- Interpellation Revisited: A review of Gina Osterloh’s Group Dynamic
Group Dynamicis a brief but intensive introduction to the work of Gina Osterloh, a Los Angeles-based artist best known for her photographs of meticulously crafted room-sized sets with partially obscured figures that flout the conventions of portraiture. The occasion for the book is Osterloh’s three-month residency at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) in 2012, during which, at the invitation of curators Carol A. Stakenas and Robert Crouch, she moved her studio to the main gallery, there to engage visitors in both her process and her completed work. Group Dynamicincludes an interview with the artist, a detailed account of her video installation Pulling Apart Voice, and contextualizing essays by art historians Kris Cohen and Matthew Thompson. Aptly designed by UCLA’s Willem Henri Lucas, this compact monograph features foldout color photographs and smaller black-and-white images of both work in progress and finished compositions.
Osterloh’s cross-platform project, fully titled Group Dynamic and Improper Light, amplifies and extends her exploration of the cognitive and perceptual operations by which we identify objects--and human bodies in particular. At the beginning of her residency, she built a large wooden set, lining the walls and floor with hand-striped paper in a neutral shade. Inviting gallery visitors to position themselves in front of cardboard, she traced their shadows and cut out their silhouettes, later covering these with the same striped paper. Osterloh then experimented with various groupings of the cutouts within the papered “room,” photographing the final assemblages with a four-by-five-inch large-format camera. In the resulting group and individual portraits, the patterned figures mimic their patterned environment. While their edges are discernible, figure-ground contrast is muted, such that visual recognition is slightly delayed.
In this moment of visual hesitation, the viewer becomes conscious of what is ordinarily a very rapid and unconscious process: distinguishing objects in the field of view by way of familiar optical cues. By intentionally withholding some of these cues, Osterloh impedes the interpretive process and calls attention to how representational practices guide our understanding of photographed bodies. In traditional portraiture, figures are typically foregrounded and centered, facing the viewer. Backgrounds provide color contrast, and faces are sharply focused. Standard lighting plans bring out facial detail and control shadows. Expression, posture, and gesture may be staged to suggest mood or personality. And clothing and other props provide selective information about the figures and their social contexts. As Cohen observes in his essay on Osterloh’s earlier work, “The conventions of photographic portraiture accommodate, even coddle, the act of looking” (20). Interpretation and identification are rapid because specific expectations are already in play.
In photographs leading up to those produced at LACE, Osterloh has progressively decentered the human figure through a number of bold antiportrait strategies. In early self-portraits, her face is turned away from the camera or hidden by her hair, or her eyes and mouth are covered by paper ovals. Her clothing frequently matches the color or pattern of her set, and in some photographs only parts of her body are visible. Gradually replacing the human figure with faceless papier-maché models and then faceless cardboard cut-outs, Osterloh has moved increasingly toward abstraction; in recent work, her backgrounds seem almost to absorb the shapes before them. As the artist indicates in her interview with Michelle Dizon, “I consider the backdrops active and having as equal a presence as the figure” (8). Without the focalizing effects of sharp contrast and “proper” light, her photographs resist the patterns of inference that most viewers--including artists and critics--customarily employ. As one of her LACE curators has confessed, he initially found the work quite perplexing. “I could not figure it out at all,” Crouch has said. “I found it really confusing but in a good way” (qtd. in Mizota).
In her interview, Osterloh explains that she wants her work to raise questions, including “what is the line between formlessness and recognition of a body?” (7). Citing Roland Barthes’s Camera...