Penelope Umbrico, Out of Order: Bad Display III

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by RVB Books (here). Soft plastic slipcase containing 50 unbound off-set printed pages. Includes 2 polarizing films from disassembled laptop screens, a list of image titles, and 3 technical data sheets for the printing presses used. In an edition of 100 copies, each unique. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When a photographer works on a sustained project for a number of years, an evolution of thinking inevitably occurs. Often the first works set out the initial boundaries and artistic questions to be considered, and as more images are made, new ideas, new challenges, and new variations on the starting conditions become apparent. In some cases, this growth and expansion comes as a continuous flow, while in others, more distinct stages and periods coalesce together.

Penelope Umbrico has exploring the realm of used and broken screens for the better part of a decade now. Starting with images of screens from LCD televisions, computer monitors, and laptops found on the Internet (typically for sale on eBay, Craigslist, and other online classifieds aggregators), she has transformed the initial idea of technical obsolescence into a wide range of artistic end points. She has made photographs and scans of the broken screens, turning their distortions, malfunctions, and failures into both individual images and grids of abstracted electronic details. She has made room-filling installations of actual screens, variously sized glass and plastic sheets, and photographs, layering them into overlapped jumbles of digitized rectangular gradations that interrogate questions of physical presence and transparency. And she has made a series of innovative photobooks, using the printing process to add further iterations of reprocessing and reconsideration to the underlying imagery.

In book form, Umbrico’s screen project has already had two printed manifestations, one in 2011 and another in 2016. The first took shape as black and white prints on thin newspaper stock, where the screens were seen generally as complete rectangles. In rough shades of grey, the geometric forms hover in ranges from light to dark, with the visual noise of static brashly thrown in between. It was in these works that Umbrico began to experiment with overinking the prints, the results modified by smudges, thick areas of black, repetitive patterns introduced by the print rollers, and other blurred imperfections. With this technique, she further undermined the precision of the technologies being depicted (and used), the messiness pushing toward deliberate abstraction.

In her second book-centric pass through the material, she added color to her tool box and cropped away the physical edges of the screens in her images, zeroing in on smaller fragments of the active displays. These images were printed on heavier paper stock, the overinked colors creating separate layers of tinted cyan, magenta, and yellow that spread across white border areas. Compositionally, the works are often striated, warped, and pixelated, with a recognizable arrow cursor or two found among the stripes and lines. Again, roller deformations, creeping stains, and gritty residues interrupt the clarity we expect from a digital display, Umbrico’s visual results tweaked and off-kilter.

Out of Order: Bad Display III essentially remixes the first two prior approaches and also interleaves a third. Original pages from the first two books (apparently 100 of each were saved for this purpose) have been shuffled together, thereby putting the previously separate black and white and color approaches into direct dialogue with each other. New works printed on metallic paper push the squishing of ink a few steps further, creating blobs, washes, and buffed areas that override the imagery underneath, to more richly layered and textural effect. All three sets of images are then intermingled, with a few sheets of actual plastic film thrown in to bring us back to the surfaces and components of the original displays. Technical summaries of the three printing processes that were employed add exhausting in-depth Christopher Williams-style detail to the gathering, extending the contrast between strict precision and improvisational accident.

While other Umbrico photobooks have experimented with leaving the pages unbound as folios or leaves, Out of Order: Bad Display III makes the most of this loose assemblage approach. The pages do turn like a book to some degree here, but they mostly just fall open and apart (to see any one image in full, it must be removed from its folded sequence), creating a pile of jumbled pages from the various discrete artistic efforts that constantly needs to be tidied up and re-straightened. The individual works talk to each other across time and process, creating a whole that has competing aesthetic ideas that want to dissolve into chaos – the technical order inherent to the design of display technology has been thoroughly undermined. Whether we should call this sprawling object a photobook depends entirely on how strictly we want our definitions to be enforced.

What this ongoing project shows us (particularly in its book forms) is how an artist can successfully extend one subject into something far more complex than just a straight line progression. Umbrico’s investigation of screens has had twists and turns, and doubled back on itself more than once, constantly unpacking, reworking, and reassembling itself. This final aggregation summarizes and integrates those diverse learnings, offering layers of thoughtfully interlocked nuance.

Collector’s POV: Penelope Umbrico is represented by Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York (here) and David B. Smith Gallery in Denver (here). Her work has begun to reach the secondary markets in recent years, but there have been too few outcomes to chart a consistent price history. As a result, gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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