Exhibition Review: Willa Nasatir at the Whitney Museum of American Art
By Isabella Weiss
Trophy bottoms, toy busses, giftstore seashells, paint buckets, plastic flamingo heads, and bed frames: these are a number of the identifiable things in Willa Nasatir’s experimental photographic works currently exhibited at the Whitney. These images embody the meaning of the previously emphasized term, the designation “things.” They are a sundry collection of vague yet distinguishable objects just as the term "things" is a plural and unspecific signifier of material bodies. "Things" are objects not precious enough for their own name or reference. They are the collective junk of consumer society.
Hands, the makers and consumers of “things,” are themselves featured in Nasatir’s artworks at the Whitney. However, significantly, Nasatir’s hands are not human but manikin. In two of her exhibited works hand manikins are poised in a mutilated, defective, and partial state, their too few fingers bent unnaturally and impaled with screws. An artist’s manikin is a representation that exists in order to generate another representation, not of itself but of its original referent, thus it is made to disappear, to hide in the creative space between original and copy. A manikin is a commercial replacement for the human body, a human-like object that can be purchased for the purpose of art and ad. While hands are symbolic of both creation and consumption, manipulation and desire, hand manikins represent the action of consumerism as they are consumed; they mirror the hand that grabs them. Any implication of humanity in Nasatir’s work is itself “thing,” each being made of wood or plastic and graspable as the mercantile objects it coalesces with. Nasatir’s manikin hands, gift store seashells, plastic holly and flamingo yard decor all represent nature as gaudy and commercial.
Nasatir’s process involves two stages and forms of manipulation: the first manual and sculptural and the second digital and abstractive. She begins by sculpturally manipulating objects in a space walled with mirrors and flooded with light. She then photographs this scene and re-photographs the generated image until it has reached her desired degree of distortion from the original. The end goal of Nasatir’s manipulation is this distortion. In the paradigm of her work, distortion begins with a pose deformed by physical illusions---the inversion of mirrors, the reflection of glass, the fractionation of water---and ends with the perversion of digital photography, of pixilation, lensing, and perspectival distortion.
The spaces in these photographs are complexly confused. Their walls are mirrors and their windows lead to walls, their air is fractured like broken glass, their surfaces reflect foggy adumbrations of space like storefront displays. Distortion is an environment, not a state, in Nasatir’s work. It is not the objects in these images that are distorted but rather their context. They depict the environment of a world of things, and a world of things is a distorted world.
Today, commercial space has infiltrated private space. With shopping an increasingly domesticated task, the bed, sofa, and kitchen table are some of the most viable spaces of trade and consumption. With social media platforms fully established as the primary display-case of individual identity, the capitalist systems that produce and maintain these forums transform private expression into capital. The commercialized individual is hidden behind her/his possessions and desires, and thus the human is absent from Nasatir’s photographs. Her work represents a warped capitalist environment in which “things” have become the replacement for an “us” no longer visible.