext.” Brown emphasizes that the pieces exhibited point out the ambiguous distinctions between beauty and ugliness, and how our views and opinions on such things are constantly being challenged. The artists in this show take a component of historical or traditional artistic expression and then distort, enhance, or exploit it until it becomes completely new, as in Skeet McAuley’s use of Chinese landscape principles to portray a Hawaiian resort golf course.
Another good example is Jacci Den Hartog’s sculpture “Landscapein the Manner of the Old Masters,”, an Asian-style landscape turned 3D with an unusual sheen and color that make it look like an Arctic formation, The symmetry of the ridges and peaks follow established “rules” of art, but the pieces itself has a distinctly modern appearance.
The “push and pull,” as Brown describes it, between beauty and ugliness is very apparent in Michael Ashkin’s tabletop sculpture of an industrial site (where a single car is roaming) next to a polluted and sludge-filled body of water. The fine detail along with the miniature quality, give the piece an almost “quaint” appearance, which is starkly contradicted by the subject matter. Although it features a bare wasteland, the sculpture has an attractive and fascinating quality.
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The New Yorker
February 19, 1996
“The House Transformed”- A wide-ranging exhibit that turns up some fine work: a Joel Shapiro sculpture so tiny that you might step on it by accident; a classy pair of altered photographs by the ubiquitous Gerhard Richter; a witty wire-mesh construction by H.C. Westermann; a handsome architectural study by Richard Artschwager; and best of all, a stunning photograph by Peter Garfield of a “mobile” home flying through a night sky- an updated Auntie Em’s farmhouse. Through March 2. (Mathes, 41 E. 57th St.)
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July 19-25, 1995
As Big As Life:
A gigantic Thomas Ruff portrait and two full-size double portraits by the team of Marina Abramovie and Ulay set up the theme, but the most interesting pieces here are Peter Garfield’s paired Annunciation I and II - peculiarly evocative (angry? Celebratory? ) images of hammers tossed into the gray clouds above a smudged skyline- and Liz Rideal’s self- portrait tour-de force, an intricate whorl of photo booth shots in the shape of a huge thumbprint: fragmented identity anxiously patched together. Through 7/28. Michael Klein, 40 Wooster, 431-1980
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