By Suzanne Révy
I cannot remember where I first encountered the work of Sarah Charlesworth, but I remember distinctly that it held me in thrall. An entire museum wall was hung with re-photographed front pages of midwest newspapers. All the text blocks were blanked out, leaving only the images, which were made during a total solar eclipse in 1979. The prints were the same size as each unfolded newspaper. The installation raised questions about the nature of our daily digests and how they treated visual information to create a mythic sense of events. And more striking, Charlesworth’s gelatin silver prints of the newspapers were simply beautiful. Later in her life, she created a series of smaller scale works that are currently on view at Boston’s Krakow Witkin Gallery in “Sarah Charlesworth: The Small Versions, 2002-2009” through May 4, 2019.
As a member of the “Pictures Generation” Sarah Charlesworth (1947-2013) was among a group of artists who questioned the illusions that were presented through television and picture magazines of the late 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. By appropriating and rethinking existing imagery, these artists challenged the myth of the American dream at a time when the ideals of the sixties had dissipated into the morass of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal. Charlesworth’s work stood out for its delicate craft and intellectual rigor.
The Krakow Witkin Gallery is presenting selections from five different series of images made in the last decade of Charlesworth’s life. These gem-like prints, exhibited without glazing and framed in lacquered wood, could almost pass for paintings but their essence is photography. In this later work, she continues to examine how artists from a myriad of cultures contrived to present ideal notions of beauty, spirituality, love and luck in visual ways. She looked beyond popular culture, mining rich, tactile details found throughout the history of art, and transformed her subjects through an awe and wonder at the elastic possibilities of photography.
Flowers float in a sea of saturated red that recalls traditional Chinese paintings. The faintest palimpsest of a Hindu deity emerges from a subtle field of white like a smooth marble sculpture. Charlesworth shamelessly steals Rene Magritte’s famous pipe in a delicately rendered photograph, craftily lit with no shadows on a monochromatic field. The pipe appears almost flat, raising the question, “is it really a pipe?” A slim, lit candle perches on a barely discernible candlestick, floating against an ebony background with an enigmatic presence. In this exquisitely rendered photograph, Charlesworth conjures that sense of mystery felt in many Dutch genre paintings. “The Small Versions” are tender, quiet meditations on the power of photography to endow a transcendent aura to simple objects.
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