Beyond the Self
M+B Art Exhibition Catalog
Los Angeles, CA
Sometimes, things do not so much fall into place effortlessly, like the languid hand of a dreamer might come to rest on a waiting pillow, but rather rise up and insist on their place within a moment in time. Ellen Carey’s work came to my attention like that—insistently—as if it could not abide being missed.
A year ago, I took part in an exhibition at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut. I attended the opening, and briefly talked with Ellen, whose studio is in the same building as the exhibition space. But as is commonplace with opening chit-chat, my encounter was quickly churned under by the fast flow of the evening. The next morning, however, I awoke in a friend’s cabin in Vermont, and snatched up an old copy of ARTFORUM to sit down with over my coffee. Miraculously, on the first page I turned to was a review of Carey’s marvelous Polaroid Pulls, complete with a small illustration. As you might imagine, her work now had my full attention.
Of course, even this little instance of synchronicity might have passed without much notice, had it not been immediately clear that Carey’s abstract Polaroids were unacknowledged precursors to the work of a young generation of photographers that I count myself among. Our project, if it can be so programmatically described, is one that aims to expand photography’s territory by commingling it with aspects of other media, principally painting and sculpture. In my estimation, this shift in photographic practice took place principally in reaction to both the dematerialization of the photograph as a result of the rise of digital media, and to the image environment that said media have created, in which it seems as if every possible photograph has already been made, and archived online. Carey’s Pulls, which engage with the materials of photography in a supremely painterly manner, fit our loosely defined program perfectly, and resonate directly with the work of younger artists like Mariah Robertson, whose abstract works made with washes of chemistry applied directly to photographic paper are perhaps the closest relatives of Carey’s work with Polaroid film. That Carey’s work arose as an anomaly among her peers who formed the backbone of what has become known as the Pictures Generation, whose work reacted in a wholly different manner to the echo chamber of images that defined the 1980s and presaged our own world of digital image overload, made her work seem all the more prescient.
As I got to know Carey and her work more, the instance of a causal connection that brought her work to my attention began to seem increasingly fitting. After all, since her earliest self-portrait work that she made while studying at the State University of New York at Buffalo alongside Pictures Generation luminaries like Cindy Sherman (with whom Carey staged one of her first exhibitions), Carey has been concerned with the hidden structures that lie just below the surface of reality, and help to give it shape.
This interest in the metaphysical, the unseen, and the just-out-of-reach, was the point of intellectual departure that drove her away from the concerns of her peers, and ultimately towards photographic abstraction.
Her intersection with Sherman early on in her career is particularly telling in this regard. Sherman, in her Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), famously created self-portraits in which she adopted various female personae promulgated by Hollywood films, as both a critique of these cookie-cutter constructs, and a simultaneous acknowledgment that the imaginary worlds passed down to us by image makers have a way of reshaping reality itself. By contrast, Carey’s nearly contemporaneous self-portraits made with the Polaroid 20 X 24 camera from 1984 to 1987 feature Carey’s likeness overlaid with wild psychedelic patterns, and figures from mathematics—fractals, Pythagorean golden means, sacred geometry— that describe a hidden order within nature, or point to transcendent realms. Though these two bodies of work both take the self as a starting point for image making, they radically diverge in their conception of both the world of images, and the nature of the self.
In his book The Philosophies of Asia (1973), Alan Watts describes the Hindu model of the universe as one in which God is “the actor of the world as an actor of a stage play—the actor who is playing all the parts at once.” The self in Hindu philosophy, in other words, is conceived of as mask that hides God behind it. This is a concept that resonates across cultures and religions, and has even come to infiltrate our own language. Watts notes in the context of this explanation of Hindu theology that the English word “person” is derived from the Latin “persona,” or “that through which comes sound,” a word that was originally used to describe the masks worn by Greco-Roman actors performing in the theater. In the middle of the twentieth century, this concept of the self as a kind of mask that hides something essential underneath was briefly decoupled from theology and metaphysics, and was integrated into the fields of psychology and sociology, principally through the work of Carl Gustav Jung and Erving Goffman, respectively. It was through these channels that the idea of the “persona” entered popular consciousness, where it persists even now as shorthand for the public-facing identity that exists in opposition to our private, “true” selves. In the 1960s and 70s, however, the idea that this public-facing scrim of the self obscured profound and possibly scared depths behind it was briefly reinvigorated by psychedelic chemical catalysts like LSD and psilocybin, which intimated a possible merger between science and spirituality.
