Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery
Barry Stone, I Met a Unicorn, Austin, TX, 1.10.2010; archival inkjet print, 23 7/8 x 35 7/8 inches; edition of 10
Alan Greenspan as a Rainbow in Washington D.C. on October 23, 2009, 12.20.2009; archival inkjet print; 23 7/8 x 35 7/8 inches; edition of 10
In I Met a Unicorn, Barry Stone’s third solo show at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery—a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, storefront with a preposterous name—the Austin artist offers a textbook sampler of current ideas in contemporary art photography. Issues of representation and illusion, viewer and author, appropriation and the artist’s hand abound, almost to distraction. In fact, if nichtssagend translates roughly as “empty” or “meaningless,” then Stone’s large-format digital prints initially fit the bill. But as in much photo-based work today, the first glance is merely a teaser to draw the viewer into a more considered encounter—here, the artist’s interests unpack slowly, by degrees, like a conceptual Salome.
“I met a unicorn” is a phrase taken from Bertrand Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, used by the philosopher to demonstrate the unreliability of words and syntax in representing reality. This idea is a leitmotif for Stone’s photography. In the show’s title work, I Met a Unicorn, Austin, TX, 1.10.2010, a white, sun-dappled pony with the eponymous horn is pictured in profile against a lush green background. The twin seductions of illusion and fantasy are historical mainstays in art but still enough at odds with photography’s documentary history to stir the viewer. The “realness” of unicorns is not the question; rather, the uncanny subject prompts a questioning attitude toward the image itself: What’s the context of the photograph? Is the image “found” or “staged”? Has the artist “intervened” (doctored the image) in some way?
This questioning attitude is sustained across the show’s seven works, all toying with art history in some way. Crop, The Golden Hour by Thomas Moran, 1875, Jack S. Blanton Museum, Austin, TX, 1.2.2010 is explicitly what the title states—and not. Stone has transformed the source image by selectively framing the detail of the painting, converting the color palette to black and white, shifting the time “frame” and, most obviously, exchanging Moran’s original brushstrokes of oil paint for digital pixels. Three other works—Sunset Photographer […], Alan Greenspan as a Rainbow […] and The Jeff Wall, MoMA […]—directly or indirectly call up the work of other contemporary artists, namely, Elger Esser, Ugo Rondinone and Jeff Wall, respectively. In each, Stone shifts a source image through various manipulations and several frames of reference before ever bringing it to the viewer’s eye.
In Artificial Pond Reflection, Austin, TX, 3.28.2009—a lovely, vertical rectangular image of rippling water with glinting, white starbursts on the surface—the questioning starts with a play on words: is it the “pond” or the “reflection” that is artificial? Such a concern is fairly nouveau in the history of art, a seductive illusion introduced with the advent of Photoshop. As his titles indicate, most of Stone’s source images are caught at random and on the fly, thus documentary in practice if not in spirit. But just as the “subject” in art grows increasingly subordinate to the “frame,” Stone’s true practice is the culling, cropping, altering and grouping of images. This way, questions about reality and representation in art remain fresh and grow increasingly sophisticated—and as compelling as a unicorn in a tapestry.
John Ewing is a freelance writer and editor based in New York and Copy Editor of Art Lies.
This exhibition runs through April 25, 2010.