Expressive Erasure

06/20/2012 4:00 AM |

Justin Berry, Fissure and Fracture Installation View Courtesy Interstate Projects

Over the past several years, we’ve seen an enormous amount of art made in the erased appropriated image genre. Artists like Paul Pfieffer, Cory Arcangel and even Dan Colen tackled the subject, and thanks to the ubiquity of digital images and cheap software we’re likely to see a lot more.

Justin Berry’s show Fissure and Facture at Interstate Projects is just one recent example, and is worthy of discussion in this context for its uneven success. When this show fails, it tells us something about the pitfalls of the genre, and when it succeeds it tells us why artists are drawn to it in the first place.

“Brook,” the largest of the six digitally manipulated prints, commands the most attention. It’s a people-sized scan of a book cover picturing a large moon rising behind three tall trees above a creek. The title text has been removed so seamlessly that while a viewer will understand immediately that it’s a book, she might not realize the text is gone. I found myself studying the book’s edges in the same way I’ve found myself looking at a man’s glasses because he’s shaved his beard. I recognized something had changed, but I wasn’t sure what.

Holding the viewer’s attention is an achievement, but Berry doesn’t capitalize on it. I marveled at the beauty of the default background color the scanner chose, I drew a connection between Barnett Newman’s “Zip” paintings and the thin blue line created by the book’s spine, but I didn’t learn anything from the picture. If there was something implicitly valuable about the cover art of a sci-fi romance novel, it wasn’t communicated.

Failing to communicate is atypical in this genre; more often the artists don’t have anything to say. I’m thinking specifically of Laura Carton’s porn locations minus the porn, or Josh Azzarella’s Abu Ghraib soldiers minus the hostages, each of which use a combination of pre-existing narrative and Photoshop skills in place of actual ideas.

Pre-existing narrative turns viewing the images into detective work—where’s the condom, the bloodstain, the prisoner’s shadow?—and while Berry doesn’t have this problem, he substitutes something very close: scour his set of four black-and-white landscape photographs, and you’ll eventually find soldiers hiding behind the rocks. It turns out they’re all screenshots from war video games. Berry wants to make the viewer think about the veracity of images, but instead, transforms the viewing experience into a game of Where’s Waldo?

The most successful of Berry’s landscapes evokes a nostalgic romanticism that seems at odds with the darker source material. This quality is strongest in “Purple Dust,” a sepia-toned screen capture of a lone tree at the top of a hill, which at once looks like a war-torn patch of land and a gentler space for calm and reflection. A small puff of smoke in the right hand corner looks like it might be a flaw in the development process, but is actually a bit of debris thrown up by a bomb.

We see some of that tension in the two book covers in the back room as well, each of which shows a shoreline of some sort: is that pink beach a great getaway or a poisonous atmosphere? While I worry that the simplicity of the images has Berry’s work fall a little flat, the best of it adeptly skirts the narrative so many of his contemporaries employ, while creating a palpable sense of unease.