Friday 7 June 2013

Sherrie Levine - After Walker Evans

Sherrie Levine, the appropriation artist par excellence, shocked the art world in 1979 with her After Walker Evans photographs. Walker Evans photographed the Burroughs, a family of sharecroppers in the Depression era and his photographs were published in a book that became the quintessential record of the rural American poor. In 1979 Levine re-photographed Evans' photographs and without any manipulation of the images she presented them in an exhibition of her work.

In representing these canonical images of the rural poor - the expropriated, those existing outside the dominant culture, the Others - Levine was calling attention to the original act of appropriation when Evans first took these photographs as if to illustrate Walter Benjamin's observation that  'photography has succeeded in making even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment'.

But she was doing a lot more. Levine effectively re-writes history, taking up images and objects from earlier times and other places and placing them before contemporary audiences to be experienced anew in which they can obtain different meanings over time. By reintroducing these artworks to the public realm she puts into question how and under what conditions that realm exists and might be engendered. Her work is within the tradition of deconstruction, in revealing power structures and ideological imperatives in any given cultural situation, and more specifically, questioning traditional ideas of originality and authorship. She challenges our notions of originality - originality in the sense that traditionally, the artwork was seen as the creation of the 'genius artist', rather than a re-working, re-interpretation of previous work which is what the history of art is: each artist building on what has been done before, or as Douglas Crimp put it, 'underneath each picture there is always another picture'.  And more specifically, she draws attention to the diminished possibilities for originality in our image-saturated world.
'Originality was always something I was thinking about, but there's also the idea of ownership and property... It's not that I'm trying to deny that people own things. That isn't even the point. The point is that people want to own things, which is more interesting to me. What does it mean to own something, and stranger still, what does it mean to own an image?'

She also challenges our notions of authorship, of the paternal rights assigned to the author by law and because she has appropriated the work of only male artists,  she is also seen as a feminist hijacking patriarchal authority. As Craig Owens has stated, Levine's disrespect for paternal authority suggests that her activity is less one of appropriation and more one of expropriation: she expropriates the appropriators.

C. Carr described Levine's art as conceptually driven but materially manifested: 'This is work that questions the very idea of being owned. Conceptual art did that 15 years ago by dematerializing the object into pure idea. Her work does it by rematerializing'.

'I try to make art which celebrates doubt and uncertainty. Which provokes answers but doesn't give them. Which withholds absolute meaning by incorporating parasite meanings. Which suspends meaning while perpetually dispatching you toward interpretation, urging you beyond dogmatism, beyond doctrine, beyond ideology, beyond authority'. 
  • Craig Owens:  Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power and Culture.
  • Johanna Burton: Sherrie Levine, Beside Herself.