As with memory and history, sometimes with a photograph it’s all about what isn’t there — or, in this case, who. In Alejandro Cartagena’s new exhibition, “Presence” at Kopeikin Gallery in Culver City, the artist takes a conceptual approach to the modification of vintage and vernacular photographs that sees the main subjects painstakingly excised from the print, leaving a white void in the composition that is also a physical hole in the paper.
It’s not that there are no people in the pictures, it’s that there are spaces where people used to be. Settings are left intact, such as natural landscapes, architectural monuments and various interior scenes; even people not central to the subjects posing, such as waiters and passers-by, are left in the frame. In that sense, the general idea or occasion is not confused or obfuscated — a graduation, a wedding, a dinner party, a fishing trip. Cartagena's precision knife-work makes it easy to replicate the narrative of the scenes, even without much information on who the actors in it were meant to be. We recognize and easily reverse-engineer the conventions of ceremonial photography, such as standing in a line, grouping on some steps or turning to face the camera.
The most satisfying and also rather ironic part of what the artist achieves is that the viewer is likely to spend far more time looking at each image thus manipulated. Seeing a central mystery, we scour the remaining details for clues; having less information prompts the paying of closer attention and the promise of a deeper understanding. A kind of filling in the blank spaces with yourself takes places; the removals create a deeper, almost empathetic relationship with each cut photograph. One notable related effect of working this way is that, while photographs are theoretically infinitely reproducible, by his actions Cartagena makes each silver-gelatin print into a unique object.
For Cartagena, his interests go beyond these semiotic, deconstructed ideas to a far more personal, allegorical place. In the statement for the exhibition, he wrote that the pieces in this series “connotate larger issues in my Latin America, where we have become ‘no one’ in the midst of our social and political crisis. In the end, it seems anyone can disappear, and no one will ever give us answers.”
A further echo of the existential subversions that are represented in this series happens in the modified portraits, classic headshots in which all or part of the sitter’s face is removed or displaced, giving a distinctly psychological dimension to the fractured likeness. It’s a ready-made metaphor for identity and the vagaries of memory, the fragility and artifice of our individual existence, and the illusion of permanence that we impute to a fixed image.
Kopeikin Gallery, 2766 S. La Cienega, Culver City; (310) 559-0800, kopeikingallery.com; Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; through March 9; free.