In 2000, Sarah Charlesworth went to see tests of her newest work at Laumont Photographics, a lab in New York used by many artists to print their photographs. She was brought to a neutrally lighted room, where artists’ work hung on a wall, and that was when she saw it: a lime-green monochrome. “WOW!” Charlesworth recalled thinking, in a 2011 essay. She realized what a brilliant color the photograph was, and then noticed that it was a picture of a green screen—a surface that can be replaced with computer-generated images through digital technology. That photograph, as it turned out, was the work of a young artist named Liz Deschenes.
Now the subject of a mid-career survey at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Deschenes’s photographs are the kind that require viewers to stop, stare, and think. Her contribution to photography, for the past 20 years, has been to open up the processes behind it without explicitly showing a camera, and often without even creating a figural image. By doing so, she asks a very basic question with lots of difficult answers: What is a photograph?
“Photography has always been a hybrid,” Deschenes told me this summer. “I’m really defiant about the idea that photography is this or that. Black-and-white, color—I’m not interested in that. Narrative, non-narrative—those are ways of oversimplifying the discipline, so that you can just dismiss it. If you put something in a category, then you don’t have to think about it anymore.”
When I visited Deschenes at her Bushwick studio, she walked me over to a Foamcore model of what the entire ICA show would look like. She was adamant that it wouldn’t be a chronological exhibition. “It’s not intended as an all-comprehensive survey,” she said, noting that this would be the first time her work was shown in Boston, her hometown. “To a certain degree, nobody’s been that interested in showing the work in Boston. . . . I guess what I’m trying to say is, you never know, as an artist, how the work is going to be received, and that’s not necessarily where I’m going to put energy.”
Deschenes is a detail-oriented artist, so when she spoke about putting together the ICA show, she noted its color temperatures and square footage—the technical stuff curators don’t even talk about in interviews. When she talks about her work, she will go on about the chemicals and mediums used to create each work, along with the specific photographers, architects, and scholars she’s referring to. Ordinary viewers may not pick up on some of these points (even many experts may not), but Deschenes but told me that “the work is potentially more generous on many levels than many people’s practices are…I set up the conditions. People can either participate or not.”
As an undergraduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Deschenes originally thought she wanted to be a painter. Then she changed her mind and turned her attention toward architecture. Then, just before she had to declare her major, she became a photo student. “I was like, ‘This photo thing, I don’t know anything about it.’ And what is one’s education about but to learn?”
Deschenes went to school during the late 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic and just before the rise of identity politics in art. Politics seep into Deschenes’s work in unexpected ways, according to Eva Respini, the director of the ICA, who organized the survey. “I think there’s a defiance in her work—defying the conventions of photography, defying the conventional history and understanding of it,” Respini said. “That, to me, is actually a political act, and I think it comes through in my conversations her—this idea of being a feminist, of being queer; this idea of defiantly doing something outside what’s been perceived as the norm, and doing it on a scale that is very solidly present in the gallery. To me, that goes back to identity.”
The earliest works in the ICA show are Deschenes’s dye transfer works, a series of squarish, extraordinarily colored monochromes in shades of green, yellow, red, and brown. “If you wanted to mask something, if you wanted to get rid of something pre-Photoshop, you had to use dye transfer,” Deschenes said. Through a three-color separation process, brilliant hues are achieved. Kodak discontinued the process in 1994, so Deschenes would have a lot of trouble if she wanted to do these works again. “They’re as analog as Technicolor,” she added.
A logical reference point for these works would be Minimalism—their colors are as rich as Dan Flavin’s light works, their form as simple as Donald Judd’s stack sculptures—but before I could even finish suggesting that, Deschene cut me off. “No, not at all!” she exclaimed. “I’m not interested [in Minimalism] per se. Donald Judd is amazing, but that’s not what I’m thinking about when I’m making work. I can talk about a few artists, like Anne Truitt, Roni Horn, Felix Gonzalez-Torres. It’s the hand that I’m interested in.” (In two shows currently on view in New York, one on view at Paula Cooper Gallery, the other at Miguel Abreu Gallery, Deschenes’s work is paired with the photographic works of another Minimalist, Sol LeWitt, and it’s clear just how different their practices are.) “You literally see my hand in the work as well,” she continued. “And even when I’m not making the work, like the dyes, I’m pretty involved with the processes, even if I’m not the person who made the work.”
Following the dye transfer works, Deschenes produced her “Green Screen Process” pieces. “When I made those back in 2001, there was not a lot of interest in that work,” she said. But they are now having a moment. One recently hung alongside pieces by Hito Steyerl and Antoine Catala at the Whitney Museum, and the collective DIS did a photoshoot with Green Screen #4 (2001), an elongated version of these works that could function like a backdrop. Deschenes insists that she never thinks of these works as being about the digital, but in a time when photographs are quickly changing, thanks to Photoshop and smartphone cameras, these pieces feel more contemporary than ever.
Though photographic technology has become remarkably sophisticated, there are still some effects that the most advanced cameras can’t avoid. One is moiré, the wavy-looking effect that certain cross-hatched patterns create in photographic images. Deschenes was intrigued by this effect, so she decided to create a series about it. “I took the idea of moiré and photographed a mesh paper at an art-supply store in Paris,” she said. She shot the paper with light behind it, created two black-and-white negatives, and enlarged them. “All you have to do is go like this”—she put her hands together and twisted them slightly in opposite directions—“and it changes.”
Like Bridget Riley’s paintings, the resulting “Moiré” works are hard to look at after a while. Because of the way eyes work, these large photographs appear to be moving. “Photography is supposed to be static,” Deschenes said. “These prints have the illusion of movement through viewing. It’s a way of talking about mis-registrations and photography.”
Since the “Moiré” works, Deschenes has largely made photograms, a type of camera-less photography pioneered by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray. These long-exposure works are made by soaking photo paper in chemicals and allowing them to oxidize. As time passes, these works absorb phenomena—light, shadows, the presences of viewers—beyond Deschenes’s control. The photograms are, in their own elusive way, about how photography is not just what happens inside the camera, but also what goes on outside it.
In a few cases, this has meant creating exhibitions that respond to their gallery settings. For a show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis that lasted about 11 months, Deschenes staged an installation called Gallery 7 (2014–15), for which she removed all of the gallery’s temporary architecture and set up a series of photograms. As usual, the project overflowed with reference points. For one, it was a subtle homage to Lucy Lippard’s exhibition of Conceptual art by women artists, “c. 7500,” which appeared at the Walker in 1973. (The rectangular format of the photograms recalls the catalogue for Lippard’s show, which was printed on loose index cards.) Between November 2014 and October 2015, the Gallery 7 photograms turned different colors. In some photographs of the show, they appear grey against a sunny landscape; in others, their cool shades of blue contrast with starkly white snow falling outside the gallery. As the seasons changed, so too did Deschenes’s work. “Everything changes over time,” Deschenes said. “It’s just more apparent in my work.”