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AlexGCao.com

PIXEL-PERFECT AMERICAN ICONS
JOSHUA B. GRAY

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Inspired by some of the most ancient art known to man, photographer Alex Guofeng Cao has created mosaics for the modern age.

Cavalier Galleries on Main Street will open a month-long exhibition this evening showing his large-scale digital images in a show called “Icon vs. Iconic.”

Utilizing familiar images of some of the most recognizable faces of the 20th century, Cao has composed larger-than-life mosaics – photographs composed of other tiny images. A portrait of John F. Kennedy is made up of tens of thousands of images of his wife Jackie exposed in a manner in which the small pixels create the larger image. Joining the Kennedys in the Nantucket installation are images of Marilyn Monroe and the Mona Lisa, John Lennon and Elvis, among nearly a dozen others.

Garnering headlines across the country wherever the work has shown, Cao became the star of last year’s Art Basel in Miami, Fla. after being featured in a cover story in The Miami Herald and selling out his exhibit. Since then a slew of other mainstream publications and art journals have focused their attention on Cao, whose roots are in commercial photography and celebrity portraiture.

Born in China and educated from high school on in the United States, Cao was a fan of history first and foremost, and received inspiration for his current body of work after studying Western antiquity and ancient Eastern societies. He was also strongly influenced by the Pop Art movement in the United States that Andy Warhol is most famous for representing.

 

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…the creative ingenuity of Cao’s method appealed immediately to me. There is something in the breakdown and repetition of the images that creates some sort of a new, psychological re-casting of Muybridge’s chronophotography, analyzing thought and emotion rather than physical motion. Cao’s pictures have a powerful immediate impact. They remind me of the first time I encountered the photo works of Doug and Mike Starn, Vik Muniz, or Andres Serrano amongst others, all young artists at the time, that I had discovered. The combination of sharp wit and nuanced sensibility makes Cao a worthy successor to this lineage…






Stefan Stux

 
DECOMPOSE/RECOMPOSE: A DIGITAL RESURRECTION
BETH E. WILSON

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The history of photography is a history dogged by death, by shades of mortality. Looking at an Alexander Gardner photograph of Lewis Payne, one of the Lincoln conspirators, shortly before his hanging, Roland Barthes shudders at the realization that “he is going to die….This will be and this has been; I observe with horror anterior future of which death is the stake….a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” (Camera Lucida)



Yet at the same time, looking via a photograph into the eyes of someone who is now dead, is itself something of an act of resurrection—once again, we can experience the presence of that person, as they stood that day before the camera. Images speak in a way that seems to transcend mere language; the density of the analogical photograph, with its impossibly minute gradations of dark and light silver salts embedded in the emulsion, seems endlessly overdetermined by reality it depicts, its transparency the product of what Barthes identified in “The Photographic Message” as its unique status as “a message without a code.”



Of course now that we’ve launched into the digital era, many of these older medium-specific claims for photography have been cast into doubt. Something about the very manipulability implied by the term ‘digital’ (digits = fingers!) casts lingering questions about the putative indexicality of the image, and the dense, overdetermined, impenetrable depths of the reality registered in the emulsion give way to the infinitely permeable grid/screen formed by an endless repetition of 1’s and 0’s, the binary genetic code of our digital era.



Alex Guofeng Cao’s recent work contributes an intriguingly dialectical twist to this set of developments: processing well-known images into grids of thousands of copies of a smaller, related image, Cao re-connects the circuits of historical meaning by breaking down the original analogue photograph into digital photo-mosaics that literalize the logic of their own production. Decomposing Marilyn Monroe into repeated strings of tiny JFK’s, he recomposes and focuses the meaning of the image—transforming one possible connotation of the original picture into a specific denotation—as it is now seen through the filter of the added historical reference. The digital ‘pixel’ itself now becomes a new, self-conscious carrier of meaning itself, and not merely a structural support for its expression.



