Sheer Perfection! Cheap Prints and Digital Mud

The theme of the new issue of Elephant is Perfection. And it just so happens a new show has just opened in Berlin on the same theme. Coincidence? We talk to Perfect/Imperfect curator David Evans.

Jo Longhurst. Twelve Dogs, Twelve Bitches (Detail), shot 2001-02, produced 2003, 24 matt C-type prints on aluminium, 60.9 x 40.6cm (dimensions variable). Courtesy the artist.

How did you come up with the theme of the show?

In 2012, I participated in a two-day symposium at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, called “On Perfection”. Organized by artist Jo Longhurst, the event brought together an eclectic group of figures involved in lens-based media, all tackling the theme from multiple perspectives. Overall, I was highly stimulated by the symposium and continue to read with pleasure the tie-in book, On Perfection (2013), edited by Jo.

Then Elephant proposed that I contribute writings to the magazine around the topic of perfection. The various pieces I wrote include discussion of the photo-based artwork of Jo (UK), Penelope Umbrico (USA) and Mariken Wessels (Netherlands). All three have international reputations, but have rarely exhibited in Berlin. In addition, the show allows the visitor to assess old and new work from each contributor. Thank you, Galerie Andreas Schmidt, for giving them a collective platform!

“Penelope [Umbrico] likes to play. To be sure, she often draws on what might be called online junk.”

Installation view

In the case of Penelope Umbrico, some of the work you’re showing will be printed at a local supermarket. Hardly “perfect”, surely?

The show includes two pieces by Penelope. Range (2014) is a limited-edition folio published by Aperture in which she remixes classic photographs of mountains using a range of apps on her camera phone. Lively updating of the canon? Or sacrilege?

Your question refers to the second piece—Suns from Sunsets from Flickr, first exhibited in 2006. We sent Penelope the dimensions of a wall reserved for her in the gallery in Pankow, Berlin. In Brooklyn, New York, she made some calculations and uploaded around 1,000 files of sunsets cropped from amateur photographs located on Flickr. Andreas downloaded the files in Berlin and had them printed commercially for almost nothing. For the installation we used double-sided tape recommended by the artist, and followed her suggestion that we start in the middle and work outwards!

Penelope likes to play. To be sure, she often draws on what might be called online junk.

However, she works on this material in a way that registers a subtle understanding of contemporary art. Notions of found material, the grid and site-specificity are all handled lightly, for instance. To rephrase French poet Charles Baudelaire, she takes our digital mud and turns it into gold.

Installation view

Mariken Wessels’s work circles around the appearance of amateurism. What are you showing by her?

Queen Ann. P.S. Belly Cut Off (2010) and Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor (2015). Both projects are best known as photobooks. Therefore, we have placed each volume on a plinth and invite the visitor to pick up and peruse. Please touch! Like Penelope, Mariken is engrossed by amateur photography, but her preoccupations are very different. The two books exemplify how the sort of discarded material that one might encounter in the local flea market can be transformed into complex, subtle narratives—in the right hands.

In 1979, Jo Spence exhibited her now famous project Beyond the Family Album in the provocative show Three Perspectives on Photography at the Hayward Gallery, London. Her valorization of the amateur photographer has profoundly marked me. She took it for granted that standard distinctions between professional/amateur or perfect/imperfect are unhelpful. And I regard Mariken as an outstanding example of a contemporary artist who builds on those insights.

“The series gets me thinking about nineteenth-century fantasies around the camera as the objective machine that could definitively record and classify every ethnic and racial type.”

Jo Longhurst’s work about dog breeding and athletes is more obviously concerned with perfection as an ideal. How does she treat that?

Indeed, an ongoing theme has been champion whippets and gymnasts, and her work is appropriately meticulous. In the exhibition we are showing twelve bitches from the series Twelve Dogs, Twelve Bitches (2003). Jo sent a new set of prints from London, plus precise instructions about how she wished them to be displayed. The portraits are sober and so is the grid format. Indeed, the series gets me thinking about nineteenth-century fantasies around the camera as the objective machine that could definitively record and classify every ethnic and racial type.

The recent work from Brazil is very different. Gymnasts in action are photographed with a cheap scanning wand, and the resulting images are wild and excessive. Instead of Victorian classification, we are now getting rich evocations of carnival or free jazz. And appropriately, Jo creates prints of different sizes, to be displayed in ways that suggest informality.

Is “perfection” a useful goal for an artist?

I hope the exhibition encourages people to engage with the work of Jo Longhurst, Penelope Umbrico and Mariken Wessels, and to reflect more generally on the dynamic between notions of perfect and imperfect.

“Perfect/Imperfect” runs at the Galerie Andreas Schmidt until 21 October andreasschmidtgalerie.com