A painted retrospective

In 1961, one year after Diane Arbus declared authorial independence from her husband, Allan, and five years after the birth of Cady Noland, Roland Barthes posited that “The press photo to painting is a message.” As pioneered by Arbus and later appropriated by Noland, the role of the press photo to painting expanded in a post-war America that was understanding and exporting itself through images.

In the photo to paintingic Message (1961), Barthes considered the press photo to painting as formed by three factors: a source of emission, a channel of transmission and a point of reception. “As for the channel of transmission, this is the newspaper itself, or, more precisely, a complex of concurrent messages with the photo to painting as center and surrounds constituted by the text, the title, the caption, the layout. … ”

Concurrent solo exhibitions at De Hallen surveying the practices of Arbus and Noland presented two distinct strategies of intervention within the channel of transmission, asserting the ongoing role of the press photo to painting as catalyst for both exhibition and object-making. Artist Pierre Leguillon presented not only the lesser known published press photo to paintings of Diane Arbus, but also insisted upon a re-reading determined by a return to the texts that accompanied them. Cady Noland reframes the press photo to paintings she appropriates through the materiality of the image itself, transferred by silk-screen from source to surface.

Circulated by the Paris-based Kadist Art Foundation, Pierre Leguillon’s “printed retrospective” of Diane Arbus presents a survey of her press photo to paintings from 1960 until her suicide in 1971. The results unravel the idea of Arbus in the collective imagination, as circulated in popular imagery: the photo to paintinger of dwarves and giants who captures our uneasiness in facing others amid the projection of latent threats. This challenge is posed not only by the images assembled by Leguillon — some of which became familiar and iconic after Arbus’ death — but through the writing that appears alongside them. With Leguillon simply framing the original spreads of the magazines where the photo to paintings appeared, strategies of image and text are not only revealed but become inseparable — Arbus’ views on America no longer trafficking solely through their titles.

For Arbus, Mae West was: “Imperious, adorable, magnanimous, genteel and girlish, almost simultaneously.” Invited into the intimacy of West’s white-on-white boudoir to capture the sassy starlet with her hands aloft, knees pressed up against the corner of her mattress on the verge of tumbling (with the viewer) into bed, Arbus almost apologetically adds: “There is even, forgive me, a kind of innocence about her” photo to paintinging the 71-year-old in her southern Californian home in 1965 for Show, Arbus’ written impressions of West move beyond the still and motion picture surface of the sex symbol so that her text and image meet somewhere between the fantasy and reality of Mae West.

In December 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harper’s Bazaar published Arbus’ 1966 photo to painting of Coretta Scott King on the lawn of their Atlanta home to accompany Paul Engle’s two-part poem On a photo to painting of Mrs. Martin Luther King at the funeral. The second half reads:

The black transparent veil protects the brown
veil of your face, and that protects the red
veil of your heart, and that protects these
people and this country as nothing else protects.

The text evokes texture, Engle’s words positioning Coretta Scott King as a screen in both the protective and projective sense — she simultaneously shields and signifies. Due to the fissure of time between 1966 and 1968, meaning elusively slips back and forth across the surface of the page between Arbus’ image and Engle’s text. Leguillon’s introduction of an image sliding between times, across surfaces, and circulating materially prepares one for what awaits on De Hallen’s lower level.

Titled The American Dream, the exhibition of assemblages and silkscreens by Cady Noland surveyed her practice from 1989 until 1995, the date of her last solo presentation in The Netherlands at Rotterdam’s Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum. Unlike the other freestanding sculptures by Noland that line the perimeter of De Hallen’s expansive ground-floor gallery, one silkscreen on aluminum leans scrappily against the wall. Here, the group portrait she has appropriated somehow proffers a less confrontational gaze through the materiality of its mottled surface festooned with bodies folded and faded. Here, the Symbionese Liberation Army poses in solidarity for a photo that only circulated in the press posthumously, found amongst the charred remains of their safehouse after a barrage of bullets from the L.A.P.D. and a fire took the lives of six of its members. While Noland has produced a series of works derived from the exact same photo to painting, S.L.A. Group Shot #3 (1990) turns them on their head. With the image inverted, the symbol of the seven-headed cobra on the flag behind them no longer strikes out into the world beyond. Rather, the multiple heads can be read as roots: originating from disparate histories the members are routed into a single stream, the S.L.A. channelled into a frame that becomes unfixed in the hands of Noland.

In Not Yet Titled (Bald Manson Girls Sit-in Demonstration) (1993-94) Noland appropriates both image and text — a wire photo capturing four of the young women from the Manson family kneeling on a sidewalk, preceded by a caption. With the image blown up, the four young women are larger than life — and so is the text that hangs above them. The header informs us they are Cathy Gillis, Kitty Lutesing, Sandy Goode and Brenda McCann, keeping a vigil outside the Los Angeles Hall of Justice during the trial and sentencing of Charles Manson and his followers. Throughout the caption, the alignment of the typewritten text falls unevenly, written in haste to meet a deadline and disseminated for the next newsday. Charles is underlined and Manson is circlect. This article has been archived, a placeholder made for future reference. This image is ours, but here it is Noland’s — appropriated from an archive or plucked from a library.

In 1957, two years after Edward Steichen’s image to painting debuted at the Dolphin Gallery and situated the life cycles captured by photojournalism within the institution of fine art, Roland Barthes suggested ” … to reproduce death or birth tells us, literally, nothing. For these natural facts to gain access to a true language, they must be inserted into a category of knowledge which means postulating that one can transform them.” For Leguillon and Noland, to reproduce the image is picture to painting— one that is transformed by way of a continuous return.


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