Review: Lecture By Penelope Umbrico at the International Center for Photography
By Frances Molina
Last Wednesday night at the International Center for Photography, artist and photographer Penelope Umbrico hosted a lecture to reflect on her career as a New-York based photographer and to explore the thematic structure and methodology of her extensive portfolio of creative work.
The lecture began with a discussion of one of her most well-known pieces, Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (2006 – ongoing), which at the time of its first installation featured more than 500,000 licensed images of the sunset taken from the photo-sharing website Flickr and continues to grow with each new installation. The piece is made up of over a thousand prints of different sunset stills, arranged in what appears to be no particular order. The result is a spectacular collage of light and color that resonates with heat; viewers respond as if they are looking at the actual star. Their pupils contract as they bask in the “visual warmth” of the piece, and they are almost naturally drawn to photograph themselves and their friends in front of the piece as if it were an actual sunset.
Audience reaction to projects like Suns, she explained, is as essential to her creative process as her own research and composition. For example, artists who reacted with outraged indignation when Umbrico requested to use one of their photographs in her recent project Everyone's Photos Any License, 2015-2016 only increased her fascination with the idea that anyone could “own” a subject as ubiquitous as the sun or the moon just by capturing it with a camera. By contrast, viewers who delighted in taking pictures and selfies with Suns inspired Umbrico to consider “the line between the individual and the collective” and how evolutions in technology continue to help her own work to change and evolve its meaning.
In a similar vein, her use of Modernist objects in both photographs and sculpture represents an amalgamation of art and consumer product. Her ongoing installation Out of Order: Broken Sets and Bad Display uses broken LCD-TV screens to produce prints of brilliant light patterns, elevating an otherwise worthless object purchased online to an exceptional work of gallery art. By using specifically broken, outdated, or abandoned objects pulled from consumer marketing websites like Craigslist and eBay – televisions, corporate desks, potted plants the offices of foreclosed businesses– to create her compositions, Umbrico seeks to collapse the “obsolescence and breakdown of new technology”, inventing new beauty out of otherwise undesirable items that have lost their consumer value.
Umbrico’s creative approach, which involves a surprising combination of traditional technique and the appropriation of photographs and “throwaway” images that the artist carefully selects from routine Internet searches, has a distinctly punk feeling. Her unconventional “trash to treasure” use of conventional objects and images undermine their capitalist impact and reveal the farcical and the fanciful in common consumerist practices. The artist’s radical reinterpretation of everyday consumer items she finds featured in online photographs, mail-order catalogues, and travel brochures injects otherwise unremarkable images with new meaning, elevating a mundane object into a marvel.