Tomorrow and Hester Galleries, located a short walking distance apart on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, announced their merger in February as Downs & Ross, with an exhibition by Vikky Alexander spanning the two rebranded spaces. The considered selection includes seven photographic works produced between 1981 and 1983, when Alexander – born, educated and currently living in Canada – resided in New York and collaborated with the likes of Kim Gordon and Louise Lawler. As critic Karen Archey writes in the press release, Alexander is a ‘sleeper’ of the Pictures Generation: her reputation within the group has been eclipsed by Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, both roughly ten years her senior. This exhibition clearly aims to reclaim Alexander’s rightful spot among her fellow 1980s art-of-appropriation pioneers.
Each of the works in the exhibition re-photographs advertisements of slim, young, classically beautiful Caucasian women in characteristically ‘80s-style dress, with their hair backcombed and their makeup overstated. In addition to re-photographing, Alexander enlarged the images, emphasizing their status as facsimiles by revealing their analogue grit. In two works she has blacked out red garments, leaving only a trace pink glow on the women’s skin as evidence of her erasures.
Two works installed in the front window can be seen from the street at the former Tomorrow Gallery. Ecstasy (1982) is a triptych of framed photographs, each containing the same image of an enraptured Isabella Rossellini. The actress seems displaced from a fragrance ad, as she grips the lapel of her blacked-out blouse to expose and emphasize her neck and collar bones, and tilts her head back, parting her lips and closing her eyelids. She presents herself to the camera in a now-familiar trope of fashion photography, signalling female desire and availability. In the outer two panels, the image fills half of a black background. In the centre panel, Rossellini takes up the middle third; she is flanked by facsimiles of a similar image, in which a different model adopts the same pose yet grips a man whose lips are pressed against the space that Rossellini exposes to the camera. In this panel, the absent object of desire materializes as a classically handsome Caucasian man.
Pieta (1981) plays on a classic art-historical trope, gender-swapping a supine Jesus for a lithe, blonde female model, limp in the arms of another handsome Caucasian man. These two works are a reminder that image production has always been ideological, whether controlled by corporations or the Catholic Church. By removing the adverts’ text or product images, the artist isolates their fabricated emotions, laying bare the nature of their seduction.
At the former Hester space, the second-floor gallery’s four walls each bear a single work. Yosemite and Portage Glacier (both 1982) juxtapose commercial photographs of models with landscapes. In Yosemite, Alexander places the model’s silhouette, including her triangular coif, as one more mountain in the national park’s iconic range. In Portage Glacier, the white skin of a close-up female face bleeds into a floating icescape. Like advertising and religious art, landscape – from Ansel Adams in the US to Canada’s Group of Seven – is a genre laden with ideology, as it played a historical role in forging national identities. And, like the female figures in the ads, natural landscapes are perceived as something to be awed, explored and ultimately conquered.
Downs & Ross’s strong presentation is only tempered by its over-emphasis on Alexander’s New York years and lack of any reference to the potent work that she subsequently produced in Canada, where she remains an important artist. The exhibition sidesteps the glaring fact that it was not the evolution of the artist’s work, but her decision to return home, that most affected her international legacy. And it does so purposefully, using New York and its myth-making capability to renew US interest in her work. In ‘Vikky Alexander (1981–83)’ the artist, like her subjects, is trapped forever in her 20s.
Main image: Vikky Alexander, Yosemite, 1982, digital print on moab slickrock metallic pearl acid-free paper mounted on Dibond, 55 x 101 cm. Courtesy: Downs & Ross, New York