Carey’s early self-portraits spring directly from this psychedelic mindset, and the science and mathematics of quantum physics, chaos theory, and fractal geometry, with which it has significant overlap. It is a mindset whose model of the self posits that behind our everyday masks lies something far greater than ourselves, which, if it cannot be called “God” in a sense that would be popularly understood, is at the very least an unimaginably rich set of ordering principals whose origin and purpose may remain forever mysterious. Within this mindset, images act as portals to realities beyond our everyday perception, whose power is activated by the force of our imagination. This image model is one that is as old as art itself, but it is one that is particularly well suited for photography—and manipulated photography in particular—as the medium has the unique ability to faithfully represent reality and render it strange simultaneously.
Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, by contrast, are associated with a mindset that arose almost simultaneously alongside the work itself, a brand of postmodernism with a Baudrillardian bent that posited the self to be something depthless, a link in a concatenating series of images. The self here is all mask, concealing nothing, a simulacrum. Similarly, images were conceived of as portals to nothing but other images, stretching to infinity.
These two divergent responses to the image worlds conjured into being by the mass media in the 1970s and 80s, have determined the courses of both Sherman and Carey’s subsequent careers. Sherman, for her part, has pushed the implications of the depthless conception of the self and the pernicious superficiality of images to ever-darker depths. In her Society Portraits (2008), for example, the wealthy grande dames that Sherman masquerades as appear to be trapped behind the tony facades that they have constructed, victims of the mores of a social strata that is deeply devoted to the ritual of seeing and being seen. Carey, for her part, moved ever deeper into the realms of the immaterial, creating photograms that recall magnified views of pullulating microscopic life or the whiz-bang world of subatomic particles, and her majestic Polaroid works in which otherworldly abstractions are produced through the alchemy of light and chemistry.
Sherman and her Pictures Generation cohort’s response to the explosive growth of the mass media in their time was directly in line with the intellectual fashion of their day, but Carey has had to wait for a time when the world would come around to her. The parallels between Carey’s experiments with abstraction and the work currently gaining prominence in photography would certainly suggest that this time is now. But though the formal overlaps between Carey’s current practice and that of artists many years her junior are undeniable, much of these young artists’ works have been interpreted as a refashioning of the formals concerns of Greenbergian Modernism through photographic means due to their self-reflexive engagement with the raw materials of photography itself. In light of her early self-portraits, however, it would seem that this kind of formal exercise is not at the root of Carey’s concerns. This poses a provocative question: though Carey’s work may be timely in form, might its timeliness intimate a renewed pull of the mysterious and metaphysical realms that have never fallen out of fashion with artists, but have been relegated to theory’s dustbin? I can only hope so.
Chris Wiley is an artist and writer. His writing has appeared in numerous exhibition catalogs and magazines including Kaleidoscope, Mousse, and Frieze, where he is a contributing editor. He has previously worked in a curatorial capacity on a variety of exhibitions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and was an assistant curator on the 8th Gwangju Biennial in 2010, as well as a curatorial advisor and chief catalog writer for the 55th Venice Biennale. Most recently, he curated the show “Part Picture” at MoCCA Toronto, as a part of the CONTACT Photography Festival. His work has recently appeared in exhibitions at MoMA PS1, Hauser and Wirth, Marianne Boesky, and The Central Utah Art Center.