Richard Misrach, Playboy #97 (Marlboro Country), 1990, chromogenic print, 20 x 25 in., Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Gift of the artist in honor of Barbara Tannenbaum 2010.53
While perusing the collections of at the Akron Art Museum, curator Elizabeth Carney came across an Aaron Siskind photograph taken in Chicago in 1957. It was a photograph of a wall so closely cropped that the wall became the entire context for the shot. In this image, pieces of paper were cracked and peeling away. There’s no sense of scale whatsoever, and it’s impossible to know much of anything beyond the formal properties of the photograph itself.
This image intrigued Carney, and stayed in her mind as she looked at other works in the collection. When she came across a Richard Misrach photograph of a copy of Playboy found in the Nevada desert, a connection began to form. Carney observes, “The women on the cover were being used as target practice—a metaphor for violence in American culture.” The bullet holes ripped through the entire magazine, rendering every image subject to the same destruction in different ways, and it is here that Carney finds the common thread connecting these works.
Paper: the very substance upon which the photographic print resides, is one of the most common materials in modern culture, particularly throughout the twentieth-century when it was the cheapest, quickest medium to deliver image and text on a mass scale. To further offset the cost of doing business, pulp paper was manufactured, creating a distinctive blend cellulose fibers from of wood, fiber crops, or waste paper. It quickly became one of the most abundant raw materials worldwide.
With the ability to mass produce printed materials, pulp novels, newspapers, magazines, posters, flyers, and other ephemera became the go-to for producers of consumer culture. Pulp soon took on the air of disposability, being seen as a medium for here today, gone tomorrow content. With this in mind, Carney began to curate an exhibition of photographs that explore the way in which pulp became an integral part of our everyday environment.
Pulp, now on view at the Akron Art Museum, Ohio, through July 31, 2016, features photographs that reposition the aesthetic value of paper ephemera in abstract compositions, conceptual investigations and cultural critiques. Carney observes, “One of my central interests as a curator is in the actual art object, especially the photograph. We have a tendency to see an image outside of the physical art object and to perceive it different when we are removed from it.”
To further reinforce the idea of the object nature of pulp, Carney selected photojournalist Esther Bubley’s Newsstand, an image of 1940s New York City street life, which frames an array of magazines as a rhythmic graphic display. This image recalls the iconic image of “pulp” as best exemplified by the era when it flourished, informing public consciousness. This image helps to drive home Marshall McLuhan’s famous observation: “The medium is the message” and reminding us of the symbiotic relationship between intellectual content and physical context.
Simultaneously chaotic and orderly, the composition is punctuated by fragments of publication titles such as “CRIMINALS,” “LAWBREAKERS,” “WITNESS,” and “CRIME FIGHTERS,” which are largely focused on criminal activity and attempts to control it—all of which have been processed and packaged for public consumption. Cheap and sensational, they became a source of instant gratification that demanded a large supply be stocked to keep appetites whet.
Carney spent a year conceptualizing and executing the exhibition, looking at pulp in various aspects, and he ways in which photographers engaged with the medium. She selected a Harry Callahan photograph, “Peeling paint and paper,” c. 1977. Like his colleague Aaron Siskind, Callahan trained his lens on the wall. To create this sumptuously colored image, Callahan used a double exposure, one of his favorite techniques. It appears that Callahan photographed peeling paint and paper, then rotated his camera 180 degrees and exposed the film a second time, layering the two images together in the same negative.
These and other artworks in Pulp recontextualize the way in which we look at paper and think about it as a part of our environment. Paper can be a medium or it can be a metaphor. It can be something cheap and disposable, or in the case of the photographs themselves, it can be something infinitely valuable. With Pulp, we are invited to consider the ways in which paper has been used as a tool, and to realize its transformative nature when artists reframe the way in which we look at the world.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.