Watch and learn
In Anne Speier’s large-scale works, black and white photographs – often of domestic spaces such as a bedroom or kitchen – serve as backdrops for cartoonish scenarios involving an exaggerated cast of actors. Using an amalgam of painting, photographic and cutout techniques, her collages serve a purpose: providing layered stages for the performance of social roles, some from the artist’s own observations.
Two related pieces in the artist’s show Lurk-Hive Balance at What Pipeline in Detroit last summer exercised a characteristic perceptual shift. For How We Arrange Ourselves, Background to the Fore (2014) the shadowy outlines that appear in the background of How We Arrange Ourselves (2014) switch places with the brightlypainted individuals formerly in front. Instead of exact copies though, the cutouts are near approximations – as are the repainted figures now relegated to the background. Previously hidden, the faceless extras now occupy that privileged foreground position – a pair of silhouettes shake hands as if to celebrate their promotion. Mean-while, all wincing eyes and open mouths, their predecessors show their shock at this upstaging.
This shifting, sorting, collapsing and repurposing allows Speier to maintain flexibility between images before settling on the right combination. The performed theatrics in her work often come from observation. I was reminded of this when someone spilt their soup at the Viennese cafe where I met with the artist before visiting her studio, the scene unfolding as an almost caricatured micro-drama. Sometimes her figures humorously visualize situations that resemble Erving Goffman’s observations in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. For instance Observing a Conversation and Observing the Observation of a Conversation (both 2014) make reference to a passage by Goffman, in which a woman watches three figures’ interaction to observe their actual impressions of each other. Yet the artist uses her imagery evasively rather than as analysis. Speier’s portrayals of social scenes are more Saul Steinberg’s Techniques at a Party (1953) than say, Italian painter Renato Guttuso’ Caffe Greco (1976). Whereas Guttuso tends to sexualize women in his paintings, Speier’s females usually outnumber the men, or her characters are often androgynous, genderless, abstractions (such as a grey nebulous figure in Observing the Observation of a Conversation). Features too, for Speier, range from the lumpen to the comically illustrative, and, as with Steinberg, personality comes by way of a facial expression or gesture that asserts a social position.
In these two-dimensional works, figures are usually dressed up in attire fashioned from curved or crumpled photographs. Prints are firstly bent into position, then re-photographed, cut out and finally placed within the composition to suggest the folds of fabric or surrogates for clothing. Among the pictures that Speier uses are glossy images of food such as stacks of toast, homemade ‘broken glass jelly’ or an ‘egg in a basket’ (an egg fried in a hole cut out of the middle of a piece of bread) that look like they could be found in a cookery magazine. Tantalizing and alluring, notions of aspiration and taste are also subtly codifed within these images.
Food appears centre stage in Untitled (Red Cabbage/Laughing Cooks) (2014) with an image of two halves of an oversized sliced red cabbage, which form the surface of a table. Around it stands two waiters and two cooks in a restaurant kitchen – yet another social arena represented in Speier’s work. Three of the figures are coloured blue, yellow and red, while the fourth is more recognizably defined: a rosy-cheeked, grey-haired woman, probably the head chef. In place of photographic garments their painted uniforms show their roles. Together they are all wide-mouthed in laughter, but what’s the joke? What makes the waiters and chefs snigger within this famously hierarchal workplace? Is this a polite laugh in front of the boss, or hysterical kitchen insubordination? Typically something is amiss in Speier’s work, whether it’s hidden from view or withheld in the content. With no clues as to the gag in Untitled (Red Cabbage/Laughing Cooks) for example, the viewer is left somewhat estranged. The feeling is that you have arrived just a moment too late: just after the punchline, just missing the joke.
First published in Issue 18