On entering Yossi Milo Gallery, the viewer is thrust into a bubblegum-bright world. Dull, vintage vacation snapshots and the strained smiles of a graduation portrait are transformed into photographs reminiscent of greeting cards. Through sewn-on balls and lines, and Sharpie-thick strips of thread, artist Julie Cockburn playfully graffitis each photograph. But a surreal, eerie quality belies their perky facades.
Cockburn creates this effect using found photographs from garage sales and the Internet, meticulously embellishing them with embroidery and collage. Here, her background as a sculptor comes into play. By masking faces and upsetting the composed balance of the portraits, previously unseen emotions and relationships emerge on a three-dimensional scale. In a continuation of her past series, many of these works are cut and reshaped into patterns. Eyes get swapped with noses, and mouths sit on foreheads. New narratives enter these photographs, showcasing the vulnerabilities of the subjects.
The alterations are purposefully intrusive. The velvety, out-of-focus photographs get injected with splashes of color. The collage images appear jumbled, like a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be assembled, dehumanizing the subjects. Although portraits are, by nature, spectacles, Cockburn’s intervention turns them into objects meant to be gawked at, questioned, and ridiculed.
This is most visually obvious in a series of head shots smeared with thick swipes of white thread. Each person stares into the distance, with crimson cheeks and plump, pink lips. On top, the threads form a face reminiscent of a student’s yearbook doodle. They retain some of the features of the original but are reduced down to one line. A young girl’s glossy pigtails become two white streaks, brown eyes turn into circles, and mouths become monstrous, gaping rectangles. In another image, three children sit side by side, their faces covered by three multihued ovals attached in the center. Its title: The Favourite Child.
Familiar images—family portraits, headshots, and run-of-the-mill vacation memorabilia—lose their balance and symmetry. The viewer’s eyes don’t know where to land. They are drawn to the off-center dots and the three-dimensional embroidery instead of the perfectly proportioned faces originally intended to be the focus.
Her defacements create a dialogue with the image. The viewer starts to wonder about the obscured background and unspoken pasts. Through this conversation, traditional stories get turned on their heads. As with The Favourite Child, questions about family dynamics and relationships emerge.
This is most apparent in her collages, in which grins get destroyed and picture-perfect lives get slashed. In one image, titled The Merry Widow, a kaleidoscope of jumbled triangles distorts a portrait of, presumably, a woman in her wedding dress. Cockburn replaces a superficial story with another, untraditional one. Instead of a happy wedding, she’s severed and alone.
Of her own work, the artist explains that she’s “perhaps adding what seems to be hidden there or missing, unspoken.” But it’s vital to remember that she invented these narratives. She imposes a new story on each person rather than coaxing out existing ones, giving her an unfair advantage. In doing so, she rewrites their history in a way that seems reductive. She wields the sword, silencing her subjects. Still, these conversations shed new light on histories we often take for granted. What’s true always gets refracted.