Gallery Diet is a large space, painted from floor to ceiling in stark white, uncannily resembling the traditional “white box” used in photography studios to create neutral environments that are evenly lit. These environments are especially useful for documenting art objects, where it is insinuated that the art stands unaffected by context. Historically, the contention would be that this is simply a farce and that there is no such thing as a neutral space. Every space has meaning. Clifford Owens’ series “Photographs with an Audience” takes advantage of this argument, setting the stage for a controversial and multi-layered body of work. Owens transforms Gallery Diet into a photo studio, a performance space, a social forum, and in the end returns it back to its original form as an art gallery.
Entering Gallery Diet, I was confronted with all the bright lights, bells and whistles of a typical fashion shoot. It appeared to be a scene one would find on the streets of South Beach at night, with the expectation that some gorgeous model would appear in front of the camera at any given moment and pose provocatively for mass consumers. There was even a fairly large group of spectators surrounding, seemingly eager to catch a glimpse of glamour. Rather than a scantily clad blonde bombshell, Clifford Owens appears instead, as an average African-American male, stereotypically dressed in the artist's trademark black. His posture was defiant and his condescending rant played up the cliché of the “angry artist”: demanding, irritable, aggressive… a prima donna. He complained right away that things were just not going as planned here in Miami. People in Miami are notoriously late. He could not concentrate as the audience trickled in on “island time,” twenty minutes after the scheduled “show time.” He fiercely proclaimed, “This would never happen in NYC.” There it was, out in the open, evidence of another popular stereotype: the New Yorker who believes he is the center of the known universe and that his superiority is obvious upon comparison. His antagonistic mutterings continued until everyone was settled and he could begin the next act.
The photo shoot was a staged performance, functioning as a catalyst for dialogue between the artist and the viewer. Owens began taking polls of the audience with such commands as, “Raise your hand if you are an artist” or “Raise your hand if you are wealthy.” He even asked to raise our hands if we would be willing to fuck him. In each case, if you raised your hand, he would ask you to stand for a portrait. Between each shot, Owens would strike a deeper and more intimate conversation. He began to share personal stories, letting people in, bit by bit, on his own circumstances, as a single father, as a black man, as a person who was recently dumped, left broke and sleeping on couches. In essence, he shattered his initial persona as the spoiled rotten and self-aggrandizing New York artist. With each portrait, he peeled away layers of social inhibitions from the participants, pushing further away from conventional stereotypes toward a true revelation of the individual. The questions became more challenging, and at one point he asked if any of us had ever considered suicide. In order to admit the answer to this question publicly, we needed to trust each other. This required more than participation. It was a call for a type of faith that seems to have been lost in art since post-modernism. We have become conditioned to view art with skepticism and arrogance. We think we have seen it all, and there may be very little if anything left to add or take away from it. At the same time that the performance manipulates space, even more potent and magical is how it breaks down perception. Often we tend to view art in the same way that we enter social situations: chest out, guard up, straining to maintain physical and critical distance.
“Photographs with an Audience” takes a sleight-of-hand approach by slowly breaking down social barriers for a small group of people. In the end, when the studio disappears and is replaced with an exhibit of portraits, its true audience may only be those that were present in their making. The objects that remain expose little information about the process that led to them or the people that they portray. The images are stark, sanitary, cold, barely more than clinical observations. They are minimal, purist, without association, reference, metaphor, or symbol. Finding myself there inside the “white cube” again, I felt faced with more questions: “What can I know about a person based on appearances?” and “What can I know about a work of art based on what I see?” The art here lies not within the object, but within a subject that is unknowable, and requires belief in something that is absent.
A purist would contend that a document of a performance is an empty signifier of an experience that is impossible to interpret and that the value and meaning of the performance are produced through mystification and the rarity of presence. Rather than acting as records of a past event, the images produced by “Photographs with an Audience” serve to mark an end in time that goes beyond residue, becoming, in a sense, performers in their own right.
~Felecia Chizuko Carlisle, an artist and writer living in Miami.
Image: Performance shot. Courtesy Gallery Diet.