Visiting Professor, Pratt Institute
Adjunct Faculty, City College of New York
[Keywords: Art, Erasure, Book, Cover, Photography, Digital, Fantasy, Landscape, Photoshop, Agency]
I see erasure as any act that reveals the substrate. When we erase we are not just taking something away, we are also revealing the conditions of production, such as the paper used or the technology employed. By limiting the information conveyed, and its associated symbolic noise, we are clarifying an image and reducing it to its essential qualities. In the case of traditional drawing the paper is revealed, but in the digital context this is both the program used and the ‘background’ image. Photoshop does not remove content, it rearranges it. This is a rearrangement of the hierarchy, reversing the roles of the context and the contextualized subject. This makes digital erasure a political act rather than an aggressive one, a way to assert one’s agency over an image and reimagine its goals and properties.
Because of the degree to which media saturates our experience we are in a state of constant visibility, feeling compelled to photographically document even our most prosaic actions, such as eating dessert or going to the gym. These kinds of images are full images, in that they serve a purpose or tell a story. A full image is one that is selling something. Whether that is a cookie, a person, or a service, it promotes a narrative intention that presents a kind of fiction, a more perfect world as envisioned by the photographer. In the social media sense that means taking a photograph of people laughing together while out with friends, and in the world of advertising it means showing the way that smoking a Newport cigarette will make you feel free and happy. These kinds of images show one thing, someone smoking a cigarette, but they imply another – that to smoke that cigarette is to be beautiful, young, and joyous. In order to truly understand an intentioned image we must understand not only what we are seeing but also why someone wants us to see it. Full images on their own are not a problem; they are often easy to read through and understand, but when they are presented in a constant stream they become a problem. We lack the time required to analyze each one and are forced to take them at face value, absorbing their intent without engaging it.
Consider the way that we relate to people on the subway, employing the middle distance stare. There are simply too many people to engage with, and so the only recourse is to engage with none. This is very different from a rural setting where one only occasionally encounters a stranger on the street and is more likely to wave to them or smile at them. The preponderance of full images, conversely, gives them a kind of invisibility. We see them, but we cannot see into them.
It is the empty image, the backdrop, the stage set, the noise underneath the surface, that conveys the real intent and goal of a picture. Consider the example of the cigarette advertisement – the thing that we are really supposed to see is that carefree and color-saturated world – the cigarette is simply the surface, and could just as easily be replaced by a set of dishtowels or baby wipes. Whatever subject matter is used, the way that we relate to it is the same. The background is the heart of the picture in that it tells us how to feel about the thing that it contains. It is the ideological frame for the content it houses.
The works included here involve digitally painting over the contents of book covers so that they become emptied of their original subject matter. I use narrative book covers because they are benign, in the sense that they are intended to be ignored. The appearance of a character or a place on the cover of a book is never meant to be authoritative – the same series of books might have different versions even within a consistent print run. Book covers are an extremely generous form of image. They offer us a potential world rather than an actual one, where the viewer is not only allowed to misinterpret the information; they are actively encouraged to. When an image acknowledges its own fundamental falsehood, it gains the potential to tell a kind of truth, one that invests the viewer with agency.
The books I use tend to be fantasy and science fiction novels. They are important to the project because they reference sites of play. Play is the method through which we learn our relationship to the world. We tend to play more games as children and they tend to have greater weight for us, in part because we have not yet learned to parse the nuance of their meaning. In light of this, fantasy worlds are often seen as the province of children, and sites of non-importance, yet in many ways the means by which we describe or understand fantasy is the means by which we are able to re-imagine the possible.
With the original subject matter, such as characters and titles and publisher, occluded, only the landscape of the fantasy world remains on the book cover. With the landscapes that I reveal I am not showing a particular fantasy world, but rather a world of infinite potential, actively undefined. The specific mythos depicted with each original cover is almost arbitrary, whether it is a barbarian standing on a pile of corpses or a robot ballerina – the point is to open a window into in a space of unlimited possibility. By emptying out the image, and removing those arbitrary elements, the picture becomes solely about that space. The images sometimes appear quite ordinary – a small clearing in an otherwise normal copse of trees – yet they are places where ‘miraculous’ events occur, and where the rules of the universe are unwritten and open to interpretation. I like their simplicity and their quietude. It seems necessary and important in a context where the world of images takes on an increasingly oppressive volume.
Justin Berry is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He is recipient of the 2014 NYFA Artist’s Fellowship. His work has been exhibited internationally in various venues, with work most recently on view at CUAC in Salt Lake City and at the University of Richmond Art Museum. From 2007-2008 he was co-director of the artist-run curatorial space Alogon, in Chicago, Illinois. Currently he is a member of gallery collective Essex Flowers based in New York. He holds an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago.