July 8, 2015

Phillip Maisel 'Palomar Mountain (0928)', 2015; archival pigment print, edition of 5 (21.5 x 17.8 inches) (Courtesy of Gregory Lind Gallery and the artist)

Anatomy of ‘The Perfect Copy’ – Phillip Maisel at Gregory Lind Gallery

Artist Phillip Maisel’s new show ‘The Perfect Copy’ at Gregory Lind Gallery is a masterful display of geometric harmony and iterative repetition that also pushes the boundaries of what is possible in photography.

To make his works, Maisel scavenges a variety of mundane surfaces – glass, paper, cardboard, Plexiglas, tiles, mirrors, peg boards, etc. – from the street, thrift shops, and salvage yards. He then stacks them by leaning them against each other on a wall to make his composition and snaps the image. Afterwards he re-arranges the elements to make a slightly different composition and snaps an image of that. He repeats this process, sometimes adding or subtracting elements as he goes, until satisfied he has enough iterations of that stack. After printing the photographs out, Maisel will sometimes collage additional elements to the prints or the prints on top of themselves, and even cut into and bend the print forward to give it added dimensionality.

Rooted very much in the materials (both those gathered to make the image and those added to the prints), these works exist between, and as hybrids of, traditional categories of art, including: photography, sculpture, collage, and performance. Maisel pushes the boundaries of each, but most especially those of photography.

While at first glance the work appears clean and seemingly simple, the finished pieces are full of subtleties that can only be appreciated in person. Each work (the image alone is only the starting point of the piece) is comprised of a multitude of decisions made by Maisel, including the materials chosen and their arrangement, to the post-production of the print (both digital and physical), and the framing and exhibition layout. For some of these decisions Maisel has ready answers and ideas. For many others he lets intuition and chance guide his decision-making.

I met up with Phillip Maisel at Gregory Lind Gallery to discuss the show, to discover the process behind the making of the work, and to better understand the sensibility behind their creation and the artist himself. The following is an edited account of that exchange, which occurred on June 30, 2015:

Greg Flood: How long have you been doing photography?

Philip Maisel: I got into photography when I got into college, but I really didn't take it seriously. My great-grandfather was a photographer and my dad took photos. Photography for me, like for a lot of people, was a way to keep track of memories. I have a really bad memory so it was a great supplement for that.

In undergrad I got a degree in Psychology at McGill University. It was the most creative of the sciences, and I got into sciences because I knew I had a proclivity for it. I was good at math and science, and I knew that it would be the sensible, practical thing to do. So I didn’t start taking classes in photography until around 2006 while I was working full-time. I would just take one or two night classes over at City College of San Francisco, some design courses and color courses too. In 2009 I got laid off, so I had the opportunity to take classes full-time. That is how I built up my portfolio to apply to grad school.

GF: When you say you have a mathematical mind, it really does come through in the sense that the work is very geometric and it is very much about the relations between geometric forms in the way the compositions are put together.

How did you come to the idea of creating the constructed image? I say constructed as opposed to a composed or found image because I think a constructed image is a very different thing. The differentiation for me is that for a composed image, usually you are dealing with objects as they are, whereas in a constructed image one is physically altering the materials before putting them into the composition. I say this about the work because it seems like some of the objects you are photographing are found and others are manipulated by you before being put into the grouping. At least that is what I sense from looking at the work, but I may be incorrect.

PM: I'm not really altering the materials actually. A lot of times in some of the earlier work there were photographs that would appear in the images. In the case of the series "Feldspar" there are photographs in the sculptural arrangements. In these images, there are old prints that I had been playing around with in the studio that I had photographed already.

GF: But, what about the sculptural materials that are arranged in the original composition?

PM: For the most part they are found that way. For me it's nice to have a limitation, so that I am forced to use to the found materials as is. Putting that limitation in there frees me up from having to make too many decisions.

GF: I had been curious to know if and where the boundaries were for you in your process. Returning to the question I had originally asked, how did you get into constructing images?

PM: It started in grad school. I had applied to California College of the Arts (CCA) with a portfolio of work that was pretty different aesthetically from these. It was this series of long-exposure photographs that I would take of my computer screen while I was flipping through Facebook photos. That work was a response to how I felt as a burgeoning photographer in the age of the digital revolution and in the context of this influx of images from Facebook and Flickr. I don't think Instagram was a thing yet at that point. The work was about trying to replicate that overwhelming feeling. Through grad school I felt like I had done that enough, and there was something about being in front of the computer screen for so long that I was trying to get away from. This newer series of work is a direct response to that work, where it is physical and it is material, while still working with layers and being able to talk about surface a lot. In a certain way, it feels like the blankness of a lot of these materials is a respite from that overwhelming feeling that I was trying to illustrate with that Facebook work.

At CCA, I did a lot more with found images and my family photos, making these constructed things in the studio. But, what would come up during critiques or studio visits were questions like "Oh, what is this photograph about? Oh, this is your Chinese side of the family, so this is talking about a specific time and place in China, and so how does that relate." For me, there was that weight of representation that I was trying to get away from.

GF: Where do you find all of the materials you use? You obviously have some of the materials already, in terms of your family items, etc., but where do the more mundane things come from?

