On ViewGrant Wahlquist Gallery
March 12 – June 12, 2021
In 2020, Tad Beck obtained the spectacles of the artists Alison Hildreth, Andrea Zittel, Charles Atlas, Dean Sameshima, John O’Reilly, Michael Stipe, Nyeema Morgan, Sharon Lockhart, and Wayne Koestenbaum. He took photographs of these glasses, individually, against a checkerboard ground. Then he photographed the photographs through the glasses’ lenses again and again, moving the lenses closer and further away or turning them to catch different angles of the correction until the original image was no longer discernible. The resulting prints (all 2020), titled after their subjects, present the viewer with a recognizable check pattern overlaid with hazy and pavonine beams of light. One approaches the montages squinting, blinking, and straining to piece together their arrangements. No matter how hard the viewer attempts to “get it,” the works’ resolution remains just out of reach.
What is it like to peer through the eyes of Michael Stipe, the one-time leader of the alt-rock sensation R.E.M.? Those of us expecting something in the neighborhood of apocalyptic irony will find instead blobs of opal and dots of aquamarine and pale pink, which float like comets over a swirl of that black-and-white check. Our brain struggles to read the picture’s signs and symbols, focusing first on the blur of pink and then a black square; then the eyes switch back to the smears of blue and mother-of-pearl before seeking refuge in a white cube. A similar visual pirouette occurs upon examining Alison Hildreth. The outlook from this vantage presents luminous white clouds and twin turquoise stars hovering above the checkerboard, which both anchors the gaze and obstructs its ability to find a place to rest. When we look and re-look through Wayne Koestenbaum’s lenses we encounter a bright green abstract shape that resembles a clover field that might have once appeared to us in a dream.
In all of these works, Beck provides a bracing, if slightly melancholy, take on both photography history and critique. He “looks through” the eyes of others and offers us the view, but can we really see what they are seeing? Eyes Of recalls the writings of Susan Sontag, who, in On Photography, reminds us that the images we consume are only relics, as they capture moments that have already taken place. If we believe ourselves able to twine our gaze with Beck’s subjects’, this conclusion is based on ephemeral and vanished moments captured by a machine, and thus may well be an illusion. Beck similarly seems to allude to a scene in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, where Barthes recalls a moment of shock upon looking at a photograph of Napoleon’s brother, Jérôme, and realizing “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” When Barthes shares this revelation with his friends, they cannot understand its importance to him, and he is left in “solitude.” Beck offers us a kind of reverse side of the knitting of this episode by having us look through his eyes, which have attempted to look through the eyes of others. What we are left with is hazy, indistinct, in some ways confounding, and also quite beautiful, leaving us both enraptured and apart. Beck’s continual introduction of the checkerboard into this schema, moreover, adds another clue that our efforts at perspective-sharing may fail. The black-and-white pattern appears initially like an object that Beck simply captured through the subjects’ glasses by chance. Instead, it is an intervention, an artifice, introduced in order to remind us of other dire obstacles to our clarity of sight.
Beck’s checkerboard references landmark experiments in vision science, namely Edward H. Adelson’s 1995 “checker shadow illusion” experiment, in which Adelson established that the eye toils so strenuously to interpret baffling data that it will read a shade as either light or dark in order to jam it into a comprehensible pattern (such as a checkerboard). It also refers to Eleanor J. Gibson and Richard D. Walk’s famous 1960 experiments with testing infants’ depth perception. These studies placed babies on clear plastic surfaces, which extended many feet over a checkerboard-patterned floor. The children’s mothers would urge the babies to crawl out over the transparent expanse, which the tots interpreted as a cliff on account of the visual cue below. When they hesitated, Gibson and Walk theorized that they apprehended the threat of a drop.
In other words, we can try to “co-see” with others, but we may not have any idea what we’re looking at. Our inability to fathom the viewpoint of others is a confounding existential condition, but it can be great, too, because we devise ingenious coping stratagems. Beck’s photography teaches us that one response to this variety of human confusion is repeated and indefatigable looking—which may, as it happens, also be another way of describing criticism, or perhaps even the practice of making art.