“Ordinary Pictures”: Walker Art Center Deconstructs Stock Images

“Ordinary Pictures”: Walker Art Center Deconstructs Stock Images

To create an exhibit exploring the subject of stock images, there are multiple approaches you could take. You could present a straightforward history of stock images — exploring style, technique, and distribution. Alternately, you could curate a show about those images in social context: their uses and intentional misuses.

In the Walker Art Center’s Ordinary Pictures, curator Eric Crosby comes closer to the latter approach, focusing particularly on how stock images — and the concept of the “stock image” — have been used in contemporary art. The result is an ouroboros of a show that almost questions its own premise: is there really such a thing as a stock, or generic, image?

The general theme of the show might attract crowds expecting vintage advertising spreads or women laughing alone with salad, and if so, they’ll be surprised. The show’s several dozen works, reflecting and commenting on one of the most mundane of visual practices, will have some visitors clinging to the explanatory text for dear life.

In the Target and Friedman Galleries, Ordinary Pictures is bookended by two large-scale sculptural installations. At one end, there’s Amanda Ross-Ho’s OMEGA: a 13-foot-tall model of a photo enlarger. As Ross-Ho herself pointed out at a Thursday morning press preview, it’s not just a pop-art conceit. OMEGA is a precise replica of a tool her photographer parents commonly used when she was growing up — right down to her father’s cigarette stains.

Ross-Ho’s piece (accompanied by her seven-foot Color Calibration Card) is a reminder that even in replication, images are products of actual human beings, in actual places and at actual times. While OMEGA draws attention to the production end of the process, Rachel Harrison’s Marilyn with Wall is about the reception end.

Harrison’s piece centers on what, as Crosby pointed out, is one of the most widely replicated images in all of contemporary art: the photograph of Marilyn Monroe that became the basis of Andy Warhol’s iconic silkscreens. In this case, Harrison photographed the original photo from Warhol’s archives, then framed her own photo (are you still with me here?) and hung it on a stack of remnants of the temporary walls used in the previous show to occupy the gallery space.

The very specific pile of refuse that the photo hangs on draws attention to the material circumstances of an art exhibit: while a completed art exhibition often hangs on featureless white walls that are largely the same from Detroit to Dubai, this very specific heap of trash is on its way (eventually) to a disposal center right here in Minnesota. Harrison’s piece has been recreated in various settings since its genesis in 2004; this incarnation is our own local Marilyn with Wall.

In between, the galleries are filled with works that may (or may not) superficially resemble everyday images made for commercial or personal uses — but that are packed with layers of meaning that force you to look closely, and look again, and reach for the exhibition catalog.

There’s Ed Ruscha’s Parking Lots, for example: a series of aerial photographs, many of the eponymous cross-hatched asphalt flats, that look as though they were taken to aid real-estate agents. In reality, they were commissioned by the artist specifically for inclusion in this carefully ordered array.

Then, there’s Louise Lawler’s Portrait, a precisely-composed photograph of a pet-shop parrot whose eye is precisely at the center of a square frame. Crosby singled that out as a touchstone of the show: an allusive self-portrait masquerading as commercial photography, with the parrot isolated against a primary-red background.

It’s akin to Christopher Williams’s Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide, (c) 1968 Eastman Kodak Company, 1968 (Corn), a photo of waxy corn ears with a visible color guide. It looks like (and is) a commentary on the artificiality of stock photography — with an extra layer of meaning for those who know that many photo products are derived from corn.

Ross-Ho’s not alone in examining the very process of replication. Sherrie Levine’s set of Light Bulbs, sitting pristinely in a trio of vitrines, give their subjects the Jeff Koons treatment: the three cast stainless steel bulbs gleam with ironically reflected light. Local artist Scott Nedrelow is represented by a large painting from his Afterlight series, in which colored ink is lightly sprayed on photo paper in squared-off parallel lines that suggest what you might get if you used a giant inkjet printer to print Rothkos until the ink had almost completely run out.

It’s one of a handful of works that point tantalizingly towards the ramifications of digital image replication technology, suggesting that Ordinary Pictures can and should have a sequel. (It may have to be in Pittsburgh, where Crosby — formerly an associate curator at the Walker — is now a curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art.)

The artist here who most plainly refers to online reproduction is, of all people, the late Sturtevant. Cutting-edge to the very end, she’s represented here by work including her Serpentine Owl Wallpaper, a floor-to-ceiling collection of owls emblazoned with an iStockvideo watermark. Liz Deschenes’s 15-foot photograph of a green screen — a piece that manages the trick of being both maddeningly opaque and thuddingly obvious — could serve as a pivot point into of-the-moment questions of authenticity such as those raised by the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s recent show More Real?

The show’s overall aridness is broken by a few fun pieces such as Hans-Peter Feldmann’s nostalgic collage of Sonntagsbilder (Sunday Pictures); Jack Goldstein’s multicolored Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records, each pressed with a different stock sound effect; and Aleksandra Domanovic’s Untitled (Blatter, Platini and Wambach), in which images are printed on the edges of tall stacks of copy paper sitting precariously in the center of a gallery in a way that looks designed to give docents heart attacks.

If an actual stock photographer were to visit this show, he or she might leave with head hung in despair: again and again, this work punctures the notion that it’s possible to create such a thing as a perfectly pure stock image, devoid of all context and history, a perfect place-holder for the projection of meaning. You always leave fingerprints.

Jay Gabler

Photo: Sherrie Levine, Light Bulb, 2000
© Sherrie Levine; Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; Photo: Steven Probert