An essay by Alexandra Schwartz, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Montclair Art Museum
Editor’s note: this article is courtesy of G Fine Art who released Schwartz’s essay as a press release.
Vesna Pavlović’s haunting series Projected Images (2010-12) meditates upon both the artist’s chosen medium of photography, a relatively new art form whose history is still only beginning to coalesce, and the social history of her adopted country the United States, one of the youngest and most precocious modern cultures. Though such a description may run the risk weighing down this crystalline work, the ephemeral natures of art, time, and history constitute this artist’s principle subjects.
Consisting, in the installation at G Fine Art, of digital photographs, a multichannel slide projection, and a single-channel slide projection, Projected Images came about when Pavlović discovered a large collection of travel slides that were being discarded from the slide library of Vanderbilt University, where she is a professor. Used for art history lectures, slide libraries are themselves endangered species today, increasingly obsolete in the age of Powerpoint. Many are being dismantled, much to the sadness of those who frequented them. Generations of art students and teachers learned to work with these collections’ clunky inefficiency, and came to love the awkwardness of slides themselves, from the oldest, weightiest glass lantern slides, not so far removed from 19th-century photographic technologies, to the more modern yet chronically unstable 35 millimeter slides, fading away in their thick plastic mounts. The 1960s-era Kodachrome slides the artist rescued belong to the latter category, yet have a mystery all their own. The travelogue of a prosperous, WASPy Nashville couple, the collection would always have been an odd addition to a university slide library, which generally consists of reproductions of paintings and sculptures in famous museums and shots of world archeological and architectural sites. Yet while this couple visited plenty of monuments on their travels all over the globe, theirs were highly personal images: the wife posing in a Thai market, the husband fishing in a Scottish loch. It remains unclear who in the couple was the principle photographer (both husband and wife occasionally appear in the shots), but he or she worked with considerable skill and sensitivity. Indeed, the artist was able to discover almost nothing about the couple: no paperwork about their gift to the library, no institutional memories, no reminiscences from anyone who knew them, even after she exhibited the project in Nashville.
Despite this lack of information (perhaps in part because of it), Pavlović eloquently deploys the couple’s slides as source material for Projected Images, appropriating both the physical slides themselves, and the images they capture. Like many of her generation, this artist is preoccupied by the recent and astonishingly rapid shift from analogue to digital photography. Trained in traditional analogue techniques, most contemporary photographers have now largely switched to digital, be it for aesthetic, conceptual, or practical reasons, as it is increasingly difficult and expensive even to purchase film, especially large-format. This shift, and the tensions it raises, constitutes one of the primary themes of Pavlović’s project. The majority of the works inProjected Images are digital prints, created using a variety of techniques. Most often, the artist scanned a single slide, edited it, and printed it at large scale, calling attention how the film’s disintegration has transformed the images. In Vanishing Landscape, for example, an image of seaside cliffs has become so faint as to nearly disappear, whereas in Kodachrome Red, a desert scene has faded to crimson. By contrast, in works such as Hi-Lites and Traveling, the artist arranged the slides in grids, which she then scanned both reflectively and as transparencies in two layers, and later joined together in Photoshop. Underlining the images’ range of delicate colors and striking compositions, these works also call attention to the names and dates, scratched in pencil on the paper mounts, with which the photographers labeled the slides. Their meticulousness in curating their collection is also evident in Markers, an image of their slide roster, listing the sites they photographed. By contrast, Kodachrome Travels, an image of a loaded carousel with overflow slides taped into its well, hints that once the collection reached the library, it was handled with considerably less care.
Pavlović also makes inventive use of the vintage slides themselves, utilizing these archaic objects in ways that broaden and expand their meaning. In Search for Landscapes, she uses overlapping vintage screens and old-fashioned projectors to display five carousels of slides simultaneously. Appearing in ever-shifting patterns and configurations, the slides form an evocative collage of people and places around the world. In White Projection on Black, a single slide is shown continually on another vintage screen, emphasizing the abstract qualities of projected image. Replicating a slide show—the original way travel photos were shared among friends—Pavlović calls attention to how our methods of viewing even snapshots have changed with the advent of digital technologies. Rather than looking at photographs together in each others’ homes, today we simply post them to any number of online social networking sites that we browse alone on our computers. Viewing has become a solitary, rather than a social, event.
Equally significantly, Pavlović coaxes from this couple’s travelogue a fascinating commentary upon our collective culture. As commonplace as travel photos may be, the couple’s images testify to a particular period in American history, when the expansion of the commercial airline industry allowed the middle classes to see the world as never before. The United States’ imperial power was at its peak, and though anti-Americanism existed then, it had not yet reached its current pitch. In the charming work 259, which depicts the woman pointing gleefully to a signpost, the artist highlights the carefree sense of adventure American tourists then enjoyed. Yet as a relatively recent immigrant to the United States, she casts a particularly sharp eye on this culture, detecting elements in the couple’s story that those who grew up in this country might overlook. Her incisive images remind us that although privileged midcentury Americans enjoyed the world as their oyster, they often inspired an ambivalence in the places they visited that would, in the ensuing decades, sometimes sour into animosity. Regarding her subjects with a mixture of bemusement, affection, and criticality, Pavlović both celebrates the anonymous couple’s twinned passions for travel and photography and comments upon the ever-shifting nature of art and history. Playing on the dual notions of analogue and digital, home and abroad, personal and communal, distant and familiar, Projected Images presents an eloquent reflection on our recent past.