Staging Shadows

 

Daniel Gordon employs an analog process to give form to the digital world, photographing elaborate three-dimensional tableaux that he constructs using images collected from the Internet.  Shadows and Pears focuses on the still life, the ideal genre for his exploration of photography’s artifice, precisely because the images are staged. By appropriating and reconstituting the images that permeate our everyday life, Gordon enlivens this conventional form, updating it to reflect our contemporary visual culture.

Gordon’s photographs are so layered and complex, they can easily be mistaken for digitally manipulated images.  On the contrary, they are almost completely analog: the tableaux are sculpted and arranged by hand, meticulously lit, and photographed onto medium-format film. The resulting photographs challenge our perception of depth, as well as the distinction between analog and digital, reality and image, and the original and its duplicate.

To assemble his subjects, Gordon cobbles together various printed images of an object or body part into a sculptural form that approximates itself. The images that become his raw materials are retrieved from Internet searches and organized by subject (hair, eyes, pitchers, flowers, etc.), so they are readily available for him to print, slice, and combine. The fruits and flowers in Gordon’s still lifes are quite literally hybridized—sutured together from various found images of that specific subject. Far from being botanically accurate depictions of plants, Gordon’s are amalgamations that represent the collective idea of his subject.

This patchwork method produces a photographic version of cubism with allusions to Matisse and Cezanne, as well as Dutch still life painting. Gordon recently stated, “I have been exploring traditional modes of portraiture and still life through the filter of contemporary image culture and technology.” His goal is to find a balance between the pictorial vocabulary of art history and the seemingly infinite web of images at our fingertips. “Hopefully, in some way, using all of these found images reflects back on the greater world, and explores tradition without trashing it.”[1]

The African patterns of the wallpaper and drapery that dominate these busy, highly saturated photographs are a nod to Matisse’s use of textiles. Here, the digital images are enlarged so much that the patterns take on a new form defined by their pixilation. His attention to fruit and commonplace objects recalls Cezanne’s apple and pear still lifes, but his liberal use of color is closer to Fauvism and Pop Art. Often, Gordon deliberately distorts colors to further separate his subjects from reality. In the photograph, Shadows and Pears, the pears are presented in natural colors, but also in a shocking grape purple.

 Detail of Daniel Gordon's  Artichokes and Oranges  (2013) from "Shadows and Pears."

Detail of Daniel Gordon's Artichokes and Oranges (2013) from "Shadows and Pears."

To further confuse the eye, Gordon combines crafted shadows with those actually produced by lighting. In order to create the dramatic shadows in Still Life with Fish and Forsythia, Gordon photographed an earlier version of the arrangement with different lighting and digitally manipulated the shadows in post-production before reprinting them. When placed back into the tableau and set against the densely patterned backdrops, the play between the real and manufactured shadows creates disorienting spatial tension and adds to the painterly appearance of his photographs.

In a recent article for the photography magazine Hotshoe, Sophie Balhetchet writes, “[Gordon’s] is in many ways a painterly eye that finds photographic equivalences for the brush stroke, the density of paint, the inflection of light to depict the natural world and the human form.”[2] It is not hard to imagine Gordon as a painter arranging a composition, a set designer laying out his props, or a sculptor—hot glue gun in hand—assembling his forms from the printed images that flood his studio. Nevertheless, Gordon’s primary concern is with photography and the way we perceive images in a culture that is saturated with them.

Gordon describes his initial attraction to photography, explaining, “The camera transforms what’s in front of the lens…. It’s a fiction and a truth at the same time.”[3] This duality has been at the core of Gordon’s work since his first series of photographs, Flying Pictures, which captured the artist suspended in air as if in mid-flight. Gordon’s current process of photographing sculpted and collaged tableaux, which draws influence from the composed photographs of Thomas Demand and Vik Muniz, has a similar sense of theatricality. Now, instead of framing actions, he is framing scenes.

In contrast to Demand’s work, Gordon does not attempt to fool the viewer with trompe l'oeil precision. Instead, he leaves his process exposed—tape, torn edges, and strands of glue are clearly visible in his otherwise immaculate photographs. Once Gordon has completed the photograph, the sculptural elements are taken apart and often recycled into other arrangements. He says, “In life, the objects I make are just junk—they only become emotionally convincing through photography’s transformation.”[4] The framing, lighting, and depth of space provided by the photograph lend a certain reality to his meticulously crafted artifice.

 Production still from the New York Close Up film  Daniel Gordon Gets Physical , © Art21, Inc., 2013

Production still from the New York Close Up film Daniel Gordon Gets Physical, © Art21, Inc., 2013

Even though Gordon primarily uses found images, his work doesn’t quite fit into the category of appropriation art, which is based on redefining an image’s context.  Contrary to the artists of the Pictures Generation, his act is not a critical one because the images he appropriates are already stripped of their context, especially those found within the framework of a search engine. Gordon has said that he approaches appropriation “with a certain naivety, as though the critical discussion has come and gone, and we are left with the possibilities.”[5]

His take on appropriation is refreshing because it considers how such a method has been altered by our current image culture. In her essay for Gordon’s recent monograph, Still Lifes, Portraits and Parts, Eva Respini writes: “Appropriation of found images is no longer a statement or challenge to authorship; rather, it is an unremarkable fact of twenty-first century life.”[6] Gordon finds potential in the decontextualized images of the Internet, repurposing them as his raw material.  The strength of his work is that he is able to give new life to these anonymous and often unexceptional images.

Written for the exhibition, Shadows and Pears, at The Horticultural Society of New York, Dec 12, 2013 – Feb 7, 2014.


Notes

  1. Sophie Balhetchet, “The Green Line: Daniel Gordon,” Hotshoe, Issue 182 (February – March 2013): p. 24.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Wesley Miller & Nick Ravich, “New York Close Up: Daniel Gordon Gets Physical,” Art21 Workshop Production, video, 8:44, September 27, 2013, http://www.art21.org/newyorkcloseup/films/daniel-gordon-gets-physical.
  4. Jörg M. Colberg, “Daniel Gordon: Portraits and Still Lives,” Foam: International Photography Magazine, Issue #36 (Fall 2013: Talent), p. 66.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Eva Respini, “Still Lifes, Portraits and Parts,” in Daniel Gordon, Still Lifes, Portraits & Parts (London: Mörel, 2013).