PM: Some stuff I find on the street. Some stuff I get from thrift stores or scrap yards. There are a couple of good places in town. Scrap is a great resource for that, Building Resources, Urban Ore.

GF: How important is collecting and accumulation to you? It is necessary to make the work, but is there a massive volume of stuff that you have built up from which you pull elements to make a stack, or do you collect materials until you have enough and go from there?

PM: I try to limit it, again, based on certain things. Sometimes I’ll go and find a bunch of stuff in one day, and on that same day I will shoot everything. Sometimes things reappear through different iterations of the work. I think about these materials a lot as stand-ins for photographs, in the way that I was thinking about layering. A lot of times they are rectangular and often they feel like the backs of images. I have used the backs of images before, too. For me it feels related to photographs. That is how I was thinking about them initially.

GF: Looking at the work, the color palette is very minimal, but there are these pops of color and there are these selected textures. How important is the use of color and texture in the work?

PM: The colors and textures come from a lot of different places. A lot of times it is formal and a lot of times it is chance. Sometimes while I am accumulating materials, I will think that one color or texture would look good with another. The specific colors don't necessarily have any emotional history to me at first. I feel that painters will often talk about the color red and what that means to them. My approach is definitely not that.

GF: Looking at the work you are showing in terms of categories, these are photographs. But, they are in a way also very thin sculptures, which comes about as they are finished. I say that knowing that some of these have no additional work done to them after they are printed and that the stack leaning against the wall in the gallery is a sculpture. But, what I find interesting is that you are taking a three dimensional stack of elements, flattening them down into a very thin layer of light which is printed as a photograph, and then you are going back in to add elements to the print and/or cutting and bending it to give it dimensionality again so that it becomes a sculpture in a way, while existing as a photograph. Do you view them and sculptures, photographs, both, or something else?

PM: I shy away from calling them photographs, even though some of them are straight photographs and others aren't. I think it is more complicated than just calling them photographs. I think of a lot of them as really simple collages. I like that term 'very thin sculptures’ I have thought of them as sculptures unto themselves because they do have dimension. I like that they come off the wall and that they are more than just a 2D surface. I think about them in terms of collage. When thinking about them as photographs it’s tricky, and in some ways the work is prodding at the idea of what can be called a photograph. I definitely think about all of the work as photographic. I think that strict definition of what is a photograph, is something to question. I have always had this ambivalent relationship with photography. Early on, the notion ingrained in me of how to be a successful a photographer was to shoot for National Geographic or become some sort of Photo-Journalist, which felt like near impossible careers. So, photography was always this thing that I loved, but also resented, and I didn't know where my place was in it.

GF: The works that you show are created in a sequence. How much editing are you doing? Do you shoot more than you print?

PM: Definitely. Sometimes it is more and sometimes it is less. It just depends on what works. In this show there are five photos from one shoot, another five from another, and six all from separate times. The show I am having in Chicago right now (Serengeti Green at Document) has twenty images that are all from one shoot. That show feels a little different, in that there are minor steps in between the photographs. I think what I ultimately show from each series also depends on the context and what seems to work for the space.

GF: The thing that I am also curious about is that the works are numbered in their titles. When the works are displayed, how important to you is the order of their display in relation to the sequential numbering? Looking at this grouping of six Palomar Mountain pieces here in the gallery, did they have to be in a certain grouping based on the order in which they were shot?

PM: No, a lot of times they are out of order. For a while I definitely did not want to show them in order. I feel like that has loosened up in a number of ways. I do not think it has to be strictly one way or another now. The numbering does allude to that ordering, so if you wanted to put them back into that order it is a possibility. Most of the time, however, it is about visual interest and variation. I have played with making animated GIFs of the photographic sequence, but that turns it more into documentation of a sculpture or of the performance of creating a sculpture, as opposed to a photograph, a photographic collage, or something else. I like that the work exists on a couple levels. I don't like it being too weighted one way or another, in the same way that I don't collage or cut into all of the images and they are not all straight photographs either. Sometimes I have them in order and sometimes not because I feel that it is important to keep the viewer guessing in a way. It doesn't pin it down or resolve itself easily.

I think that the individual pieces are bolstered by the context of a grouping, but I like that they can also totally exist on their own as well. They are fluid in that way. I can show one of them on its’ own here, and I can show the same one in the context of 20 other iterative images someplace else, and it works in both places. The sequence has a certain level of importance and you can engage with it on that level sometimes, but it also doesn't matter at other times. It can be about the relation between certain images or presenting them as surfaces, as opposed to documentation.

GF: Looking at the stacks of materials you use to make the images that you have on view in the gallery, the importance of these stacks seems to be in both how you layer the materials and in where you choose to put the camera to shoot it. Seeing them in the gallery as objects, you do not specify a specific place to stand in order to view them. Changing one’s position in relation to the stack changes the nature of how it is perceived. If I were the camera, changing my position would change the image that I would be able to capture and the finished prints would be impacted as well. Do you show the stacks often, or not? Also, when showing them, is it important to you how people experience them, in terms of them being only able to see them from certain angles?