Of course this process leverages the cultural logic of Benjamin’s discussion of the withering of the aura in the age of mechanical reproduction; only here, one can read that withered aura as the very indexical presence presumed to occur in the photograph itself, as it progressively recedes from view in the digital era. The distance traversed between the gridded silkscreens of Warhol’s Marilyn x 100 and Cao’s Andy Warhol vs. Mao, in which Andy himself emerges from a sea of Mao’s, charts a telling twist of fate for the photographic image—and ultimately, for our relationship to the changing conceptions of reality undergirding each of them.



The artist renders (what Barthes formulated as) the photograph’s intransigent presence as what-has-been porous to the narratives of history and the process of representation itself. The process of decomposing the original image allows it to re-emerge with a new lease on life; to be resurrected, as it were. This is a humanized resurrection, to be sure—Cao does not allow the ease of the computer’s mechanical repetitions have the final say. In each large photomosaic, made up of tens of thousands of virtual pixels, the repeated, embedded image is interrupted at least once in the overall grid, replaced in one or more locations with yet another, still related picture. In JFK vs. Marilyn, for example, the ‘pixels’ numbered 1962 and 1963 have been replaced by an image of a candle and of a rifle, the former making multiple references (to Marilyn’s notorious performance of “Happy Birthday” for the President as well as the votive use of the candle in religious commemoration), and the latter an obvious reference to JFK’s death in Dallas. So rather than taking for granted the global uniformity of the field of images, the viewer is charged with recognizing (indeed, of hunting down) those places/spaces where the hand of the artist is somewhat ironically most present.

The most recent development in Cao’s innovative recruitment of this new digital dialectic shifts the focus from celebrity-driven images to those that carry the weight of history and of deeper meaning with them, for example in the pair Gandhi vs. Mother Teresa and MotherTeresa vs. Gandhi, which provide a fundamental reflection not only on celebrity, but on compassion (something which could use much more replication in the world).



Continuing this impetus to respond in a deeper way to the image at hand, Cao has begun working with indelibly familiar pictures of news events that were first circulated in the press. The first work of this series, Sudan vs. Carter, appears in the current exhibition. The primary source photograph, showing a starving child in Sudan ghoulishly watched by a waiting vulture, was made by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter in 1993. The photograph was published, among other places, on the front page of the New York Times, where it drew immediate critical attention not only to the dire humanitarian circumstances that it documented, but also to the role of the photographer himself in the situation, who was identified by some as a vulture of only a slightly different sort. (There are several somewhat variant versions of the story of the photograph’s making; apparently the child did successfully make it to a nearby feeding station, in any event.) Carter went on to win the Pulitzer Prize the following year; despite this acclaim, his life continued what had been a long-term downward spiral, and two months later, he took his own life. In Cao’s picture, the circle of misery is made complete, by using a head shot of Carter himself to reconstruct the famous news image; in the process, the tables are turned as the photographer is explicitly made a part of his own picture.



Every resurrection requires that a death precede it. By this measure, perhaps photography has already had more than its share—through the ever-evolving parade of technologies that have shared the name, from daguerreotype to calotype, wet plate to dry plate, and now gelatin-silver to digital, we disregard and abandon its older forms and formats, even as we have come to understand and appreciate the new possibilities that open with each new advance. In Alex Guofeng Cao’s innovative work, we have an exciting new window with which to reframe our very conception of what constitutes ‘a photograph,’ giving the medium a new lease on life: yet another resurrection.




Beth E. Wilson is an art historian, critic, and curator. She is a Lecturer in art history at SUNY New Paltz, where she teaches courses in the history of photography and film. She has organized a number of exhibitions at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz, including Taking a Different Tack: Maggie Sherwood and the Floating Foundation of Photography in 2009, and The Material Image: Surface and Substance in Photography in 2005. She was the resident art critic for Chronogram magazine 1999-2008, and has published essays in a wide range of art and photography journals and exhibition catalogues, including a contribution to the volume The Art Seminar: Photography Theory, edited by James Elkins and published by Routledge in 2007.

