At first glance, New York-based media artist Josh Azzarella’s solo show at Kavi Gupta Gallery appears to be a straight landscape show, perhaps in the style of the New Topographics photographers of the 1970s, engaging formalist depictions of mundane details of daily use of the landscape. But a second glance starts to peel back the many layers of these images, unsettling any easy reading of their surfaces.
Azzarella’s present body of work, begun five years ago, takes the material of historical footage and photographs as the starting point for a series of erasures, replacements and re-layerings that remove elements of these documents, creating events without actors—landscapes?—and actors without events—portraits?
In “Untitled #15 (Tank Man), 2006, a man is standing in the middle of a street in a wooded, urban landscape. The nondescript expanse of concrete and line of trees have an eerie familiarity. The viewer slowly begins to realize that this is the famous Tiananmen Square protester who boldly confronted a line of military tanks…without the tanks.
Azzarella has said that one of the motivating forces behind his reworking of historical images is the desire to examine memory, how it is formed and how it reads and re-reads images. “I’m investigating the cathectic energy of the imagery, our collective memory, personal memory and my possibility of manipulating an existing memory or creating a memory where one did not previously exist,” he says. Azzarella’s photographic work did in fact begin in a style very much in the tradition of formalist landscape depiction begun by the Bechers in Germany and continued by such German photographers as Thomas Struth and, at times, Thomas Ruff. However, Azzarella became interested in examining not just the content of an image, but the image itself, and, more specifically, the reception of the image–how an image becomes iconic.
Speaking about “Untitled #20 (Trang Bang),” 2006, a work based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Nick Ut taken during the conflict in Vietnam, Azzarella asks “What makes this image iconic?…There are several frames, other images of the same event that are more compositionally compelling that have not become iconic.” Nevertheless, something holds our memory to the image. “It becomes a baroque abstraction,” Azzarella says, “but people always recognize the pink of Jackie’s hat.”
Recently, Azzarella has been working with a somewhat different set of images—not the moments of conflict, but moments on the fringes of history. He says that after five years, the difficult imagery has started to get to him. “My head is so full of these horrible images—I can only take so much before it becomes brutal and exhausting.” He wants to explore “less iconic imagery” to deepen his, and our, understanding of how we collectively create memories based on their documentation. (Michelle Tupko)