"I wish only to indicate…that, as the language or vocabulary of photography has been extended, the emphasis of meaning has shifted-shifted from what the world looks like to what we feel about the world and what we want the world to mean."
- Aaron Siskind
Photography has lately become an unstable term, a fluid category that describes a wide variety of practices between pure image (infinitely reproducible and untethered from its role as an index to the real world of things) and pure material (monoprints made without camera or negative). In Sheree Hovsepian's work the collapse of photography as a categorical definition is not a crisis, but a binding of the eye and the body - of likeness (what the world looks like) to sensation (what we feel about the world).
There are several distinct yet interrelated aspects of Hovsepian's practice: the positive, color negative worked on in multiple exposures; the black and white photogram; and the cast bronzes fabricated from pieced-together wax. Each of these series has a physical, performative element linked to direct action or what Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment," the simultaneous recognition of an event and the precise organization of its forms.
The photograms begin as shapes that Hovsepian cuts quickly from large sheets of construction paper that are then used to mask areas of light-sensitive paper during exposure to artificial light. Fox Talbot (1800-1877) called the unique photogram, which cannot be reprinted, "photogenic drawing," but rather than using it to mechanically perfect the eye, Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) developed it as a means to explore light itself as a plastic medium, "painting-with-light." Hovsepian's "Domes" respond to this aspect of the technique, registering light passing through a swift, arcing incision that she makes with the full length of her arm. The immediacy of her movements builds an intentional link to gestural abstraction and the title of the series, "Haptic Wonders," further emphasizes the importance of touch and the body to the process and scale of the work.
The largest prints in this grouping are subject to the limits of the artist's reach and the endurance of the medium. At this size, the paper buckles in the darkroom and resists flattening. These are some of the small visual clues that we are looking at a photograph rather than a drawing. The thin, animated curves and monolithic apertures are made first by Hovsepian's blade, but we are aware from the quality of the line and the blurred edges that this is an afterimage, an interpretation of the artist's spontaneous movements in the studio.
Hovsepian's austere appropriation of a gesture more commonly associated with abstract painting brings with it an acute awareness of time and the contingency of experience. As a medium, photography is often awarded a privileged relation to time, especially to the past tense: memory, history and death. Hovsepian's gestures, on the other hand, invoke a continuous present. Photography such as this, constantly under negotiation, finds affiliation and affinity with other forms of mark-making.
In contrast, Hovsepian's "Sleight of Hand" series may seem to rely on a relatively rigid set of rules. Hovsepian photographs an object against the studio wall, and then moves it between exposures, creating a graduated final image of increasing color saturation. But the subject here, like the "Haptic Wonders," is the effect of light and time in space, a "light-chronology." Although these two modes of her practice have a minimal, bare quality, her abstractions are utilitarian rather than pious. Setting aside modernist abstract painting's refusal of language and representation, Hovsepian invites her viewer toward identification and enjoyment.
We find evidence of her acceptance in the ambiguous title "Domes" - a simultaneous reference to a basic geometric shape and comical, almost anachronistic, slang for the head. Hovsepian not only embraces these language games and visual associations, she treats them as guides, following them suggestively to the next step. When she recognized the shapes from her photograms as strangely mute, mysterious heads, she projected them into three-dimensions, fully realized in bronze. For something so solid, these bronze forms remain as provisional as the rest of her work - sculpted from wax scavenged from another artist's studio floor, the material melts away in the lost-wax casting process, leaving just this single impression of its existence.
In each of these projects, we see Hovsepian aware of how inescapable the eye is from the body in space. The entire exhibition explores the mutability between two kinds of photography, one an extension of vision and a kind of scientific manipulation of experience, the other rooted in irreducible, physical relationships. That these experiments find themselves suddenly expressed in three-dimensions is unsurprising. Moholy-Nagy wrote, "Real spatial experiences rest in simultaneous interpenetration of inside and outside, above and beneath, on the in and out flowing of space relationships, on the often invisible play of forces present in the materials."
Text by Rachel Furnari