The title of this small but powerful exhibition, “Discursive Arrangements, or Stubbornly Persistent Illusions,” is either an ironic feint or it’s begging the question. Centered discreetly but unmistakably around what a Buddhist art critic might call the “emptiness” of images, the show forcefully makes the point that it can’t be quite right, in light of their persistence, to call images illusions.
It was in the 1840’s that a British archaeologist uncovered an incredible stone bas-relief of a royal lion hunt in what was then the Ottoman province of Mosul. It was about twenty-five hundred years before this that artisans in the palace of King Ashurbanipal carved the relief, which shows a bearded royal hunter drawing back his bow in a chariot surrounded by lions leaping, pierced, and dying. And it was in 2009—about six years after our own army built a camp on the ruins of Babylon—that Sophie-Therese Trenka-Dalton went to the British Museum to photograph the entire length of the relief with a large format camera. In 2011 she created the site-specific installation The Royal Lion Hunt by emailing pdfs of those photographs to New York.
The 1:1 bitmap printout of her photographs is affixed to the wall directly next to the gallery’s door, turning around a corner to line up with the shoulder-height gray paint in the hallway. Ms. Trenka-Dalton heightened the contrast, and the effect is startling—lions frozen in mid-leap seem to float out as if in 3D. One suspended, horizontal arrow points at the door; next to the arrow, hanging down from the ceiling, is a small gold medal with a palm tree and Arabic inscription, one of a series awarded in 1983 to Iraqi citizens for supporting the war with Iran. In the office, a found WWI postcard shows captured Turkish shells; behind a closet door are decals of discontinued Iraqi dinars.
The key to all this is scale: to replicate an image at its actual size is to refuse to reduce it, and this refusal translates to the viewer—we’re prevented from thinking of the image reductively. The endless marching over the terrestrial palimpsest, the folly of empires, the long echoes of their folly, the disquieting sameness of kings, the rigidity of the image in spite of the pitting of time—they’re all there, but they’re humbled into silence.
Scale is also the key to Allyson Vieira’s two stunning watercolors. But if Ms. Trenka-Dalton’s reaction to the kaleidoscope of images is to reveal the enduring monumentality of even those that are reproduced, Ms. Vieira’s elegant solution is to seamlessly integrate pictures of pictures with pictures of their picturing. (She takes her inspiration from the F9 button on a Mac, which arranges all the files you have open in a loose grid.)
In Desktop (Cave Paintings), twenty-eight appropriated images of cave paintings, most or all of them presumably from the internet, are surrounded with thick white borders like Polaroids and arranged—along with an image of a bust of Pericles —on a warm gray background. Yellow horses, ochre bison, black elk, and red handprints, numinously present but distinctly other, live happily in miniature, and a column of multi-colored test daubs at the right edge form the artist’s own handprint. The caveman’s cave is Plato’s cave is the computer screen—but because she records this fact without comment, while paying such painterly respect to her small paintings of photos of ancient paintings, Ms. Vieira is able to give us an unmediated experience of her own mediation.
In Desktop (Athens Fire), the images are of the fires that menaced Athens two summers ago and of the fiery sun. The warm gray background is still the cave, but now also smoke, and the human presence—or the presence of people other than the viewer—is, again, discreet: three views of a Winged Victory, a column, three figures in silhouette, a tiny red helicopter. The helicopter, like the Assyrian arrow in the lion hunt, will never get where it’s going, but it can also never fall. The sun shines even through smoke.
Devon Costello, meanwhile, appropriates in oil paint a New Yorker cartoon of three women in a coffee klatch. He has enlarged the image, and omitted the caption, creating a contemporary analogue to Ms. Trenka-Dalton’s and Ms. Vieira’s melancholy resurrection of ostensibly dead cultures. It seems worth noting that though I recognized the triangular noses and palette of grays immediately, I had to look up the cartoonist’s name—he’s William Haefeli. The title, I don’t mind emotional trauma, is the first half of the missing caption.
Timothy Hull—who also curated the show with Lumi Tan—draws faithfully rendered Corinthian columns that ascend into fanciful crosshatching, and then slices the paper into columns, too. Thomas and Renée Rapedius present black and white photos of palm leaves—that is, of a palm-leaf book, a palm paper store, and a greenhouse—over a large green xerox on which silhouettes of the leaves have been arranged in a circle to look like a saw blade. And Ryan Mrozowski, in Untitled (XIII), presents an unidentified page from an art book in front of a lightbulb, behind a frame, so that we can see both its color plates—Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space and Alexander Archipenko’s Carrousel Pierrot, both from 1913—at once. In 1913, the Woolworth Building was the tallest building in the world.