Programming across the city set to coincide with Expo Chicago began on Wednesday with rooftop parties, previews and lectures. Speaking to a near-capacity crowd at the Art Institute of Chicago’s stately Fullerton Hall, artists Liz Deschenes, Laurie Simmons and Sara VanDerBeek were joined by activist Kate Linker Wednesday evening for a wide-ranging discussion of the life and work of the late photographer Sarah Charlesworth in conjunction with the opening of “Stills,” the artist’s first solo museum show in fifteen years.
Associated with what has been dubbed the “pictures generation” (a label that the panel clearly bristled at) Charlesworth was one of a number of artists who came up in the late 1970s, profoundly affected by the saturation of visual media in the late twentieth century. Her early practice, succored on the conceptualism of the previous decade, employed image appropriation to not only dissect photography’s role in shaping our lives, but in turn question the very nature and plausibility of objective experience.
Much of last night’s discussion took the form of fond remembrances of a woman who made a significant impact not only on the lives of the panelists but on the medium of photography itself. Interspersed with amusing anecdotes about Charlesworth’s life were more focused appraisals of her impeccable sense of craft and peerless eye for color. One of the most pressing questions raised by Charlesworth’s “Stills”—How do present events alter the context in which we encounter works of the past?—was addressed near the end.
When asked by Laurie Simmons to discuss the imagery of the “Stills,” which feature large-scale reproductions of newspaper photographs of people falling to their deaths, in light of the heart-rending images of the same thing on September 11, 2001, Linker suggested that it was indeed a “strange thing” but that she didn’t see a relationship between the two because the images in the “Stills” are “so abstract.” Deschenes thoughtfully answered that the “meaning and interpretation of pictures are never fixed and so are full of possibility, reflecting the state of mind of the viewer.”
As to the work itself, Charlesworth’s “Stills” are profound and challenging in ways that conceptual art is often supposed to be, but usually isn’t. Drama and tension pervade these images. Blown-up to a bodily scale that’s pushy and assertive, the pictures are surrounded by an aura of disquiet. As the panel indicated, seen in the context of September 11, 2001, these images become eerily prophetic.
Especially disturbing is an image that depicts an unidentified woman falling in front of the Genesee Hotel moments before impact. In the window of the barber shop on the ground floor is a sign that reads: “Give till it hurts Hitler.” The juxtaposition is as chilling as it is odd, but by freezing and expanding that moment of tragedy, Charlesworth’s “Stills” do what all great art does: make the unbearable bearable. (Alan Pocaro)