JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 color photographs, framed in white, and hung against white walls in the back gallery space. All of the works are layered laser cut dye sublimation prints on aluminum, made between 2019 and 2021. Each work is sized 32×24 inches and is available in an edition of 3+2AP. The installation includes a number of faintly colored decals that surround the framed images.
The show also includes 1 video, which is shown on a screen mounted above the gallery space on the upper walkway. It is an UHD 4K video with sound (on USB Flash drive), 7 minutes 45 seconds, made in 2020. It is available in an edition of 5. (Installation shots and video stills below.)
Comments/Context: As modes and periods of photographic image making become more recognizably defined by their distinctive visual styles, sophisticated artistic appropriation and re-interpretation of those aesthetics has similarly become more possible. Joseph Desler Costa’s new show offers a range of pleasingly tension-filled examples of this kind of photographic thinking.
Direct media appropriation (taking a photograph out of one context and putting into another) is an idea that finds its roots in the work of the Pictures Generation, but more indirect appropriation of an aesthetic (like Cindy Sherman’s repurposing of the look of film stills) also took shape during that time. Roe Ethridge is perhaps the most notable contemporary practitioner of this kind of conceptual thinking – in taking the visual tropes of commercial and fashion photography and applying them to different kinds of subject matter, he has intentionally disrupted our ability to read the images based on their usual visual cues, creating layers of dissonance that feel unexpected.
In the past decade, Joseph Desler Costa has been chasing similar questions, actively unpacking the sleek, cleaned up aesthetics of commercial photography and experimenting with ways to rethink its implicit messages. In his 2017 gallery show (reviewed here), he deliberately wrestled with the visual signals of paradise and luxury, staging sun-kissed palms with high end sneakers, toned bodies, and a gold plated football helmet, and using multiple exposures to create layers of dissolving uncertainty. In this new show, he builds on many of those visual strategies, expanding his aesthetic appropriation efforts to include the throwback mood of the 1980s.
In a range of soft misty pastels, Costa starts with multiplied still life objects – tennis rackets, rainbows, roses, a white cat, a pack of Newport cigarettes, and even a tumbling bunch of McDonald’s french fry containers. These objects hover in the pristine white space of a commercial product shoot, or dissolve into a faded glow, where several sunsets, an orange tree, a high jumper, a “hi-tech” computer grid, and various body parts (a head, a chest) join the parade as fleeting memories or muted backdrops. While not succumbing to the most exaggerated stereotypes of the 80s, Costa still successfully evokes a style that confoundingly combines contemporary and dated visual references.
Costa then takes this set of symbols and motifs one step further by adding sculptural cutouts to the prints that reveal an additional image layer underneath. Using a laser cutter, he physically carves out various shapes and stenciled letters, many of which evoke playful 80s sticker aesthetics. Simple clouds, droplets, angel wings, splash marks, and thought bubbles interrupt and decorate the imagery, taking their colors from the pastel gradients underneath. Costa adds a huge orange sun to a sunset, water drops to his rainbows, a mist of clouds to his soaring high jumper, puffs of pink smoke to his cigarettes, and an unspoken babble of commentary to his french fry packaging. He then encourages these same cutout shapes to join the gallery installation, by affixing them directly to the walls around the prints, as if they had left the works and moved out to the nearby space. The overall effect both breaks down the typical plane of photography and extends the ideas beyond the frame.
Using a laser cutter to simultaneously add formal elements and reveal layered imagery underneath feels like an idea with lots of creative running room; like our 21st century Instagram filters, these physical interruptions have the ability to exist outside the image itself (and to comment on it), while also participating in integrated compositions. Costa’s approach can actually go even further, by using the underlying imagery as more than a color foil. The same can be said for his experiments with cutting out typography and lettering – these first iterations prove that the approach has potential, but from a graphic design perspective, they are just a starting point.
The show also includes a single video work, “Dream Date”, that uses a call-and-response voiceover conversation to interrupt and re-contextualize the flow of imagery. The stream of clips bounces off various 80s clichés, including sunsets over water, wild horses, tigers, closeups of eyes, swimsuited couples kissing in the water, fizzy drinks with lemon slices, and other overused motifs of romance, only to be upended by a much more cerebral audio discussion (almost like a therapy session or confessional back and forth) taking place between two unseen individuals. The combination creates a mesmerizingly layered experience, where the glamorously cheesy video scenes provide a visual backdrop to an internal debate over the duality of real and unreal.
Aesthetic appropriation takes us through a conceptual knothole to create its uneasiness, but Costa’s works make that intellectual wrangling feel surprisingly easy and instinctive. On its own, making photographs that emulate an alternate style isn’t enough, and Costa is clearly testing different approaches for amplifying the conflict in his works. Works like “Newports”, McSpeak”, and “High Jumper” find a tighter point of subtle discord, using the 80s aesthetics against themselves while still applying a light touch. Where he takes these innovations next will be intriguing to watch, as they offer the potential to broaden aesthetic appropriation to include more elements of design.
Collector’s POV: The photographic works in this show are priced at $4500 each, while the video is available at $3500. Costa’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.