Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

East Neighborhoods: Gregory Vershbow

City-Wide Open Studios
50 Orange St., New Haven, (203) 772-2709
East Neighborhoods: Gregory Vershbow
Oct. 22, 2007.

At the City-Wide Open Studios opening, I decided that one of the artists I definitely wanted to check out was Gregory Vershbow. A photographer, he has a studio down on lower Chapel Street that he shares, if I overheard correctly, with a salsa band. "Paperhill," his image in the main exhibit, was a striking piece of photo-surrealism.

While many of Vershbow's images—perhaps most of what he had on display in the small studio—are composites with narrative hooks, there were also shots in which he was "just focusing on the formal aspects" of the image. The particular trio of photos that elicited that comment was of buckets of live eels at a fish market.

There were two series of images that commanded attention in Vershbow's studio. One series featured the photos that lead off chapters in Vershbow's limited edition artist's book Philip Lusterko and the Memory Machine. The other series of images that was prominently displayed—and the one that included "Paperhill"—is his most recent, The Library.

Philip Lusterko and the Memory Machine combines photography with two parallel text narratives. The story is:

an imagined history of a nineteenth-century scientist who inadvertently invented photography while failing to prove that memory is a mechanical process. Lusterko's original machines, fragmented journals and photographic plates piece together the story of Lusterko's life through a photographic installation and artist's book, which explore the scientist's experiments, conjectures and nightmares, arguing that while Lusterko failed to prove a mechanical basis for memory, he succeeded in mapping a metaphor for the functions of the human mind.

The premise of the book is that the author has found Lusterko's journals and photos in an old trunk. It is an excavation in the archaeological dig of meaning. The text jumps back and forth between Lusterko's fragmentary first-person accounts and the author, in the present, struggling to apprehend their import through the gaps in the narrative. This postmodern discourse is further heightened by the use of Vershbow's photographs.

Using many different techniques, he created photos purportedly taken by Lusterko—they have the appearance of early daguerrotypes—as well as images of the machines Lusterko invented in his quest to create a mechanical mind. These machines, like the "tactilegraph," were themselves built by Vershbow to be photographed. ("My mother is a jeweler," he told me. "I grew up with rudimentary metalworking skills.")

There are layers of metaphor at work. Vershbow juggles several interesting ideas at once: tropes of postmodern fiction, meditations on documentary nature of photography, musings on both the processes and nature of memory. One concept, embodied in Lusterko's deployment of the language of alchemy while stepping into the future of the Enlightenment and industrial rationalism, is that new systems of thought often have their embryonic development within the shells of the old. This has its formal aspect in Philip Lusterko and the Memory Machine. Vershbow uses old school analog photographic processes but also the new digital technology: the photos that lead off the chapters were shot digitally and Vershbow also used Photoshop manipulation as it suited his purposes.

The project is an impressive achievement. I was fascinated by the details in the photos, like the one of the "tactilegraph." It is a riveting image of what looks like bronze crusty fingers (actually a plaster and clay casting of a hand) emerging out of the depth of field, with wires protruding from the tips. The book has been published an edition of 27 but Vershbow would like to have it put out in an affordable trade edition.

The Library is his current work and was the subject of a recent show at Ars Libri in Boston. The short explanation: "It's about a world literally metamorphosing into books."

"What really interests me in photography is the idea of photographic narrative. Photography is simultaneously an allegedly truth-seeking device and also at the same time subjective," Vershbow said to me. "With this work, I start more with telling a story from a completely fictional angle. What happens when you tell a completely fictional story with photography and what slips in through the cracks of the process?"

The images, overlaying photographs of people and books, were created by a combination of processes: posed photos, spliced negatives, Photoshop composites.

"I'm becoming a lot more digital because I don't have the resources to do everything in the darkroom. I was resistant at first. But it's all what you make of it," said Vershbow, adding with a laugh, "I've been trying in the last year to embrace technology."

He told me that he had considered The Library finished but is reconsidering. He is bothered that "some people think [the series] is about the joy of reading." While quick to add that he harbors no ill thoughts about the joy of reading, Vershbow doesn't see that as the point of The Library.

"I don't believe there's only one way to read an image. I don't think artistic intent is the end-all of the image," Vershbow told me. On the other hand, if his metaphors are being lost or misinterpreted (rather than just differently interpreted), it suggests that perhaps he needs to revisit it.

"The important point of the story about the world turning into books is that no one is literate," said Vershbow. He pointed out that no one is actually reading in the images. "It is about the transformation from things that are real to things more metaphysical and cerebral. It's vague but the viewer should fill in the details."

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