Truthiness

Andy Warhol ate a hamburger for Jorgen Leth‘s 1981 documentary, 66 Scenes from America. He sat alone in a gray-blue room, wearing a suit coat and a tie that matched the ketchup bottle. He chewed slowly, fidgeted, stared off into space, removed the top of his bun, rolled his burger up like a taco, then fidgeted some more. He looked at the camera only once, giving it an uncomfortable, searching glance, as if asking how much longer he had to maintain the charade. At the end of the scene, he tensely announced, “My name is Andy Warhol and I just finished eating a hamburger.”

Todd Gray,

California Mission: Horse, 2006


Watching Warhol eat a hamburger is far from earth-shattering, but it’s unambiguously, weirdly funny. His eccentricities dominate the experience and the scene becomes a strange, hybrid monument to an American icon and an American pastime, at once a symbolic performance and an honest depiction of an artist’s cryptic approach to consumption. When filming Warhol, Leth aimed for the feeling of truth rather than truth itself, and the result is believable yet unmistakably fictional.

Stephen Colbert popularized the word “truthiness” in 2005, defining it as the gut-wrenching sense of truth that supersedes rationalization: “Anyone can read the news to you,” Colbert told his Comedy Central audience, “I promise to feel the news at you.” Like everything Colbert coins, “truthiness” functions as a joke, a stab at harebrained U.S. politics. But artists have been intently toying with this idea for a long time, and, in a new exhibition at the California Museum of Photography called Truthiness: Photography as Sculpture, a landscape of straightforward, three-dimensional photographic fictions expand on Colbert’s vocabulary.

The work in Truthiness seems perfectly situated in Riverside, an hour out of Hollywood – close enough to feed off the language of filmic facades and far enough to avoid buying into la-la land nirvana. Like movie sets, the mostly sculptural photographic works by the exhibition’s 15 artists are believable even though they’re obviously not; they interpret the “truthiness” of photography, coming out into the space in an emotionally convincing, perspectivally deceiving manner. They’ve progressed from image, to object, to scenes that occupy time and space.

Katie Grinnan‘s Rubble sets the tone for the exhibition. It’s confidently askew, like a house that dropped out of a “Wizard of Oz” inspired tornado, still structural despite the fact that a wall has become the base and a row of windows now protrudes out at a stark diagonal. The red-paned windows and doors that give Rubble its wry consistency are both the sculpture’s backbone and its biggest illusion. They provide a sense of place, yet the warmly lit reflections on the window panes suggest an exterior world of brick houses and dry brush that doesn’t exist in the museum space, reminding us that the skewed house is actually a collection of ambitiously mounted large format photographs.

Todd Gray‘s approach to sculptural photography is more grounded, but no more rational. In California Mission: Horse, the taxidermied rear of a horse extends out from a serene, albeit overcast, photograph of tangled tree branches. The work isn’t as unsettling as it is pithy, a succinctly articulated juxtaposition of image and life. The horse, now more object than animal, juts out of a flat, moody record of nature, emphasizing art’s inability to ever really break with pretense.

Katie Grinnan, Rubble Division, 2005-2006

If Grinnan captures the fun, tornado-like instantiations of “truthiness” and Gray gets at the inescapability of illusion, Dana Maiden‘s work stands somewhere in between. Maiden’s Aerospace and Lights, Handstand in a 99¬¢ Store, a wall of fluorescent lights – photographs of lights, that is – , playfully invites us to an engage an obviously fabricated experience. It’s also a cagey installation, cagey in the same way Andy Warhol avoided Jorgen Leth’s camera, not deceptive about its identity as a performance but still reluctant to stare artifice in the face.

In the upstairs galleries, Gina Osterloh and Bari Ziperstein turn the tables, exploring sculpture as photography rather than photography as sculpture. Osterloh’s Dots Front Misfire (Cut Room) is one of a series in which a paper encased figure crawls through a pelagic room of pastel colored streamers. Ziperstein makes not-quite-functional, column-like white sculptures and photographs them in domestic spaces, creating scenes that initially seem architecturally hip but upon closer examination seem inexplicably off-kilter. Although the two artists may be changing the rules, they certainly toy with “truthiness.” Whereas other artists in the exhibition provide experiences that occupy time and space, they offer 2-dimensional records that capture the feeling of truth.

Mary Younakof, Red Alert, 2008

Feeling truth requires a certain amount of leniency, which is why Stephen Colbert doesn’t like books and dictionaries. Books, he says, are “constantly telling us what is and isn’t true, what did and didn’t happen.” Imagine how he must feel about museum exhibitions like this one that endeavor to gauge and define trends.

Truthiness’s didacticism is a double-edged sword, but it’s hard to decide which edge is sharper. Seeing all the work together inevitably invites comparisons and judgments – some artists seem to be more relevant to the photography as sculpture dialogue than others, and then there are those few rebels who might not really belong to the genre at all. Yet, like going to the Whitney Biennial or the Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate, seeing all the work together makes you feel like you’re on top of the moment, like you’ve sensed the truthy pulse of art today.

Bari Ziperstein

Untitled (Bedroom), 2006

When Andy Warhol looks up and says, “My name is Andy Warhol,” you know that you’ve just watched a canned performance. If he hadn’t opened his mouth, you might have been able to believe, at least for a moment or two, that you’d just glimpsed the unconventional icon’s private moment with a burger. The same goes for Truthiness. When encountering Grinnan’s work alone in an LA gallery, the play between photograph, object, and experience seems fresher. At the California Museum of Photography, it seems like something to argue over, to put in an exhibition catalogue, and to write essays about. And doesn’t that process threaten the down-to-earth, tongue-in-cheek appeal of truthy art?

Nonetheless, Truthiness does what a museum exhibition should do, bringing together a collection of passably like-minded artists, and exploring how people perceive images. Optimism wins in the end and the work in the show suggests that the constantly overlapping realms of truth and facade generate an inviting, accessible space in which to feel life.

-Catherine Wagley

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