Sarah Charlesworth, Regarding Venus, 2011
Sarah Charlesworth belongs to what is commonly called the Pictures Generation, a cohort of photographers whose modus operandi was appropriation, taking mundane mass-produced imagery and making it museum quality, calling into question the meaning (or the point) of everyone of those words, as well as the words that are the purported sine qua nons in art: authorship and originality.
In this work, Charlesworth embodies the ultimate figure of desire and beauty in western art, the mythological Venus, in one of the rudiments of physical and mathematical form, the sphere. Contemplating this perfect object and set up as its foil is a male figure, equally objectified, a figure not once but twice purloined: Charlesworth has taken him from a painting by Francis Picabia, called the Fig Leaf, which the French artist painted over another of his works that had been received poorly at a 1921 Paris exhibition. Picabia's wry commentary was about censorship and the bourgeois fetish for traditional art practices, and he took his figure (the first purloining) from a revered painting of Oedipus and the Sphynx by the iconic French master J.A.D. Ingres. Charlesworth appropriates the figure as a paper cut-out and affixes it to a sheet of artist's paper hung over the bright window of her studio. Then, as Picabia did, she places a purple fig leaf on the masterpiece.
Conscripted, stripped of his history and stature, and forever separated from the object of his gaze, the small man pales (an odd reaction for so dark a figure) in comparison to the brilliant light that casts him into shadow, the same light that defines the sphere as fully three-dimensional. Indeed, the same light that makes the photograph — all photographs — possible.
It is a work about objects and objectification, but also a work about the artist and art practice, and the Eden where the two bear fruit: the artist's studio.