Missing the Big Picture

Conceptual artist Sarah Charlesworth finds beguiling subjectsand then loses her way.

In "Homage to Nature," a work from her latest series, "Doubleword," conceptual artist Sarah Charlesworth has staged and photographed a death. Not of a person but of a miniature evergreen tree, which, with its root structure still intact, has been placed in one of those bulbous glass display containers that restaurants use to preserve cheese. The glass shell catches reflections from the artist's studio and the artist's face is caught on glass. With deft strokes, Charlesworth has suggested that art, destruction, and preservation are identical: that transformation of nature, its abduction from its origins, and its subsequent recontextualization are all basically equivalent activities. Heady themes indeed for the New York-based artist, whose career spans almost three decades and who now is the subject of a lavish retrospective at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art.

But though she boasts impeccable modernist credentials, Charlesworth has yet to appreciate the difference between being a mere archivist and being a forester who cleaves a path. Sometimes in Sarah Charlesworth: A Retrospective, Charlesworth is a forester; more often, she's simply an archivist.

Charlesworth specializes in removing photographs from their original context and incorporating them into new works. Fond of aesthetic conundrums (Is the camera a truth teller or a born liar?) and a practiced hand at the type of art that questions its own motives as it excoriates those who distort images to further their agenda, Charlesworth's art is as intellectually diffuse as it is formally concise. She's like a talented haiku poet who spoils her best images by telling you how significant they are. Her gift for finding the detail pregnant with meaning, the small moment that speaks volumes, does not, as a result, register as powerfully as it should.

In a work titled "April 21, 1978," Charlesworth uses editors and journalists as straw men to advance the argument that the "news" is not an objective set of facts but the outcome of a struggle among visual images, with the most powerful image conquering in the end. To wit, front pages of 45 different European newspapers published on April 21, 1978 are shorn of all text, leaving only mastheads and photo layouts. The same photograph of a haggard, disheveled Aldo Moro, the Italian prime minister abducted by a terrorist group the day before and forced to pose in front of their official seal, is to be found on each front page.

The way that the photograph is placed on the pages and its size in relation to other photographs is meant to suggest that the editors can, by selective magnification or diminution, present their own version of history. Laudable, but it doesn't describe what I see. What startles is not that each paper has accorded this very striking photograph a different weight. (Charlesworth must believe her public pretty gullible if she thinks that it does not recognize, as a given, that editors view events through differing lenses.) What stands out instead is that the same photograph appears in each paper without fail. One begins to wonder not what makes Moro's kidnapping newsworthy (that's obvious), but what makes this particular photograph so eerie and suggestive. Shot from slightly above its subject, it shows Moro, holding the previous day's front page (which asks if he's dead) and cowering in humiliation. For a moment, it's the paradigmatic photo of every powerful man who has been brought low. The problem is, the photo has transcended Charlesworth's intended context, and the effect is like that of a fine afterthought. It's as if a dinner guest has chosen an interesting subject but blathered on about it in stentorian tones and waved off any dissenting opinion: What you remember is the subject, not the sermon for which it served as the springboard. Again, Charlesworth has chosen her subject with the skill of a haiku poet, but given it treatment worthy of a cloddish polemicist.

In her "Objects of Desire" series (1983-'88), Charlesworth appropriates photographic images from myth, nature, and religion to create works unified by a terse, aphoristic style. She arranges images such as a Buddha; an erupting volcano; a demure, smiling geisha; and a satyr with penises (he's even got one sprouting from his headdress) to create diptychs and triptychs that are a feast of unusual juxtapositions. Film director Stanley Kubrick was a master at this sort of thing; remember how, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, he cut abruptly from the prehistoric bone an ape had used to kill a comrade to the spacecraft gliding among the stars? Charlesworth is just as ingenious--and just as murky.

When Charlesworth, in a triptych called "Natural History," poises a photo of a golden rococo table against a dark red background and surrounds it, on either side, with panels that show a volcano erupting, she appears to be making a comment on the relationship between sexual desire and civilization. Is the table an oasis of elegance among the brutal outpourings that surround it, or is the artist suggesting that the urge to create beautiful things is synonymous with sexual desire? Charlesworth deals with large questions--What is desire? What is civilization?--but her downfall is to frame them as large questions. Dwight Macdonald, author of the influential essay "Masscult and Midcult," once warned of the danger of making films entirely out of big moments with no little moments in between. It's worthwhile advice for artists working in any medium, and Charlesworth should more often heed it. (Kubrick didn't heed it in 2001, and the film was a lofty, galumphing metaphysical mess.)

The problem here might be that Charlesworth just hasn't made up her mind about the value of our visual culture. She adopts, in many of her works, the glossy, unmodulated look of fashion ads and billboards. If there is a hint of satire in that, though, it's not registering. The impression is that she is more chronicler than critic--and that she is in danger of succumbing to the image overload that she sometimes warns us against.

A work like "April 21, 1978" is disturbing because it takes as its point of departure a claim about who holds power in this culture. For Charlesworth, the real power isn't held by governments or enlightened individuals; it's held by image makers and image purveyors. The anonymous terrorist who took Moro's photograph is immortalized by that photograph; visual tyranny is the order of the day, Charlesworth seems to be telling us. Strange then that she should be a co-conspirator in this situation. By shearing the newspapers of all their print and showing us only visual layouts, she denies the printed word the opportunity to butt up against the photographs and offer commentary on what they show.

Is editorializing so pernicious? Well, maybe in the hands of a Julius Streicher it is, but there is also the possibility of a dialogue between the image and the written word that diffuses the potential excesses of both. Charlesworth need not tear down the written word, even as she insists that the image is the thing. There is room for both, and both are needed.

Sarah Charlesworth: A Retrospective.
Through January 24 at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art,
8501 Carnegie Avenue, 216-421-8671.

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