Vikky Alexander, 1981-1983 @Downs & Ross

JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 color photographic works, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in two separate single room gallery locations.

At the Chrystie Street space, there are 4 works on view, made in 1982 and 1983. 3 of these are digital prints on moab slickrock metallic pearl/argent acid free paper mounted on dibond; the other work is made of chromogenic color prints mounted on acid free museum board. Physical sizes range from roughly 18×40 to 36×135. The works are available in editions ranging from unique+1AP to 3+1AP.

At the Eldridge Street space, there are 2 works on view, from 1981 and 1982. One is made from chromogenic color prints; the other is made from type R prints. The two works are sized 65×27 (in an edition of unique+1A) and 24×103 (in an edition of 2+1AP) respectively.

(Installation shots of both locations below.)

Comments/Context: As the history of art gets incrementally written, it’s inevitable that its chroniclers will attempt (again and again) to gather arguably like artists together into handy groups, movements, or periods. Especially when done with the benefit of hindsight, so we can better assess which artists went on to be influential and which faded into relative obscurity, this synthesis process makes it easier to highlight common characteristics that can be then be more succinctly communicated to the world at large. By putting artists into buckets and taxonomies, we do our best to make sense of what was happening, and see patterns in the larger passing of time that may not have been readily evident at the moment. The challenge is that these kinds of named groups are nearly always imperfect, often glossing over real differences between the included artists, leaving out those that don’t fit the stated criteria so well, and oversimplifying what was inherently an evolutionary and experimental artistic flow.

So when we talk about the Pictures Generation for example, we tend to tick off the same major names (Sherman, Longo, Prince, Kruger, Goldstein, Charlesworth, Simmons, Heinecken, Birnbaum, etc.) and dive into various now well-rutted discussions of photographic appropriation, cultural critique, and media theory, setting a two coast geographic structure (largely CalArts and Buffalo) and considering works from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s. But what this structured thinking does is edge out some of the outliers and fast followers, and muddies the conceptual water of what happened soon afterward as these ideas and strategies began to flow through the arteries of the art world more fully.

Which brings us to this show of the early 1980s photographic work of Vikky Alexander. Depending on how we set the boundaries of the Pictures Generation moniker and who we talk to about causal relationships and influences, Alexander was either part of the end of the main period or she was one of the first in the post-Pictures Generation era (perhaps defined as the early and mid 1980s, before the 1987 recession). In this new period without a fully recognized name (although some have attempted to gaggle it under “Infotainment”), Alexander and others pushed the photo-based appropriation strategies of the early Pictures Generation further, particularly when viewed through the lens of gender stereotypes.

This two-venue show has just six of Alexander’s works from the early 1980s on view, but each and every one centers on mass media images of women. Drawn from fashion and celebrity magazines, these images play on a range of clichés of female sexiness and seduction, accented by pouty red lips, high heeled feet, breathless gazes, and orgasmic eyes closed sighs. Plenty of the Pictures Generation artists deconstructed these kinds of commercial images (and the roles and behaviors they inherently reinforced/celebrated), so what we have to try to understand is what Alexander was doing that was new and different from the rest of the cohort.

The strongest work in the show is Entertainment, a multi-image array of sensual legs, feet, and a bent over come-hither look, with the block letter title affixed to the glass of the frames. The work lays bare the overt “consumption” of women, offering a straightforwardly direct indictment of a media reality where bodies were (and are) routinely cast as sites available for pleasure. In the context of Sherman’s film still roles or Heinecken’s porn interventions, the enlargements in Entertainment make the engagement with the viewer more brash and personal. The work also brings text into the aesthetic equation in a forceful manner, allowing the overlaid words to undermine the supplied imagery.

Other works on view amplify this idea of deliberate interaction with viewer. In both Ecstasy and Sleep, Alexander introduces black panels into the serial image blocks, and between the metallic paper and the reflective glass she has employed, it is nearly impossible to stand in front of these works and not have one’s own reflection become part of the viewing experience. I can attest that having one’s own face mixed in with the romantic mooning and suggestive ecstasy of Isabella Rosselini is altogether disconcerting, especially when the circumstances seem inappropriately intimate. As an artistic effect, this forced intrusion hits home, highlighting the unsettling nature of the female idealization in the underlying pictures. Alexander also uses this same approach in her gender reversed Pieta, bringing us uncomfortably into the middle of a stylized encounter where we don’t belong. In all three, the engagement with appropriated photography takes on a shifting physical (and almost sculptural) presence that enhances our understanding of Alexander’s message.

Two additional works where Alexander has placed an appropriated model between two nature shots (in one case, white glaciers, in the other, the thick greenery of Yosemite) feel more forced. The conceptual setup between the artificiality of the commercialized women (one with flowingly 80s big hair) and the purity of the settings seems obvious, but these works don’t deliver as much in terms of more durable ideas – and they feel more dated as a result.

If we place Alexander among artists like Jennifer Bolande, Anne Doran, and even Gretchen Bender (before she moved toward video more consistently), there might be an intriguing set of further questions to consider, particularly why so many women photo-based artists ended up continuing to explore the original Pictures Generation themes and constructs well into the 1980s. Alexander’s work from the period feels deeply rooted in representations of gender, and that intense focus has sharpened the impact of her most successful works.

Whether we consider shows like this one the result of “rediscoveries” or simply the methodical march of art history slowly filling in the missing gaps in the complete story, these few images by Alexander open up additional nuances to our thumbnail understanding of the Pictures Generation and its immediate aftermath. The issues tangled up with gender-centric reflection – how the media reflects women and how we as artists and viewers are reflected in that media – have clearly gotten increasingly complex as the decades have passed. Looking back from our media-saturated perch in the present, Alexander’s works thoughtfully express the urgency of that earlier moment. They deserve to be reintroduced to the historical conversation, and more fully reconsidered in the context of the aesthetic echoes we continue to wrestle with today.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $13000 and $50000, based on size. Alexander’s work has little recent secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Vikky Alexander, Downs & Ross, Downs & Ross

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