Penelope Umbrico: Silvery Light @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 photographic works and 2 videos, variously framed, and hung against white walls in the entry area, the East and main exhibition spaces, and on the partition facing the street. All are dated 2015, except for one made between 2013-2015. The photographic works are in editions of 3+2AP, while the videos are in editions of 10. The specific details are as follows:

  • 1 set of 15 archival giclée prints on polyester canvas, 2015, 16×20 inches
  • 1 video projection, 6:29 minutes, looped, 2013-2015
  • 2 digital C-prints, 2015, 9×12 inches
  • 1 set of 19 laser prints on acetate, 2015 10×8 inches
  • 1 set of 654 digital C-prints, with attributions and image map, 2015, 104×324 inches
  • 1 archival pigment print, 2015, 11×436 inches
  • 1 archival print mounted on dibond, 2015, 40×40 inches
  • 1 archival print mounted on dibond, 2015, 40×40 inches
  • 1 set of 12 archival pigment prints, 2015 12×16 inches
  • 1 video with sound, 5:00 looped, 2015

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For a quarter century, Penelope Umbrico has been among the most active and inventive scavengers of anonymous, second-hand images.

Her initial notoriety dates to the early 1990s, when she was making handsome prints of squirrelly, shape-shifting objects, anticipating by many years the trend for color abstraction. By the end of that decade, she had ramped up her ambition, building massive single works out of multiple images. From Catalogs (1998), exhibited at Julie Saul and SFMoMA, was composed of photographs reproduced from the mail-order catalogues that landed daily in her mailbox. Each enticing picture of these consumer products (or their background) was revisioned by her camera eye or editorial hand, some of them refocused into dark blobs or concentric circles, others sliced into bars so that only a thin, recognizable section of the catalog original was reproduced. They remained attractive photographs but had become so on her terms.

After the millennium. she began to mine the Internet for its bounty of images and inadvertent humor. Her Suns (from Sunsets) from Flickr, which she has exhibited more than 20 times, first in 2006, is a grid of snapshots she took from the photo-sharing site. It grows with each installation, and in each one the suns are arrayed in rows that glow like gumdrops in a candy factory. Image Collection: Beautiful Armoire—Perfect Condition (2008–09) reproduced furniture being offered for sale on Craigslist that, in her presentations, became gradually and hilariously inappropriate. If the purpose of the photograph is to sell the item, portraying drawers overflowing with messy clothes is probably not going to close the deal. The work was also a sly comment on the oversharing culture of social media which by its ease and connectivity encourages us to air their dirty laundry.

For her latest show, it may seem at first that for many of the pieces here she has simply rebooted Suns from Sunsets from Flickr, except this time with the moon. Indeed, Everyone’s Photos Any License: (654 of 1,146,034 Full Moons on Flickr, November 2015) in identical in concept, with a single subject multiplied in rows by the hundreds.

There are differences, however, in the two presentations. Her suns were stacked like batteries, their yellow-orange power magnified by being compressed together. Whereas in this wall-sized grid, her moons float, ghostly orbs, drifting coldly in the blackness of space, objects that reflect light rather than generate it.

She has also honored the people who chose to copyright their images. A thick checklist of attributions can be found next to her work, listing the names of the photographers, the title they preferred, licensing terms, and any technical details. More than one thousand such images have been legally secured on Flickr.

The desire of people to copyright their photographs of the moon and then post them for others to inspect is peculiar and touching. It requires a high degree of self-confidence these days to believe that the resolution through my telescope or telephoto lens is superior to yours, when it takes minimal technical know-how to make these pictures. The equipment and expertise available only to John W. Draper in 1840 is now the birth rite of practically everyone. (Umbrico estimates that she reviewed more than one million flawless photographs of the full moon on the site.) It’s the second most common thing in the sky and no one’s property, not even the U.S.A., still the only country to have landed men on it.

And yet the idea of copyright, especially in the digital age, is a way to impress oneself on the vastness of the world and express control over one’s personal space. It may be vainglorious to think that your moon photograph on Flickr is special. But authors continue to copyright their poems about the moon, and there must be only slightly fewer of those by now.

The slipperiness of attribution and authorship is the motive for three works here on a famous photograph of Grand Central Terminal, with the sun streaming down onto the floor through five of its gallery windows.

Researching this icon on the Internet, she discovered hundreds of versions but was unable to pin down the name of the photographer (many took credit) or the date (many years were given.) Treatment of the image (cropping, tinting, watermarks) also depended on which of the many websites was selling it as a “vintage print” or poster. Reproductions vary the source of the light, too; in some the direction is from the South, in others from the North. The title isn’t stable either. Known as Grand Central Station in common parlance, it bears the actual name on maps and in architectural history of Grand Central Terminal.

The prolix title of her video nicely summarizes the comedy of authorship issue: Four Photographs of Rays of Sunlight in Grand Central Station, Grand Central Terminal, 1903-1913, 1920, 1926, 1928, 1929, 1934, 1937, 1940, 1935-1941, 1947, or 2010 by John Collier, Philip Gendreau Herbert, Edward Hulton, Kurt Hulton, Edward Lunch, Maxi, Hal Morey, Henry Silberman, Warren and Wetmore Trowbridge, Underwood & Underwood, Unknown, or Anonymous (Courtesy Associated Press, the author, Bettmann/Corbis, Hal Morey/Getty Images, Getty Images, Hulton Collection, Hulton-Getty, Hulton Collection, New York City Municipal Archives, New York Transit Museum, New York City Parks and Landmarks, Royal Geographical Society, SuperStock/Corbis, Underwood & Underwood, Warren and Wemore, or Image in Public Domain).

The video incorporates the many iterations available on the Internet and loops them so that the basic outline of the scene remains intact while details of the image (color, density of shadows, presence of dust motes) slowly mutate. Her version isn’t better than these others; by joining them together, she suggests that photography may be at some level a social effort. Neither the meaning nor the technical means of reproduction are ever fixed for long.

Umbrico knows that photographs of light slanting through a window are as much of a cliché as those of a sunset or the moon, even if the associations may be higher-toned because the cavernous space receiving the blessed Godlike beams is often a European cathedral.

An art historian (with a grant or sabbatical) could perhaps trace the origins of this Grand Central Terminal/Station photograph and how, through many reproductions over time, it gradually became cherished, a token of New York, a nostalgic memory of what train travel could be, an icon.

Umbrico isn’t that pedantic. Her fascination is with the public nature of photographs and the process by which they—through technological and psychological means—can turn things and places and effects into clichés that touch all of us, including her. She is not immune to their juju.

Why she has not crossed over into the wider art world and remains an artist more exhibited in photography galleries is a mystery, not least, one can be sure, to Umbrico herself. Her ideas about our image culture are as complex and subtle as Richard Prince’s and Sherrie Levine’s. Perhaps if she weren’t so enamored of photography and treated it with their casual disdain, she would have the attention she deserves. Is she too decorative-minded and skillful a printer for the ascetic Conceptual school masters?

We deserve to find out. She is overdue for a retrospective in a major museum. I’m betting that her collected body or works—considerable by now—would be an over-the-moon popular and critical hit.

Collector’s POV: Prices for the works in this show range from $3000 for Grand Central Terminal Rays eBay, 2015 (2 digital c-prints) to $75000 for Everyone’s Photos Any License (654 of 1,1146,034 Moons on Flickr, November 2015), with most of the rest of the work selling in the $5000 to $10000 range. Umbrico’s work has begun to reach the secondary markets in recent years, but there have been too few outcomes to chart much of a price history. As a result, gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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