Perpetually building something up via one technique only to transpose it to another, New York-based artist Erin Shirreff’s photographs, videos, and sculptures exploit the interval between mediums as a means of destabilizing conventional ways of seeing an object or image. Meticulous hand-carved objects of porcelain and clay hover before black backdrops to mimic evidentiary samplings of bone fragments, fossils, or museological artifacts in an ongoing series of black and white photos; singular, often appropriated images of iconic landmarks are assiduously re-photographed into atmospheric videos; and a series of untitled ash and plaster sculptures are propped up reticently against the wall, geometric folding forms that disallow a privileged vantage point while also recalling both cast and mold. In short, Shirreff embraces what art historian Pamela Lee has termed “the middle condition” in a restive practice that argues for an engagement with medium as a mode “always already in between” rather than a determination or parameter based primarily on material properties or spatial considerations.(1)
Insistent upon a temporal register in her engagement with medium, Shirreff’s emphasis is upon the duration and rhythm of recognition rather than the apprehension of a finite or representative object in her work. A new photo series, “Signature,” 2010, for example, achieves a syncopated effect precisely in its mis-registration; analog views of sculptural models crafted in the artist’s studio are edited into halves and then pieced together to create ‘whole’ compositions. Playing off the conceit of images bound together in the same signature of a book, partial views are extracted from an implied sequence and spliced together, lending each resulting diptych an out of step yet intimately linked appearance. The shape of each form is never fully revealed though the viewer is nevertheless propelled toward a perambulatory imagining of its contour. Indeed, the rupture of the image—both in terms of a literal crease and its depiction of time unfolding—is one of compressed movement, insinuating a contemplative desire to take in the object depicted even as it is riven and withheld from view.
Reminiscent of both Minimalist sculpture and archaic monoliths, the austere anonymity of the severed “Signature” forms—set upon a white ground and shot under stark lighting—elicits an anachronistic, even cultic reading of the object despite the obvious artifice involved, lending the images an outside of time quality. A similar effect is achieved in Shirreff’s photographs of small-scale sculptures modeled after teeth, knives, prehistoric tools, and archeological fragments. Collapsing the dual ontologies that predominate in the histories of photographing objects, namely, that of studio stagecraft versus an indexical or documentary record, Shirreff’s enlarged images assume the archival look of a desiccated taxonomy while also borrowing tactics from the seductive sheen of product photography. Brought up to a scale that reveals their status as fictional artifacts—the imprint of fingers is often visible—Shirreff’s mode of display is one of fissure, conflating the remoteness of the remnant with the immediacy of the copy or imitation in order to construct an internal dissociation of the time of the work. As such, Shirreff’s serial variations produce a remaindered formal vocabulary that exists somewhere between replica and relic, evoking parts of a missing whole or once useful function but always through the remove of a highly mediated image.
To briefly extend Lee’s calibration of medium toward a conditional status, “medium foregrounds a liminal stance at its heart, is a vehicle of communication rather than the fact of communication itself… And in this sense medium always internalizes a singular engagement with time. For the act of mediation is a process, and the process (because in the middle of things) is necessarily partial.”(2) Both passive and mesmeric, just such a liminal incommensurability takes over in Shirreff’s deliberate and partial (even parceled) approach, shifting what appears to be legible and staid back into the phenomenological realm of temporal contingency. The compressed movement around a static monument-like model in the “Signature” series contrasts in scale and implied motion with the mimetic variation of Shirreff’s diminutive reliquary, underscoring again the readily mutable nature of the photographic image but also the artist’s attraction toward and dissembling response to such freighted art historical tropes as artifact, landscape, model, and monument.
Far from placing “kinesthetic demands” on the viewer, to use Robert Morris’ oft-quoted phrase regarding Minimalist sculpture, including an “awareness of scale (that) is a function of the comparison between the constant, one’s body size, and the object,”(3) Shirreff invokes a durational condition within her images that is, to reiterate, a dissociation of the time of the work. Telescoping between scales, in fact, it is rather the insistence on a schism or lapse in time that remains constant across all of her work and demands the viewer to slow down. Take for instance her recent videos, Ansel Adams, RCA Building, circa 1940, 2009, and Roden Crater, 2009, wherein Shirreff puts still images in motion by taking hundreds of photographs of a singe image under subtly changing light conditions; edited together into large-scale HD video projections, a time-lapse effect of suggestive detail and presence results in her overlaying simple effects of natural phenomena onto the still image.
Roden Crater, for example, proffers an appropriated view of the infamous crater silhouetted into two slopes on a desert horizon, one serried before the other, the lower slope a dark grey and the upper ridge of the crater sienna red. Only the work’s title suggests the elaborate engineering that inhabits the actual site, referring as it does to James Turrell’s massive and ongoing earthwork within the crater’s basin, while Shirreff’s portrait, in a manner not unlike Robert Smithson’s mirror displacements, conveys the melancholy of a timeless geological indifference through highly artificial yet hypnotic insertions. Here, Shirreff induces the sun’s slow rise over a desert ridge and its gradual ascent to midday blindness before a sepia-like descent into anonymous darkness; encapsulating the impression of a day spent in observation but also hallucination before such a desolate landscape, the fifteen-minute loop includes a closing sequence that reveals increasingly the glare of the camera’s repeated flash upon the found image. Pulled from the mesmerizing spell of animation, the reflective sheen of the camera flash takes on the stop-motion impression of the sun itself moving overhead. The repeated flare of the apparatus undoes any illusion of viewing actual on-site footage and returns an acute awareness of the ‘vehicle of communication’ itself—the mediated image. Similarly, the receding vertigo of an Ansel Adams photograph is elongated by the impression of overcast shadows and striated rainsqualls moving across the image of a Manhattan skyscraper (today the RCA building is known as 30 Rockefeller Plaza); tilted away from the viewer’s perspective, the building appears like a grand cutout ready to topple backwards as the atmospheric gloom of a blustery day scrolls intermittently from left to right. De-authored from either the celestial and spiritual connotations of Turrell’s project or the poise of Ansel Adams’s compositional edicts, the still image is nevertheless saturated with gradation and increment as Shirreff’s light treatment re-invests the facsimile with auratic depth.
Adopting a similar approach, UN 2010, 2010, takes up the iconic status of the United Nations Secretariat building as rendered and reanimated by Shirreff from across the East River in Long Island City. The portrait gains its strength from distance and remove, the emphasis being the blank regard of the structure’s sheer face, rather than its obvious political import or architectural significance (it was designed by Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer and is considered the first example of International Style architecture in New York). Framed precisely front and center by the artist—a departure in that Shirreff composed the re-photographed sequence using three images she herself had taken—the building’s two-dimensional flatness is greatly enhanced; the diminutive General Assembly Hall and the United Nations visitor’s center lie before the looming presence of the Secretariat as the rest of the Manhattan skyline unfolds into three-dimensional cacophony and seeming irrelevance on both sides. Occupied instead by the silent effrontery of a monolith, day passes into night and the still image endures its displacement back into time.
(1) Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, MIT Press, 2004, p.51-52
(3) Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2”, Continuous Projected Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, MIT Press, 1993, p.13