PM: I have been showing them, but I never use the same materials that are in the photographs displayed around them. If I were to photograph a similar arrangement of the stack we are looking at, I would never show this sculptural arrangement in the same room as those photographs. I think that tips the hand too much and it would give away the images on a certain level. It would also become more about a comparison between what is or is not in the stack versus the prints made from it.

I think this stack obviously relates to the photographs, and at any given position where one stands in relation to it, the sculptural arrangement becomes similar to the images themselves. But I also like that one can move around it, and the elements and reflections change in accordance with those movements too.

GF: Do you hold onto these materials indefinitely and keep them together as a group, which then becomes its own finished piece that can be displayed on its own, while never being shown the same way each time? They become an ever-evolving sculpture in that sense.

PM: Well, things break, get scratched, rip, etc. while I am making the work. This stack in the gallery might be a good starting point for something that might appear as a single entity, but then I might lose a couple of pieces and/or swap out a couple of elements. They never are tied as a single entity. The only thing that ties them all together is a single photograph. Sculpturally speaking, these materials are very specific but are also very interchangeable, which is how I feel about the photograph too. It's like, wow that's a really specific texture I found in one specific place and it works really well right now, but I can probably find something else that can fulfill that someplace else. Ultimately, though, these things are not that important to me as specific individual entities.

GF: The thing that caught my eye in the work is while you are using a set of materials you have assembled it is also constantly changing and evolving. In a way the viewer is seeing the life of it as they go through the series that is produced. The stacks leaning against the walls are like parents and the photographs are like children in some sense, because you are generating the images from them and none of the images are ever the same, while still resembling the parent and each other. Then when you cut into them and add elements they really become their own entities. It's not a perfect metaphor for what is going on, but it is the most readily available. The other thing is that it is continuous and never comes to a full resolution.

PM: Well, it makes sense on a lot of different levels. To continue with that metaphor, the only exception I would say is that the parent makes the child, but then the child influences how the parent changes as well.

GF: In a way you are having an ongoing dialogue between the stacks and the finished prints, some of which are sculptures in their own way. I have also seen that you have taken a couple of fully framed pieces and stacked them against each other to create an even more complex layering of elements. It might be interesting to see a full stack of stacks done.

PM: That is something I have played with, in terms of restaging those materials.

GF: Coming back to the wall pieces, how important is the framing to you? Does the frame become a part of the work for you, or is it just a box to hold the work? With some of them it feels like it might be one way and in others the opposite.

PM: Considering all of the elements of presentation has been really important to me. Jordan Kantor, one of my advisors at CCA, really pushed me to think about that. Everything is really important, from the edge of the frame to how it responds to the light and the relationship to the floorboards. The borders that I leave from the printing process are responding to the frame as well.

GF: How much work are you doing in the computer to the images?

PM: In terms of post-production in the computer, I try to keep it as minimal as possible. It's pretty standard in that I have to adjust the colors a bit, sharpen the images, do some white balance, and things like that. Sometimes I try to get the colors as accurate as possible to the materials, and for the most part I do not deviate too much. I also wanted to play with the notion of the straight photograph. Besides the more physical things I am doing to the print, I am leaving the digital image pretty intact. It is not about what I can do in Photoshop, which is pretty much limitless and seamless at this point. This work is more about these physical acts of cutting and collaging or rearranging.

GF: There is so much digital photography out there and so many easy filters and manipulations. My feeling has been that to set oneself apart from other photographers you have to either shoot a super straight photograph, so that you can tell that it has not been manipulated. Or you have to go to the absolute opposite direction, where it has to be an image that is constructed to a point where it is clearly about the process of creating the image. It cannot be in this middle ground.

PM: That is also something to push as well though. There is this notion that once one finds out that an image has been photoshopped, it loses all of its credibility. But I think this is something to push up against too, and some artists are doing that.

GF: I just assume that everything that I see – from advertising to snapshots of friends – has been filtered or photoshopped somehow at the very minimum. In that sense, I know that I am not looking at an accurate reality. Then it becomes a question of whether the edited version becomes the real reality and the straight photograph becomes the alternate reality? Did they flip?

Coming back to the idea of collage, how much have you been looking at that area of art? I have read that you have been looking at Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus movements of the early 20th century. How much of that are you delving into and thinking about those schools in relation to the work you are creating?

PM: It's funny how influences work. I don't think about any of that necessarily when I am working on stuff. Usually when I am in the studio I have a pair of scissors, an x-acto knife, and my work in front of me. I am definitely looking at the Bauhaus, but I am also looking at hard-edge abstraction as well, along with Minimalism, contemporary work, commercial photography, collage, and other things.

GF: What is going to be next for you?

PM: I have some work being published in a book that is being released in the fall by Aperture. Charlotte Cotton is putting together this book ‘Photography is Magic’. It is a survey of 80 artists or so, who are looking at photography as subject, as material, and in the context of the Internet. I am really excited to be a part of that book.

In terms of the work itself, the pieces I did with the cuts into them are the most recent things that I have done. That is something I explored even more at the show I did in Chicago, where I was adding more collage to these very thin sculptures, as you like to call them. Other than that I don't really know until it happens.