Ian Curtis. Ian Curtis. Ian Curtis. I could type his name 100 more times and still not come close to approximating the obsession that fills so many galleries with images of Joy Division’s front-man turned tragic suicide story turned counterculture legend turned biopic star. As Dan Fox put it in these pages last year, when describing the nascent stages of exhibitions about music: ‘With each show announced, you can hear the chatter and clatter of curator and Rolodex: “I want that Christian Marclay video with the guitar tied to the truck and anything you can find with a picture of Ian Curtis on it, pronto!”’ It has reached the point where I have started thinking of Curtis as a kind of Alma Mahler-esque muse for the first decade of this century, in which case there were 11 images of Alma − sorry, Ian − on display at Elizabeth Dee for Meredyth Sparks’ first New York solo show, ‘We Were Strangers for Too Long’.
Sparks filled the gallery’s main space with, alongside Curtis, large prints of The Clash, Kraftwerk, The Jam, Generation X, Throbbing Gristle and David Bowie, each reworked in Photoshop then overlaid with Suprematist lines, polygons and circles of tin foil, glitter and vinyl. It is not all rock and roll, though. Five images of the Baader-Meinhof Group’s Gudrun Ensslin taken from Gerhard Richter’s preliminary sketches for October 18th, 1977 (1988) are reproduced on both sides of a ten-panel screen that divides the gallery, and a decidedly less figurative work, which only hints that its source image is a stage shot of The Jam, is fittingly titled [abstract piece] (all works 2008).
In all but one of the portrait-based works, Sparks, echoing mid-1980s’ John Baldessari, obstructs the face, and often the eyes, of her subjects. Hers are shiny, glittering or matte interruptions reminiscent of teenage doodles but tempered with a dose of critical theory. Struggling to see past these consumer-age overlays to the once revolutionary counterculture icons below them, I found myself sleepily complicit in a well-established conversation about co-option. The commodification of cool is Sparks’ content but also her strategy: Constructivism is cute, Curtis is a heartthrob, radicals are pin-ups and it’s all readily available. Her dialogue of image, revolution, desire and capitalism can drag, but often the resulting compositions don’t.
In The Jam III and her images featuring Throbbing Gristle, collage directs and predicts the movements of my eyes at the same time that it obstructs what I want to see. A thick ribbon of red vinyl in T.G. II obscures a face, a torso and that true locus of rock star power, the groin. Up from there shoots a diagonal ribbon of black across the cheek of the image’s other subject. His eyes are struck through too, his crotch as well. There is only an awkward, metonymic elbow undisturbed by the lines and squares that map the obvious paths of looking.
When seen as schematic, Sparks’ overlays bring to mind the experiments of Alfred Yarbus, the Soviet scientist who traced saccades, the micro-movements of the eye that are essential to vision. Wearing eyeball caps with pinhole openings and angled mirrors attached, Yarbus’ subjects answered a series of questions while viewing a Russian Realist painting by Ilya Repin, An Unexpected Visitor (1884). With each question the movements of a subject’s cornea were traced, via the mirror, onto photosensitive paper, generating graphic evidence – fields of dots connected by long dashes and lines − that depict the eye’s efforts to understand an image in relation to a query. Although Yarbus may be an unexpected visitor to a discussion of Sparks’ work, his cartographic representation of vision is conjured when ‘We Were Strangers for Too Long’ is at its best.
It is not really worth wondering whether this made up for the familiarity of Sparks’ theoretical inquiries. They existed next to one another, on top and just below. As in Yarbus’ experiments, it is the questions asked that determine what draws the eye, what warrants focus, how visual narratives and associations are constructed, what is remembered and what forgotten – whether ‘We Were Strangers for Too Long’ was just more Ian Curtis or an honest look at looking.