 
THE BIG PICTURE'S SMALL PARTS
JONATHAN GOODMAN

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Alex Guofeng Cao, a photographer artist born in China but raised in the States and now living and working in New York, has long been appreciated for his photography. In the current show at Stux Gallery, he offers remarkable, often large-scale photographs that are made up of tiny pictures, mostly of someone close to or responsible for the overall image. While this kind of picture is familiar to most of his audience—the technology to make such images has been around for some time—Cao raises the method to new levels of expression in his portraits of such famous people as Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, and Frank Sinatra.

Working in black and white, Cao expresses a deep fascination for subtle gradations of tone, whose deep blacks and stark whites balance each other quite nicely in his art. Although Cao’s photos regularly concern famous entertainers, he is not afraid to touch upon the tragic, such as the large image of John F. Kennedy composed of thousands of diminutive Marilyn Monroes. Clearly the artist has taken the broad view in terms of imagery; his emphasis on celebrities is itself an adroit comment on Warhol’s photos of the stars. The generally pop sensibility expressed in Cao’s work thus possesses a lineage, which can help explain the bias of his sensibility.



In fact, it is interesting to consider Cao’s imagery in contrast to the general movement toward pop imagery in China, along with the recognition that his work should be seen in light of New York’s pop phenomena. The Chinese generation that lived through the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, only to experience the crushing of the democracy movement 13 years later, is now mature. In their place is a new generation that takes little interest in social or political issues; many of the Chinese artists under thirty are creating simple, highly recognizable images that have to do with fashion and fun. Interestingly, Cao’s time in New York has distanced him from a Chinese pop sensibility and propelled him into the world of Western pop art, where, beginning with Warhol, fame and fortune have always had a high-art context. It seems to me that the overarching structure of capitalism has turned contemporary art toward the appreciation of the popular, in the sense that the cult of celebrity is essentially a group spectacle, necessary for the pleasure of people generally and available across the entire social spectrum.


Cao’s task is made easier by the history of Warhol that precedes him. Warhol’s great achievement was to take the pleasures of post-war American life and paint them large across the canvas. Controversial to some, he nevertheless brilliantly understood the psychic attractions of material gain, as well as the fix the country had on a few celebrities, best comprehended as the projection of difference in a country where everything everywhere was becoming increasingly the same.

Indeed, Warhol himself became the first art superstar, so that his output not only celebrated the rich and famous, it also cemented his position as an artist of nearly infinite repute. Warhol manipulated this position of fame as adroitly as he took pictures of the stars, who embraced the images of fame being created by an artist of fame. Cao also works up an   imagery whose personae we recognize immediately, much in the same way Warhol posed celebrities of the moment. By working this way, Cao is relying upon a method that owes its distinctiveness to art practice in New York during the 1960s, a time of both idealism and glamorous fun very much unlike present experience. In a sense, then, Cao’s art is historically minded, for many if not all of his portraits are figures from the past, in recognition of Warhol’s own sensibility. Indeed, Warhol himself is an artist no longer alive.



The implications of Cao’s Andy Warhol, created by myriad tiny pictures of Mao, are remarkable. Both Warhol and Mao speak to the bicultural affiliations of Cao, who despite his affection for New York is inevitably drawn to Mao because of his ethnicity and early experience. Warhol’s image here is well known; it shows him somewhat reserved, unsmiling but not aggressive, and sporting a shock of longish silver hair. From a distance it is hard to see the pictures of Mao that make up Warhol’s gestalt, but an up-close view reveals Mao in various shades of gray. (The image itself is created on the computer, which enables Cao to work up considerable variations in tonal contrast.) In a way, Cao’s Warhol is key to his show—it is a picture of Cao’s mentor created from thousands of images of Mao, China’s all-powerful leader while Cao was growing up. At the same time, it of course references Warhol’s own treatment of Mao, whose graphic images stand out as memorable productions. Knowing that history subtly changes our reading of Warhol, both a god and a trickster in contemporary American art history.


