Sarah Charlesworth, Natural Magic @Maccarone

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are cibachrome prints with custom lacquered wood frames, made in 1992-1993. The oval-shaped prints are sized between roughly 27×22 and 45×55 (or reverse) and all of the works are available in editions of 6+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When Sarah Charlesworth made her lesser known series Natural Magic back in 1992-1993, she couldn’t possibly have known what would come next, either in the medium of photography or in the larger world around her, but given the benefit of nearly 25 years of hindsight, we can now see that she was remarkably prescient. The project (which hasn’t been exhibited in its entirety since it was made) explores the nature of visual illusion, using the trappings and props of magic and her expert analog craftsmanship skills to construct pictures that test our belief in photographic truth. From our perch in the future, where digital manipulation and image fakery are now ubiuitous, her pictures feel quietly prophetic, as if she was trying to warn us about just how easily we could be fooled.

While Charlesworth had already mastered the presentation of appropriated/isolated images hovering in flat expanses of color in her mystical Objects of Desire series from 1983-1988, the Natural Magic pictures extended many of those techniques further, adding in multiple exposures and various methods for controlling light and scale to her behind-the-camera toolbox. Set against enveloping black backgrounds, the images are like the illustrations from a real-life magic manual, where the tricks and illusions are documented right before our disbelieving eyes.

Fans of close-up magic will recognize many of Charlesworth’s setups, from the silver goblets used to test memory and the flash paper explosions in a magician’s hands to the swirling cards that dance through the air and the handkerchief that defies gravity. These simple sleights of hand (or sleights of camera as it may be) are just the beginning of the show however, and like a practiced stage performer, Charlesworth iteratively ups the ante with each successive trick. She multiplies a burning candle into seven flames, bends forks “using telekinesis”, draws yellow smoke from a genie lamp, and levitates a woman covered by a blue silk cloth, each scene created not with Photoshop erasing or image compositing, but with old school technical brilliance.

These works were made during a period when Charlesworth was looking back to 19th century photography for inspiration, and the black oval frames used for the Natural Magic prints recall the portals of traveling magic shows from that same period. In her subsequent Doubleworld images from 1995, the luxurious wood frames would reappear, surrounding images of antique cameras and optical devices. These Natural Magic pictures weren’t included in the artist’s excellent 2015 retrospective at the New Museum (reviewed here), but seeing them here now makes clear their important bridging function (at least conceptually and technically) between the projects that came before and after.

In many ways, the essence of magic is making something complicated (or impossible) look effortlessly easy, and in this sense, Charlesworth’s photographic recreations of tricks fit the bill – they are straightforwardly beguiling, since we know their “truths” to be fanciful. Lacking the use of the magician’s tools of careful misdirection and distraction, her pictures force us to come face to face with the mystery of the imaginary, and given that her conjuring and hocus pocus happen right before us, her results feel that much more cunning.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $40000 and $60000, based on size. Charlesworth’s work has a relatively thin secondary market track record, with recent prices ranging between $2000 and $12000, but these few transactions may not be entirely representative of the true market for her best work.

Sarah Charlesworth, Maccarone

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