JTF (just the facts): A total of 4 large scale color photographs, framed in light wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are dye sublimation prints on dibond (with machined cut outs), made in 2016. Each of the prints is sized 50×40 and is unique. The show also includes one sculptural work, which is hung over the beams of the main gallery space and tied into a loose knot. It is a dye sublimation print on sateen, made in 2016. It is sized 1500×17 and is unique.
Comments/Context: If there is one common theme to the photographic artworks Kate Steciw has made in the past half dozen years, it has been the embrace of stock photography as an ingeniously pliable tool. Separated from personal authorship and touch, stock images are widely available on the Internet and inherently reusable, conceptually and practically perfect for use as raw material for further innovative rework and experimentation.
Taking a swirling stew of these pictures as a starting point, Steciw has iteratively repurposed and reimagined these signifiers using software tools over the years, and then gone further to repackage her results in various object forms, from her early shaped two dimensional works decorated with pre-made stickers and ceramic tiles to more recent three dimensional image objects with geometric cut outs, tinted plexiglas windows, and hanging chains. Through each progressive step, her work has always been grounded in a hard edged, machined quality, a digital coolness that has kept us at arm’s length, even as the works have become more layered and sculpturally sophisticated.
So the fact that Steciw’s newest works have largely moved away from stock photography and have begun to incorporate her own snapshots is an intriguing development. While her own photographs are in many ways just as forgettable as her other previous sources, they come with an inherently personal touch – a memory, a connection, or some other intimate significance that we as viewers can’t easily ascertain. Her purposefully “empty” imagery has been replaced by pictures with a hint of larger mystery, bringing the life of the artist back into the equation.
This more personal approach is also seen in Steciw’s gestural mark making, another new addition to her visual vocabulary. Gone are the rigid arcs and right angles of her previous geometric works, now replaced by squiggles and scribbles that dance across the surface of the images with confident energy. These digital annotations (made using her software tools) have then been precisely machined out, leaving open white space that allows the wall behind to show through. The effect is something akin to the digital erase tool working in the real world, her bold movements cutting out actual physical lines in the pictures.
In combination, the snapshots and the gestural marks play off each other. Steciw’s most literal interplay comes between an image of a cactus covered in incised graffiti and the artist’s own active zig zag tagging – countless visitors have left behind their initials and personal marks and Steciw has effectively done the same. In other images, the connections are more subtle. In two, fogged and scratched windows (of water from a ferry and the interior of a boat?) provide a scraped surface for Steciw’s own markings; in another, a sweep of incoming light and its reflections off a table add an alternate kind of intermediate glare that interacts with her physical movements. In all of these works, Steciw’s annotations are both formally aware of the lines of the image underneath and are actively interrupting those parallels and echoes.
Steciw’s sculptural marks feel like a meaningful step forward from the way most digital artists have used software-driven mark making in the past decade. For the most part, we have seen digital mark making as futuristic of-the-moment decoration or “painting”, or as a stylistic contrast to and deliberate undermining of the prevailing visual approaches. In Steciw’s case, these fluid scratchings have been brought into the realm of sculptural intervention – her incisions create space and volume, and in some cases, even cast shadows, depending on the angles of the gallery lights. Her gestures have become objectified as absence, while still retaining the recognizable look of a digital mark, giving us something hand crafted and personal in the vocabulary of something machined. While many digital marks feel like irreverent (and actively immature) afterthoughts, Steciw’s feel tightly integrated and expressively purposeful.
In the center of the gallery, Steciw’s sculptural interests find a home on a much softer substrate. Colorful images (largely unidentifiable as specific representations of objects) have been printed on shiny sateen cloth and then sewn together on a long thick fabric cord, which has then been looped from the gallery rafters and tied in a jumbled knot that pools on the floor. It is a literal tangle of visual ideas, bringing the fleshy organic shapes of Eva Hesse together with the overwhelming visual stimuli of the Internet, adding curves, wrinkles, and gentle draping to the anonymous precision of stock imagery. This work extends the idea of the image object in another direction, giving the imagery a fuller and more natural roundness that clashes well with the cropped down image textures.
Part of the challenge being faced by Steciw and the other members of her artistic generation is the difficulty of matching an exploding menu of technical decisions (what can be printed on what etc.) with the artist’s central aesthetic impulses. This show is evidence that Steciw is making increasingly thoughtful (and personal) choices in this area, leveraging the evolving options to deliver the desired results rather than being seduced by the wow factor of what can now be done. She’s brought the hand of the artist back into her work without sacrificing a modern machined look, and that contrast gives her new works more vitality and unexpected frisson than was present before.