Ellen Carey

M+B, Los Angeles, USA

Ellen Carey, Self-Portrait, 1987, Polaroid, 84 × 66 cm

Ellen Carey, Self-Portrait, 1987, Polaroid, 84 × 66 cm

Ellen Carey, Self-Portrait, 1987, Polaroid, 84 × 66 cm

Ellen Carey studied at The State University of New York at Buffalo in the late 1970s alongside Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and other Pictures Generation luminaries. Not that you would guess it from looking at her work. The series of Polaroid self-portraits in this exhibition, each simply titled Self-Portrait and made between 1984 and 1988, have none of the Pictures Generation’s caustic punk attitude or processual directness. They are gloriously hued, effulgent photographic apparitions in which the artist’s head and shoulders are melded with psychedelic patterns, waveforms, spirals, checkerboards, diagrams of sacred geometries and fractals. They entrance the eye long before they announce their critical or ideological agenda – if they ever announce it at all.

In 1983, the legendary Polaroid Artist Support Program invited Carey to experiment with their 20 × 24 inch format camera; since only five of the hulking contraptions were ever built, she had to travel to the camera in order to operate it. The first series of pictures she made, shown here, comprises unique multiple-exposures free of darkroom trickery. Beyond some obvious visual clues – the artist lit herself with contrasting coloured lights, and sometimes posed behind lenses – it is very hard to fathom how such heavily manipulated images were produced pre-Photoshop.

This aura of mystery is essential to their visual and conceptual power. On the one hand, the Polaroid prints reveal themselves as photographs: their raw, uncropped edges show how their images are fixed in layers of once-wet emulsion. On the other hand, their bold fields of textureless colour and graphic punch render them more akin to collages or screen prints. 

Mystery could be seen to constitute the theme of the series; the self, ostensibly captured by high-definition photographs, is suggested to be as infinitely complex as such mathematical wonders as fractals or the Golden Section. In a text accompanying the exhibition, frieze contributing editor Chris Wiley places great emphasis on this purported implication of psychological depth. According to a view that gathered popularity through the mid-century writings of Carl Jung and, later, through the popularization of psychedelic drugs, Wiley writes: ‘Behind our everyday masks lies something far greater than ourselves, which, if it cannot be called “God” in a sense that would be popularly understood, is at the very least an unimaginably rich set of ordering principles whose origin and purpose may remain forever mysterious.’

The idea of metaphysical unknowability, however, is not actually what Carey ends up with. The kinds of off-the-shelf diagrams and designs that she appropriates are mostly demonstrations of mathematical order rather than chaos. (One marbleized pattern, a yellow self-portrait from 1985, is an exception.) While they might look trippy to the stoned eye, most are in fact just the graphic solutions of equations. Despite their countercultural associations, they are more concerned with the sober mapping of information than with wonderment.

Instead of a sense of depth or density, the photographs have a plastic flatness that is redolent of the technology that produced them, and which anticipates the backlit quality of digital, screen-based imagery. These works, which now seem so in tune with the practices of younger photo-conceptualist artists working today, might have seemed rather dated to Carey’s peers. By the mid-1980s, the mind-expansionism popular in the 1960s and early ’70s was receding fast in Western society’s rear-view mirror. New Age culture survived only in desiccated tropes, either in concentrated pockets of pedantic obscurantism or diluted into the mainstream. Carey, who turned 18 in 1970, was in her mid-30s when she made this series of self-portraits. Old enough, that is, to maintain a degree of objective distance from the experiences of her formative years, but perhaps not quite old enough to be free from their influence.

The photographs show a fractured self: in one work from 1987, her face is reflected in two circular mirrors held to her cheeks; in others, it is shrunk and scattered across a grid of small lenses. Carey seems to share with Sherman an awareness of the cultural construct of selfhood and a critical understanding of the way we forge unique identities from a miasma of readymade forms. That conception is not necessarily any less mysterious than the notion of an inherently fathomless soul. In Carey’s photographs, however, the mystery is arrayed across the surface rather than buried beneath it.
 

Jonathan Griffin is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Issue 177

First published in Issue 177

March 2016

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018