JTF (just the facts): A site specific installation comprising 20 color photographs, 8 adhesive photographic works, and 4 sculptural additions, displayed against white walls in the single room gallery space and the entry area. All of the photographs are c-prints, made in 2014 or 2015. Physical sizes range from roughly 8×11 to 60×78 (or reverse), and all of the prints are unique. The adhesive works are PhotoTex prints, made in 2015. They come in varying dimensions, and are available in editions of 5. The sculptural works include a pile of coltan ore, a pile of recovered gold from microprocessors, a selection of rods, and an aluminum plate will gallium poured on top, as well as paving tiles, rods, and other materials which are not part of any specific artwork.
Comments/Context: Joshua Citarella’s new show has left me wondering, trying to puzzle out in my own head what exactly is going on. That his work is full of oblique references, unknowable backstories, and layers of technical thinking isn’t actually what has flummoxed me so much. It is more that I think the way he is approaching photography is representative of a frame breaking change in his inherent mindset (arguably common to many of the cohort of photographers in their 20s), and that’s what I’ve had a harder time getting my head around.
Here’s my still murkily in process conclusion. For those photographers who came of age during the transition to digital in photography and in the period of time just after that, the power of the new tools has often manifested itself as novelty – look what we can do now, with software manipulation, with inkjet printing, with digital archive mining, with the newness of technology. At its root, this mindset is comparative – it draws a tacit distinction with what analog photography could do (both well and poorly), and builds and extends from that original conceptual foundation. Some have replaced analog processes with newfound digital flexibility, while others have used the new freedoms to push on interdisciplinary boundaries (the image objects, the painterly digital mark making, the virtual constructions, etc.).
But for Joshua Citarella and others of his general age, they are, on the other hand, effectively digital “natives”; while they are certainly aware of the separation/transition between the analog and digital worldviews (and often use the opposition to their advantage), they carry little or no intellectual baggage from the earlier time. Their facility with digital technologies is given, not something to be invented or learned. In a sense, they are starting somewhere else, and so have a different range of questions, skepticisms, and perspectives about what photography is or is capable of.
I think this change in mindset manifests itself as something akin to digital confidence – these artists aren’t intrepidly exploring some uncharted territory, they’re already there and it’s already flowing in their veins. In Citarella’s case, this means making pictures that are a step or two beyond “look what I can make”; the works interrogate layers of digital meaning that most of us are unaware of, and do so with unassuming curiosity.
Take for example a selection of ethereal white on white studies variously displayed in grids and strips. At first glance, my analog-centric brain identified them as exercises in digital mark making – swirls of barely there shadows and nuanced highlights, elegant in their own way. When I discovered they were “ecommerce drawings” – product shots where the main subject has been digitally removed, leaving behind only the ghostly overlaid retouchings – they of course have a different resonance. Now we’re forced to think about what image manipulation specifically is, how it actually takes place, and generally see the works as figure/ground exercises in absence/presence; in short, they represent much more sophisticated thinking than digital daubs in a paint program.
Citarella’s Deadly Nightshade DNS Compositions are equally opaque. On the surface, they look like layers of transparent software-generated rectangles decorated with smears of pinkish purple and white and areas of pixelization, an active mixture of digital craftsmanship and harder edged machine drawing. With a bit of additional explanation, the images resolve into digital scraps of images of a particular flower (the deadly nightshade) fed through a series of hidden keys and rules based on important-to-the-artist IP addresses (thus the double meaning of DNS, or domain name system), each set of numbers generating a specific (and unique) set of visual outcomes. So again, something apparently expressionistic turns out to be derived from something algorithmic, a series of conversion steps taking place outside the frame.
This show is full of this kind of multi-layered thinking. Images of towering columns of marble appear solid, until we see the stone tiles leaning against the wall and we suddenly realize the columns aren’t “real” (even with those cast shadows of light), but are digital constructions using various versions of these tiles; the same can be said for water in a rectangle, clouds in a box, and two kinds of fire (“real” and screen-based) in wooden troughs. Citarella’s interest in exotic electronic materials (those rare earths found in our computers, phones and other devices) manifests itself in colorful images of chemicals being burned (and effectively transformed into light), as well as physical piles of coltan ore and semiconductor gold, and shiny liquid gallium dripped across a nude and a floor sculpture. Again and again, he’s playing with our digital expectations (and their underpinnings) – mixing the intense hyper reality of a large composite nude with small areas of digital bars/eges and background remnants, or using the black barred grid of a coffee table apparently dirty with water droplets and messy fingerprints to further divide up various constructed/manipulated images underneath, breaking into the uncomfortable third dimension yet again.
I think that not being a digital “native”, many of Citarella’s works feel a bit too cleverly contrived for me – each visual puzzle seems to resolve itself to an answer, a reference, or a series of ahas once the backstory is fully explained; I get it (I think), but that one-to-oneness feels a bit hollow in some places. A harder question is whether Citarella’s conceptual framework is representative of others of his age, and whether we need to incrementally shift our perception to understand better what he’s getting at. It is entirely possible that this show is executed in a visual language that I don’t yet entirely speak, and so I’m nodding my head and smiling like a fool without entirely comprehending all the interior thinking. That such a radical new vocabulary has evolved or is evolving shouldn’t be surprising or scary – we just need to realize that the water is moving very fast in these particular photographic rapids, and if we don’t stop and pay closer attention, we could easily be left behind, mystified about what has happened.
Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show range in price from $5000 to $17000, while the PhotoTex prints are $1500 each. Citarella’s works have little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail is likely the only option for those collectors interested in following up.