Peripheral Viewfinder

Joan Reutershan, March 2014


From a distance Jenna Westra’s black and white photographs create intense eye movement and visual intrigue for the beholder through combinations of highly contrasted values, shapes, line qualities and textures.  One is aware of objects, but cropping undercuts their identity, estranging them and intensifying Westra’s abstracted mode of presentation.   The images “Dark Room Curtain 1-3,” for example, present simple, curvilinear, black and white shapes of varying size, and the eye might not discern immediately what is figure or ground.  Jagged triangular forms, which suggest ruptures, are a signifier that repeats in various images (not all are exhibited here). Another set of images titled “Tapes and Double Negatives 1-4” contrast small, buzzing, polygonal white shapes with a quiet, velvety ground.   The image “Fur” contradicts such hard edges with a texture of soft black and white fur-like striations.  The dynamic movements within and among the images makes the work seem larger than its modest scale as in “Studio Matter 1 and 2” and “Light on Body.”   With some work like “Tapes and Double Negatives” a tension is set up with the frames, which, with their Euclidean boundaries, seem to be fencing the movement in. The clear white of the unexposed paper and the dense black of the exposed image and its variations call attention to the richness of tonality achieved with photographic chemistry and papers worked in the darkroom.  

Jenna Westra’s photographs are on one level about the variety of effects possible through analog photography.  Westra confirms that, among other aspects, she intends to foreground the capacities of the analog camera, independent of its historical and traditional use as a documentary device. She composes and develops photographs aware of their own capacities and medium limitations.  In Clement Greenberg’s iteration of the formalist view of art, this kind of medium specificity was the most significant requirement for those modernists who wanted to overcome the “confusion” caused by the predominance of the literary, the narrative, in visual art.  Art must be released from ideas, strive for the purity available to the artwork born from the willing acceptance of the limitations of its medium.   In the case of photography this would be the camera, the light, the film, the indexical relationship between signifier and referent, the paper and the darkroom.  All these Westra deploys to self-reflexive effect.

Already in 1966 Lawrence Alloway said that a purely formalist interpretation of art brackets the semantic content of the formalist language itself, narrative significance, as well as psychophysical responses on the part of the viewer. Indeed, there is no way to ignore the content of what Westra photographs:  her choice of peculiar things in light and shadow, the uncanny interrelationship between the objects, her strategies for presenting objects (cropping, frames, series), the meaning of the process that culminates in the images (degradation, “finding,” systems), or the stance she chooses as photographer (ironic), questioning traditional master narratives and gently interrogating subject-object relations.

Looking at the actual objects themselves, what are they?   Cropped images of human bodies, but also things we consider banal, stuff taken from daily life and studio practice—art and non-art materials, in combinations that are often ironic.  In Westra’s one color photograph in the show, entitled “n.t. (Maja, color),” we see two naked torsos aligned in diagonal formations.  By themselves, Clive Bell would likely call these torsos “significant form” because of the rhythmic movement and interacting shapes of color they establish. But Bell with his high seriousness likely wouldn’t acknowledge the humor of a length of crafting trim dividing the image, and echoing the directions of the bodies in zig-zag formation.   Another image entitled “Zorkij for Sharp Looking” presents a photograph of a Zorki 4 camera, manufactured in the USSR in 1956, heroic, on center stage, and floating in space.  A closer look reveals protrusions of forms that are strange and non-functional and surprise the viewer.  This incoherence makes the images self-reflexive for 21st century in a more perverse way, modernism with a “twist” as Westra says.   

The textures from fabrics, to paper, to body parts, flat and volumetric, are not there to be documents or represent themselves.  In terms of her compositional process the artist says,   “Objects are distilled, placed and replaced until a degradation of their intended purpose results.  The body becomes sculpture, stripped of identity and place.”

What replaces known identity and place?  An intimate focus on estranged, partial views of the unacknowledged facets of things, strategies which release these objects from their intended use. There is in Westra’s work a democratization of things, or flattening of hierarchy, an unexpected mixture of nature and culture.   This anti-hierarchical assemblage approach was explored in modernist theory with structuralism.  Levi-Strauss showed us, for example, how in non-Western cultures perfectly adequate if less scientific mechanisms were in place, which were as effective as those in the progress-obsessed, “superior” West.  

