Mishka Henner: Semi-Automatic @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 17 works, variously framed/displayed, and hung against white walls in the entry area, the front gallery, and the larger main gallery space. The artworks cover a broad range of mediums, from photography (in several processes) to painting and video/sound, and were made between 2011 and 2015. The specific details are below:

  • 3 archival pigment prints on canvas, 2012, 55×59, 39×42, 22×15, in editions of 1+1AP
  • 1 acrylic on canvas, 2015, 40×30, unique
  • 2 gelatin silver prints, 2012, 16×20 (edition of 10+2AP), 49×34 (edition of 5+2AP)
  • 1 archival pigment print portfolio (18 prints), 2013, each 15×12, in editions of 18+3AP
  • 1 single channel video, 2015, 4:34 minutes, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 1 duratran in lightbox, 2011, 22×28, in an edition of 3+2AP
  • 5 archival pigment prints, 2011, 2013, 35×31 (edition 5+2AP), 60×67 (edition 3+2AP), 20×24 (edition 5+2AP), 35×60 (edition 6+3AP), 72×60 (edition 3+2AP)
  • 1 silver acrylic silkscreen and varnish on paper, 2015, 33×26, in an edition of 5+2AP
  • 1 MP3 audio track, 2014, 21 minutes
  • 1 single channel video, 2014, 6:48 minutes, in an edition of 3+2AP

Several of Henner’s photobooks and artist books are on view at the reception desk. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Mishka Henner’s first solo show in the US is a short-term retrospective of sorts, an appetizer platter providing a quick-look sampler of his various projects from the past five years. Henner has certainly been busy, and this bustling group of works thrums with manic energy, jumping from one idea to the next without much time for patient appraisal.

Even as recently as a year or two ago, Henner would likely have been quickly categorized as one of the ever growing Google Street View cohort, given that several of his projects originate with or leverage GSV or Google Earth imagery. But in seeing this show, that overly easy knee-jerk labeling misses out on the broader vision he’s offering here. Not only is he appropriating from those sources, he’s looking at and liberally drawing from YouTube, cable television, USGS topographic maps, American Petroleum Institute codes, and the long arm of art history, creating edits, mashups, and recontexualizations that run off in all directions, often with a political or sociological undertone. It’s a from-anywhere-to-anywhere kind of targeted appropriation, rather than a single source deep dive, and likely a more dynamic way of connecting fast moving data/ideas than an archival core sample.

While Henner’s artistic visions pull his attention here and there, his most successful works to date are those that stay within the photographic realm. Omniscient top down satellite views have provided two rich veins for nuanced exploration. In his Dutch Landscapes series, sites deemed vital to Dutch national security have been censored by artful pixelization, using expressionistic blobs and matching color palettes to cover up the secret places. But in an ironic reversal of their original intention, these enlarged blurs draw attention to the very locations they are meant to conceal, and do so with a unlikely dash of abstract style. They’ve also inadvertently originated a new subgenre of landscape photography, where extreme pixelization morphs the real into the boldly geometric.

Henner’s satellite images of oil fields and feedlots turn on similar formal concerns. Isolated pumpjacks become a typology of colored striping and agricultural plowing, a dusty oil field town takes on the look of a densely wired computer circuit board, and the waste pool connected to a feedlot throbs like an ugly beating heart full of red sewage runoff. While beautiful in an abstract sense, the content of these photographs asks more pointed questions about the industrial practices and environmental degradation that comes along with ongoing development of these resources (oil, beef). And his political commentary is in no way subtle in some cases – the red feedlot gash image shouts its angry message from across the room.

A third GSV project stays closer to the ground, tracking roadside prostitutes inadvertently captured by the passing cameras. In single images and in videos constructed from sequential still frames, lone women (Eastern European in this case) idle on marginal roadways and off ramps and stand at bus stops and dirt pull offs. Photographically, these aren’t particularly notable pictures, but their unlikeliness makes us wonder – how did Henner find these vanishingly few frames in all the millions of images captured by GSV? The answer is they were found using online forums used by men sharing locations for finding prostitutes, and thus the whole project takes on an even grimmer mood of blanketing surveillance, desperation, and exploitation.

But not all of Henner’s projects have this kind of activist edge. In Less Americains, he’s appropriated photographs from Robert Frank’s iconic photobook The Americans and then systematically removed portions of the compositions, leaving behind empty white spaces (that are immediately filled in by our memory of the famous images). This ghostly erasure process deconstructs these photographs, turning a cigar smoking rodeo patron into a loomingly isolated ten gallon hat. Just as Frank exposed a new vision of America, Henner takes him one step further, turning his photographs into disembodied symbols.

Many of the other projects and works on view show off Henner’s restless artistic mind, but do so with less durable success. Paintings that combine Richter and Ruscha faithfully merge the two competing aesthetics, but seem airless rather than arch. A video that gathers together YouTube karaoke stars simultaneously singing Sam Smith’s I’m Not the Only One is a clever joke (they’re all singing it of course), but that’s about it. And a single lightbox image of an eyes-closed blissed-out news anchor needed a grid of similar images to bring home its point with more clarity. All of these could have been edited out of this show (and replaced with additional examples from the other projects) in the name of a tighter presentation of Henner’s most important ideas.

The key takeaway from this show is less a study of any one recent project by Henner and more an understanding of his larger process of voracious image appropriation. His work represents a potent example of the next generation of photographic reuse, where the connectivity of the net, the vastness of its resources, and the digital malleability of its imagery have opened up entirely new modes and methods for art making. Hidden in the dark corners of this expansive open depository are plenty of overlooked quirks, eccentricities, and evils, waiting to be unearthed and recontextualized by artists like Henner. The fundamental idea of old school appropriation as incisive re-presentation is still there, but it’s now being executed with much more velocity, flexibility, and breadth.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced between $2800 and $18000, based on size, with the 18-print portfolio at $30000. The remaining various paint and video works (some are already sold) range from $6000 to $12000. Henner’s work has not yet developed a robust secondary market presence, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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