If you stroll into Elizabeth Houston Gallery between June 26th and August 15th expecting to see “normal” photographs, you might be somewhat startled by Andy Mattern’s abstractions. The second exhibition from his series Average Subject / Medium Distance, Mattern’s Normal Pictures are anything but ordinary. Doubling down on the irony implied by that title, SFMOMA is concurrently showing five of the artist’s works—all newly acquired—in Don’t! Photography and the Art of Mistakes, an exploration of the do’s and don’ts of “good” photography.
Reconfiguring mid-century paper dials that calculate “proper” exposure, lighting, and depth of field, Mattern transforms the very tools of conventional photo-making into wholly unconventional images. In his assembled typography of “Exposure Computers” (as they were dubbed by the manufacturers), he ceremoniously removes the tips and tricks on offer via Photoshop, eliminating all text and imagery that once gave users their bearings. What remains are the graphic elements of the dials’ design, bold diagonals and the hallmark circle at center where once an instructional wheel guided meticulous photo-takers to just the right settings.
The few words Mattern preserves in his images form their own mysterious poetry, enabling various arrangements into meaningful fragments. While some are obvious technical terms (“contrast” and “foreground”), others insert value judgments into the mix (“normal,” of course, and “important”). Add to these sparse indicators the terms “doubt” and “desire” and the field of interpretation grows exponentially wider. The precision of the instructions laid out in the photo computers is transmogrified by Mattern into remnants of the emotionally-charged performance of taking the exactly perfect photograph of, say, “flowers.”
But the artist has a more immediate connection to Constructivism than Fluxus, one that is doubly ironic. His bold palette of red, black, and yellow is somewhat more tempered in this body of work than its previous iteration, but nevertheless recalls the favored aesthetic of the Constructivists. Baby blues and greens modulate the mood of his Normal Pictures, balancing the starkness of its louder hues. Although evocative of the futuristic Russian art movement, Mattern’s images deconstruct rather than construct instructional objects, reducing the constitutive elements of original text to their underlying values and assumptions. What is the normal way to “show” flowers? Or doubt, or desire, for that matter? We are no longer told what to think.
While his graphics are equally vivid, Mattern diverges sharply from the Constructivist view that art itself is an object, and one of mass production at that. Instead, Mattern refashions such objects into works of art, reaching into the past for his source material. His abstractions are fashioned from documentary experience, a nod, perhaps, to Aaron Siskind. Amplifying the intentional incongruence of Normal Pictures, Mattern selectively enhances the imperfections of his photographs, scrutinizing them for dust or blemishes (the marks photographers are “supposed” to remove) that become the foundation for new customized patterns.
In doing so, Mattern transforms the “errors” detailed by proscriptive mid-century computers into intentions, building aesthetically extraordinary photographs out of the very rulebooks of normal pictures.