Although in Westra’s images the things are removed from their context, they are by virtue of their analog origins, nonetheless indications of a materially given world, they present an indexical relationship between the image and the world.  They are substantial.  Where the digital process captures the image as a code, the analog medium captures material as an index through light.  Their insistence upon their materiality in a world becoming more virtual is an acknowledgement of the physical and of sensation.  Kant is in the studio, a most important theoretician of modern aesthetics, who located the individual, the viewer, in corporeal space and time, and the aesthetic experience in the viewer.

Westra’s ambiguous configurations of objects removed from fixed identities or contexts enable the viewer to read them anew.  Maybe Westra’s objects aren’t even what we call objects.   Westra says they become “ambassadors for unknown practice-related corporeality or actions.”   In this world of unexpected combinations of objects perhaps the viewer can drop his/her programmed responses to these everyday objects.  If things are seen in a different way, does this then open a door to the viewer to also experience his/her subjectivity in a different way?  Maybe if we followed this path, our subjectivity would begin to feel more contingent upon the object.  

Westra is also interested in shifting focus from a spatial to a temporal understanding of the photograph:  She says “The photograph is the stabilizer of an ephemeral situation, each picture a tribute to a moment.  These moments are sometimes spontaneous and sometimes meticulously planned.”  So, with time as a factor, things are inherently unstable, in flux.  In the above- mentioned series “Tapes and Double Negatives” the variations of the images are created when the camera is moved slightly for each successive image—[a stand-in for the eye of the moving viewer?]--recording a spatialization of time or a temporalization of space.  In more subtle materials, is Westra asking the question Robert Morris asked with his 3 L Beams, namely about the (im)possibility of imaging/seeing the thing in itself? It seems Kant is with us still.  And so are his followers, the phenomenologists, like Husserl, who bracket the question about the reality of the thing and emphasize the viewer’s perception and consciousness. The viewer, who slows down to figure things out, can enrich the experience of a photograph with his/her memories and projections.

In focusing intently on what the camera can do as a mechanical device, Westra questions another master narrative-- that of the importance of the writer, the creator, in this case the photographer. In his “What is an Author” Foucault critiqued the idea of the bourgeois Romantic creator-genius, his artistic product and self-expression.  He stressed rather the ethical principle of indifference to, or effacement of, the author. For the post-structuralists, personal expression is not important, neither is the experience of the act of creating.  It is the ecriture itself that matters.   And so with Westra’s work we also see an underplaying of the Ego-I of the artist, because it is the objects that are of interest - both the camera and the photographs - and their referents in the world.  

Westra uses multiple additional strategies to take the focus away from the Ego-I of the artist.  She focuses on “finding” images, as opposed to making herself their originator.  She uses strategies of composing according to systems to make series’ of images, such as in the “One Negative in (8) Views,” where reverse images of sections of figures envelope one another.  She splices them together in a series within a closed circuit, seeing the surprise configurations as equally important to the original objects.

In closing, there are a number of Westra’s strategies and configurations that remind me of the way philosophers Deleuze and Guatarri speak of assemblage, of objects and processes coming together, in their introduction to A Thousand Plateaus. These authors share with Kant an acknowledgement of sensation as a point of departure and its foundation for art and life, which I also see in Westra’s work.  In presenting their book, their work, they say it has neither object nor subject, it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds.   For them an  “assemblage” is a “multiplicity.”  It transmits intensities.   It isn’t monolithic, but mobile and temporary and opens different possibilities.  I think Jenna Westra’s work could be further explored with these Deleuzian notions of assemblage.

To summarize:  Westra’s images are visually stimulating, and doubly self-reflexive, first through her conscious deployment of the analog camera in a digital age, and secondly in her laconic and ironic presentation of objects.  She offers the viewer through her photographic images an opportunity to experience sensations, but also to reflect on notions of the identity and the materiality of objects, hierarchy, the indexical and the digital, temporality, the viewer’s experience as subject, and the significance of the author/creator in the work of art.