JTF (just the facts): A total of 93 black and white photographs, mounted under glass on white walls in the main gallery space, the entry area, and the office. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, taken between 1976 and 1981. Most are vintage, save for three, which were produced this year from 1980 images. The photographs are presented here as 49 works comprising between 1 and 19 prints. The individual prints range in size from 7×5 inches to approximately 20×13 inches, and are generally available in editions of five. Several prints (or groups of prints) have been hand colored, and some of these also include drawn or collaged elements. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Until quite recently, Janice Guy was known only as the co-founder of Murray Guy (1998–2017), a gallery greatly admired for its sophisticated program of video, photography, and text-based art by the likes of Moyra Davey, Barbara Probst, and Alejandro Cesarco. But the British-born Guy began her life in the art world as an artist herself, receiving a BA from Sunderland Polytechnic in England and attending the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf on a DAAD grant between 1975 and 1980.
In Dusseldorf, Guy studied first with sculptor and performance artist Klaus Rinke and then—along with classmates like Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff—with famed conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. During these years, she produced a body of photographs with herself as a model. Long in storage, her pictures were shown for the first time in decades at White Columns in 2007.
Since then, Guy’s photographic work has attracted increasing attention. Her current solo exhibition at Higher Pictures follows on a 2018 book published by Barney Kulok and Hunters Point Press, for which Struth and photographer Justine Kurland selected 30 pieces from Guy’s student days. This show, beautifully curated and installed by Higher Pictures’s Kim Bourus, offers a more in-depth view of Guy’s small oeuvre—she stopped making art in 1981—which now seems remarkably prescient for its time.
Presented as they were made, in sequences and sets, Guy’s photographs most often feature the artist, nude, her bulky, 35mm camera to her eye, in a face-off with own reflection. While in many of the pictures published in the book, she appears twisted around a variety of props—an upholstered chair with round casters, a sofa, a ladder—she is more frequently seen here in ambiguous space, her image fragmented by mirrors; doubled by the addition of life-size prints hung on the wall behind her; or hidden behind an outstretched hand (in one picture, she forms a circle with her fingers and thumb as if imitating the camera’s lens).
As a beautiful young woman turning her camera on her own reflection, she is not only taking charge of her own image in these works, but taking charge of the moment, seeming to point her camera’s eye back at the viewer. But while the press release for the show emphasizes Guy’s reversal of the (presumably) male gaze, many of the works suggest a more complicated, less tractable, reality. In one sequence, Guy, her eyes closed in pleasure, lifts her face to the camera, the shadow of which falls across her throat and mouth. It seems at once to caress her and, more ominously, press down on her like a controlling hand.
Guy was one of a number of women artists, among them Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke, making photographic self-portraits in the 1970s. But although a few of Guy’s sequential photographs—including a series of four images of the artist in tears, and a group of 19 pictures in which she gradually covers her face with painted black “x”s—have a performative aspect, Guy did not often use her body to reenact cultural stereotypes of women, as Sherman has done, or satirize notions of feminist beauty, as did Wilke.
Rather, Guy adopts a variety of approaches in the service of mapping a transitional moment, both in her life and in the culture at large. She appears in her photographs as a compelling but fugitive presence, often in ways that seem to make mischievous reference to art movements historically dominated by men. In one set of pictures, she poses behind a French window; its smeared glass—tinted a different color in each picture—resembles an abstract expressionist painting into which she’s being absorbed. In another, she’s reflected in a pair of overlapping mirrors, her body transformed into a cubist composition on the order of a Picasso or Brancusi.
These fragmented spaces and bodies conjure Hannah Hoch’s collages and Lotte Jacobi and Germaine Krull’s photographic self-portraits from Germany’s Weimar era, a moment, like the 1970s, when women’s place in society was in flux. But they also seem to anticipate those of contemporary photographers such as Paul Mpagi Sepuya—who selected Guy’s book as one of his picks for Art in America’s “Art Books of 2018.” Like Sepuya’s, her works describe an always shifting landscape, both societal and psychic.