Robert Heinecken, a man who liked to call himself a ‘photographist’ rather than a photographer, once claimed that a photo ‘is not a picture of something, but an object about something’. Trained as a printmaker, the ex-US Marine taught photography at UCLA for 30 years, despite rarely using a camera. The works that Heinecken began to make in the 1960s would often involve backlighting single magazine pages to make them translucent, producing a photogram in which both images and text – often from editorial and advertising – are superimposed. But rather than the frosty remove of the work of artists like Sherrie Levine, which he is often said to have prefigured, Heinecken was an eager consumer, a desiring cog in the machine. Infamously claiming that ‘the most highly developed sensibility I have is sexual’, his appropriations of pornographic spreads coincided with the flourishing of feminist spaces and practices in his native Los Angeles. He was duly eviscerated, and his work has, until recently, been somewhat overlooked outside of LA.
Heinecken, who died in 2006, was the guiding light for a canny and tightly organized exhibition at The Approach, which brought his work together with that of five artists – four young-ish, one in her mid-70s – who are all at least as interested in photographs as in taking them. ‘Recto/Verso’ alluded to Heinecken’s characteristic collapsing of the front and back of an image, and although none of the other artists dealt so closely with the sides of the page, the title was suggestive of their diverse practices, in which processual variation was the rule of the game. Heinecken himself was represented by four 1990 works from the ‘Possible Print’ series (1987–96), which conjure lush, wraith-like amalgams of female bodies from fashion magazines. ‘Sweet Dreams’, reads the title of one, above a couple of women overlaid with a reclining third. ‘A reflection of innocence in a crepe de chine slip with embroidered tulle, by Wacoal, $58’, reads the text. This inventory-like awareness of desire and display is also there in the glossy, seemingly Photoshop-assisted collages of Michele Abeles, whose two photographs here presented the only other human bodies and works in colour in a chicly monochrome exhibition. But they were dismembered, just one item among the several listed in the clinical title: Arm, Plant, Bottles, Wood (2011).
The other artists were less concerned with the selling of the ‘new’ than with the sifting of the old and not-so-old. For example, Lisa Oppenheim produced Heliograms 1876/2011 (2011) by exposing 19th-century archival negatives to the sunlight at different times of the day; like Heinecken, the photo is not the final product but an object that holds the possibility of other images. Layered light sources were also crucial to a photogram and related ‘dust gram’ by Dóra Maurer, a Hungarian septuagenarian whose wonderful work has been receiving some long-due recognition in Western Europe after appearing in last year’s Istanbul Biennial. In her two works in ‘Recto/Verso’, Sluices 2 A and B (both 1980), bars of sunlight appear to strafe through a venetian blind (one is actually a photogram of a grid structure, the other made by passing pigment through a grid of dominos). Erin Shirreff also concerns herself with abstracting from photography rather than with abstract imagery per se: her four archival pigment prints comprise four permutations of two photos of an almost-indecipherable sculptural form (Four Sides, 2012). Her film Ansel Adams, RCA Building, circa 1940 (2009) appears to be time-lapse footage of the looming Rockefeller Plaza, but Shirreff actually produced the work by repeatedly rephotographing the eponymous image, the original becoming lost in a slow-moving mist.
Alexandra Leykauf, a young German artist, was something of an outlier here, in that she presented objects that engage with museological – rather than consumer – display. Three museum cabinets were photographed from each side, with the black and white print then pasted onto the corresponding side of a neutral 1:1-scale wooden construction. Here and there a tripod or a figure, presumably Leykauf, could be glimpsed, refracted and layered over several reflections of the museum and its contents. It becomes difficult to distinguish the artist from the display. As Heinecken once put it: ‘I like to go into something, shake it up, and disappear.’