Another famous image recreated by Cao is that of a smiling Frank Sinatra, whose widely grinning countenance is composed of miniature images of Liza Minelli. According to Cao, the picture is based on a memory of the two stars singing “New York, New York” together on television. For the artist, this was the quintessential pop treatment of a city he has much affection for. The image shows Sinatra as a relatively young man, dressed in a sports coat and tie, wearing a black fedora.

His broad smile is contagious—he radiates the self-confidence of the gifted, which of course he was. While this portrait is based upon an image of an experience Cao never had, it nonetheless is an implicit homage to a great singer and a great city by someone who appreciates both. In another picture, of Madonna in her Like a Virgin period, we see a pop singer at her sexiest, composed of myriad small pictures of Leonardo da Vinci’s different Madonna—the mother Mary holding the baby Jesus.



So it happens that a religious portrait is responsible for a worldly one; Madonna’s erotic appeal results from repetitions of a holy image. Clearly, if only for the moment, the pop image wins out over the Old Master painting. In her prime, Madonna shows off an ego even larger than her celebrity. Yet the image possesses a subtle irony, making it clear that Cao appreciates the machinations behind the fame of a contemporary goddess at her best.



It is also true that Cao can claim a more serious side: his picture of Gandhi, the great nonviolent Indian activist, is composed of small photos of Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun who helped the poor and sick in Calcutta. Cao preserves the magnanimity of Gandhi’s smiling face; in the picture Gandhi is partly bald, wears wire-rim glasses, and has a graying moustache, but the most striking part of the image is the kindliness of his eyes. Looking at him close up, however, we see that the big image results from a reiterated shot of Mother Teresa, whose wimple frames her compassionate face: two holy personages in a single picture! Gandhi’s leadership and strength of character were decisive in winning independence for India, while Mother Teresa seemed to embody the Catholic Church’s willingness to help stop the suffering of those persons close to death. While they came from different backgrounds and religions, Gandhi and Mother Teresa share a concern for those unable to speak out for themselves, either politically or in the case of illness. The two figures reinforce each other’s spirituality in this striking image, which is sure to make Cao’s audience think carefully about the nature of charity in addition to nonviolent politics.



However attractive the images may be, they cannot easily be compared with the moral force of a vulture waiting patiently for a Sudanese toddler to die. This image, taken by South African photographer Kevin Carter, points out his willingness to confront the horrors of famine. The photo made Carter famous, but he was affected so strongly by the suffering he was recording, and by hate letters that accused him of carelessness and indifference, that he committed suicide. Cao has built up this harrowing image with small pictures of Carter himself; in this case, the large photo is produced by an image of the man who took it. But the image of death wins out; the repeated image of Carter cannot bring back the man who captured an unforgettable image of suffering. Cao has chosen to use this image as part of his own work. Its inclusion makes it clear that he sees not only the pleasures of modern life, he also understands that these enjoyments are to be experienced in the shadow of extreme duress. The reality of starvation coexists alongside the reality of fame and fun. Cao is not preaching; rather, like Carter himself, he offers the image as a warning of what people endure, now as always. The photo contributes to our perception of Cao’s depth, which uses the photo as it has been historically used—to record the pain that is part of life. The contrast between the vulture’s picture and the erotic suppleness of Madonna cannot be greater; together they underscore Cao’s complex realism, in which a pop sensibility is deepened by a feeling for the tragic.








Jonathan Goodman is an editor, teacher, and writer based in New York. Currently he is affiliated with Pratt Institute, where he teaches art criticism and contemporary art history. He specializes in writing about contemporary Asian art, Chinese art in particular. He writes for such magazines as Sculpture, artcritical.com, and ArtAsiaPacific.