The photographs, films, and collages of Elad Lassry are warm and direct, generic, clean, and above all open to interpretation. The Los Angeles-based artist exhibits his works un-specifically, and often without differentiating by media; he’ll even match the frame to a prevailing color in the image to create a happy retro-period uniformity, and to stress the unity of the image and the sculpture-like container. They are the works, reported elsewhere, of an artist who works from 9 AM to 5 PM by completing archival research in Life Magazines. But banality is not the question; while working in historicized genres, primarily landscape and portraiture, Lassry’s jewel-like photos are so perfectly out of step as to yield consideration of their fragile context. Using multiple exposures to blur a portrait of a generic student (Felicia, 2008), Lassry causes both subject and media to embody the desire and embarrassment of creating an image. We spoke to the artist on the occasion of his first solo show at David Kordansky Gallery about the absurd persistence of pictures.
LEFT: PHILIP PRUITT, 2009.COURTESY DAVID KORDANSKY GALLERY.
GARTENFELD: When you complete a gallery exhibition of this type, do you enter it as a specific body of work, or is this a collection of works that pre-existed the show?
LASSRY: I think of it as a body of work. There is a thesis that the work deals with and that inevitably invites the installation to fall apart. While each image is made as part of a larger set, they are produced without a preexisting context in mind. The qualities of the individual photographs that interest me speak to their abilities to exist in multiple contexts.
GARTENFELD: So how does that re-contextualization take place?
LASSRY: I believe in an orphaning that can occur for the image. This makes me think of the recent showing of my films at the Whitney Museum earlier this year. Having three of my films in one space emphasized a different set of questions. Instead of narrative possibilities at play when the photographs are exhibited together with the films, this exhibition focused on issues of opticality and filmic modes of representation.
GARTENFELD: Here you have displayed both photos and films seamlessly, the only difference being that the film work wasn’t framed. How do you differentiate that material, if at all?
LASSRY: I don’t differentiate, but I’m conscious of the histories particular to each medium. A lot of my work that purposely ignores those differences. There is an impulse in my work to negate theorizations of film that are engaged with the cinematic, and instead return to Lumiere-like moments: What does it mean perceptually that the picture is moving; what does that movement mean particularly in the context of my exhibition; and how can the pictures be surrogates for the film, and vice-versa?
GARTENFELD: You referred just a minute ago to the photos as orphans. What is the parentage you refer to? Is it source material? And is there a sense of loss then?
LASSRY: I meant “orphaning” in regard to the images’ lacking any one address or source. I’m part of a generation invested in a critical discussion of the digital mobility of images. But I believe that a photograph-and physical pictures, generally-have an inherent tendency to be mobile. I am not interested in an image’s nostalgic quality, or in returning to an investigation of the photographic medium. I am actually interested in a utilitarian aspect that allows me to make photographs and use existing images interchangeably.
GARTENFELD: So another question of difference-do you use digital or manual photographs have different utilitarian aspects?
LASSRY: It is a question of the nature of an image-and whether it travels in someone’s wallet or is sent in an email, it accumulates information, which is a quality often associated technology. I’m thinking about the materiality of the picture as an object…
SKUNK, 2009. COURTESY OF DAVID KORDANSKY GALLERY
GARTENFELD: Your photographs are aggressive in their level of address, whether it be specifically in the gaze of a portrait, or in striking coloring.
LASSRY: Perhaps there is something absurd about a notion of singularity in my work. I work with ubiquitous pictures, exhausted images to some extent, and these aspire to objecthood.
GARTENFELD: So where does singularity come from, and where does the absurdity begin? Is it in the gesture of your selecting an image?
LASSRY: It starts with the questions, “What is a picture of something? What is a good portrait?” Practicing photography as a teenager, the idea of taking a good portrait was a strong passion of mine. In a lot of my more recent photographs, whether it is a portrait of an animal or a human, there is a fascination around the eye of the subject.
GARTENFELD: It seems as if the sitters’ gaze structure the relationship between the viewer and a photograph in the context you set up.
LASSRY: I’m very removed from that history, personally.
GARTENFELD: Do those gazes for you set up a power relationship between the image and the viewer?
LASSRY: It is tricky. While I don’t isolate this loaded concept of the gaze in my practice, these issues are to some degree inevitable. Often this aspect lies idle and dormant in my work.
GARTENFELD: In the current show, your Philip Pruitt portrait has many typical elements of your portraiture—the very direct gaze, the very isolated form. Here because of the flat backdrop, he also seems to sit in a vitrine.
LASSRY: I often attempt to de-stabilize the relationship between foreground and background. In this case, the flowers stand out, and there is a question of whether the background is as crucial as the subject.
GARTENFELD: In this case, does that come with any specific reference to the relationship with your sitter?
LASSRY: It is more of a photographic question. Philip had so many headshots that he had brought with him before the shoot. I wanted to work out the idea of making another headshot.
GARTENFELD: So is he an actor?
LASSRY: Yes. A lot of the people I photograph are people who want to be photographed- performers of some sort, actors…
GARTENFELD: Do you think of your subject then as matching a desire to be imaged with a desire to make images?
LASSRY: Yeah, definitely. And this also relates to what I mentioned earlier about exhausted images. There is something about reaching abstraction through the subject that is very important to me, as opposed to resorting to concretion or a notion that is purely formal. This relates to how an image can become so exhausted and mute that it almost arrives at abstraction.
GARTENFELD: So what are the sources of that muting? Is that a measure of over-saturation?
LASSRY: It is a question of ubiquity. The subject arrived at the studio with many headshots that were similar to one another. Which of these made for a better picture?
GARTENFELD: In that respect, your skunk image is a funny one, though by no means particular.
LASSRY: How so?
GARTENFELD: It has such a quietness, but central composition—which is quite grand for a small picture of a skunk. He’s also in a wooden frame, which is humorously referential. If you’re working with genres, you’re also facing their disctribution in non-art contexts, and playing with kitsch. So often you photograph cats. Isn’t your presentation of a skunk even a step further, because it’s such a banal moment, matched by its saloon-style frame?
LASSRY: I really dispute that. Why do we think that cat photography is kitsch? I think a photograph of a cat can be very dark.
GARTENFELD: But wouldn’t you agree the genre stands as a cultural convention of kitsch? Do you think of yourself as by-passing the genre?
LASSRY: I am actually interested in considering the cat as a subject. Of course I am very aware that there is the tension of referencing a Hallmark quality in any photograph that includes a cat. However, settling on this assumption ignores a long tradition of other types of image making.
GARTENFELD: But when your sitters bring a headshot, you seem to differentiate your own photographs from those. Because they’re probably black and white, cheaply lit, and poorly composed, and they’re wearing gel in their hair. Yours stylistically work in that format, but do not accede to it.
LASSRY: Maybe I don’t allow myself to think of something as kitsch. Perhaps, in the context of my practice there is the possibility to avoid being limited by this notion of kitsch. Instead, there is the opportunity to reconsider the persistence of pictures of this variety.
Work by Elad Lassry is on view through October 24. David Kordansky Gallery is located at 3143 S. La Cienega Blvd, Unit A, Los Angeles.