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Free Radicals - Elad Lassry´s Hermetic Photographic Works
It's interesting to be unsure - A conversation with Lorna Simpson
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Visual Encyclopedia of the People's Republic - Liu Zheng's monumental photo atlas The Chinese
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Free Radicals
Elad Lassry’s Hermetic Photographic Works


Cool, puzzling, seductive: Elad Lassry’s photographs seem too perfect to be true. Whether he “portrays” the Hollywood actor Anthony Perkins, decorative gourds or porcelain animals, the Israeli who lives in Los Angeles is concerned with seeing per se, with our perception and interpretation of images. Achim Drucks on one of the most interesting protagonists of a new kind of conceptual photographic art who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection.


The man who was Norman Bates: Playing the leading role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Anthony Perkins became the epitome of a psychopath. Only seldom in the history of cinema has an actor fused with his role to such an extent. Elad Lassry’s framed C-print Portrait, Baby Blue (2008) is based on a typical publicity photo of Perkins that must have been taken around 1960, the year Psycho was first shown in movie theaters. But there is no trace of Norman Bates or the other labile anti-hero that Perkins had played previously. Instead, the photo presents the actor – who in this phase of his life exclusively had affairs with men – in a completely different role, as the ideal son-in-law. Lassry uses the friendly blue in the background of the photo for the frame he employs for the digitally reworked picture. With it, he adds a sculptural level to Portrait, Baby Blue, thus emphasizing the object character of his work.

What do we actually see when we view Lassry’s photo? A portrait, as the title suggests? If so, it is definitely not a genre-typical “psychological penetration” of Anthony Perkins. Nor does the title reveal who we are looking at. Viewers who don’t know Perkins perhaps see a sunny boy in retro styling. Film fans probably see both the actor and Norman Bates, perhaps as an embarrassed man with a timid smile, perhaps in the role of his knife-wielding mother. Like all of Lassry’s works, Portrait, Baby Blue is only clear at first glance.

An actor like Anthony Perkins is a perfect motif for the artist (who was born in 1977). This is not only because a psychopath lurks behind the stereotypical sunny boy, but due to Perkin’s ambivalent sexuality, “forbidden” in the early 1960s, which makes him desirable to both women and men. Lassry likes to talk about the nervousness that characterizes his images. “A nervous picture is one that makes your faculties fail, when your comfort about having visual information, or about knowing the world, is somehow shaken.” He works with material from magazines such as Life and Playboy, as well as with pictures he has taken himself or photos realized by professional animal photographs he has commissioned.

While Lassry’s motifs range from sea lions and red cabbage to nudes seen from behind, they unmistakably bear his stamp due to the radiant colors, which can also be found in the frames, and on account of the uniform format of 11 X 14 in. Conceptual rigidity meets candy-colored kitsch, seductiveness meets ugliness. Like the works of Jeff Koons and Anselm Reyle, they are appealing yet at the same time slimy and repulsive. In a world in which so-called “conceptual” art has long become a luxury good, Lassry stages it that way. His career has skyrocketed in a short period of time. At the age of 20, he moved from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles to study film and art. In 2007, he completed his first degree, at the University of Southern California. He had his first solo show in 2008 at the Art Institute in Chicago, followed by his first retrospective at Kunsthalle Zurich in 2010 and an exhibition and performance project in the New York art space The Kitchen in 2012.

He has constantly expanded the spectrum of media he uses. In his drawings, which include Decorated Eggs, Candles (Centrepiece) and Frying Pan, Lemon, Eggs (2011) from the Deutsche Bank Collection, he continues his engagement with the still life. The arrangements of decorative art pieces, dishes, and foods recall pictures from old interior-design magazines which with their staged photographs reflected the American middle class’s idea of good taste. He has also made films in which he transforms ballet performances into a series of abstract pictorial compositions and has created minimalist objects vacillating between sculpture and furniture. Today, Lassry is one of the most distinctive young artists. He lives with a Chihuahua, two poodles, and two cats in Hollywood Hills.

His photographic works convey a sense of the perfection of Hollywood movies. No matter whether he shows decorative gourds or “Colorado’s Handsome Supermodel” Trae Austin Pflueger, the objects in his pictures look at once hyper-real and absolutely artificial. His “portraits” do not show personalities but desirable surfaces, are still lifes rather than character studies. With their single-colored backgrounds and the pedestals on which he drapes lipstick or glass figures, his images recall professional product photographs. “When I was starting out, conceptual photography had become something that had to be amateur-like, that had to be black-and-white, or photocopied, or really not an object in order to be taken seriously. It had to work against technical mastery,” explained Lassry in a conversation with Ryan Trecartin, with whom he was represented in the trailblazing show Younger than Jesus in New York’s New Museum. “My work (...) does look highly familiar and accessible. It does look like it's already ‘solved at first sight.’ It does look like it's part of a larger industry. There are all these clues in the initial interaction with the work that offer a safe space, and of course, they collapse very quickly, depending on how much you engage with the work.”

This is precisely what constitutes the fascination of his impeccable fetishes: They show very simple things yet still raise questions. Tree and Two Trees (2010) from the Deutsche Bank Collection show stylized trees composed of different-colored wooden parts. Are they politically correct toys, decorative art, or objects commissioned by Lassry? Why is Tree a black-and-white photo, but Two Trees in color? And how does this influence our perception of the picture and the objects?

Lassry’s works are a puzzle than cannot solved. Due to the eye-catching frame, their ambiguity begins on the formal level. “I don't think of them as photographs. I think of them as objects. I think of them as something that is suspended between a sculpture and an image.” The frame acts as a kind of display case in which Lassry presents the respective motif. In an age when photographs are omnipresent, when photos can be taken effortlessly on a Smartphone and sent immediately, he isolates individual pictures and puts them up for discussion. “The photograph – the finished work – for me is also a display. It’s allowed to move aside and to become a shelf or a pedestal for a viewer’s mental images, or the multiplicity or ‘ghosting’ that is within one picture,” he says.

Compared to most works of current photo artists, Lassry’s are small. The handy size of a magazine page is his preferred format, “working against the sublime and working against this genre of photography, the Dusseldorf school, like Andreas Gursky, this idea of taking up with painting, having this effect that you‘re taken over by the photography.” Along with artists such as Roe Ethridge and Annette Kelm, Lassry represents a new kind of conceptual studio photography which with its hermetic still-life character is in the tradition of modernism and which transports the cool style of New Objectivity to the present.

Lassry is also following in the footsteps of the so-called “Pictures Generation” around Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman who in the 1970s began appropriating motifs from magazines, films, and television. They scratched the surface of American mass culture and, by investigating the power of photographs, exposed mechanisms of consumption, lust, and representation. In their works, the artists of the “Pictures Generation,” including Jack Goldstein and Sherrie Levine, questioned not only the manifestations of consumer culture but also the notion of an “original” work of art.

But Lassry is concerned with fundamental experiences and insights – our perception and interpretation of everyday images, which are never clear-cut but always have hidden meanings and connotations. Perhaps that is why he repeatedly shows animals. Like pictures, they are omnipresent yet we don’t really understand them. He has often called his works “free radicals,” which are unstable, highly reactive oxygen molecules. They can cause oxidative stress, a chain reaction in which free radicals combine with existing molecules, giving rise to dysfunctional molecules and new free radicals. Lassry’s nervous works also set such chain reactions into motion, culminating perhaps in the insight that we shouldn’t believe everything we see.




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