A series of photographs in an art gallery shows a serious-looking young man dressed like a Chinese revolutionary posing in front of familiar American icons—the Disneyland castle, Cape Canaveral, and the now-vanished World Trade Center. Across the room, TV monitors show vintage performances of rock singers—some of them deceased—all bearing an eerie resemblance to the same young video artist.
Where, on a continuum between documentary and parody, do these pieces belong? The title of a recent exhibition at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery offered viewers a clue: Smoke and Mirrors: Deception in Contemporary Art.
Curator Brett Levine says the concept for the show came to him after he noticed a trend in contemporary art "of works entirely driven by deception, fabrication, or formulation." The deception in these works is sometimes so seamless, he says, that "the viewer doesn't know where fact ends and fiction begins." Levine adds that this type of art is aided by our generally unobservant natures. "We take what we see at face value, so we're very easy to sucker."
History of Trickery
Most visual artists working with deception as part of their palettes are seeking effects far more subtle than mere trickery. One of them is UAB associate art professor Derek Cracco, M.F.A., who uses centuries-old printmaking techniques to transfer digital works of art onto materials with names such as "gessoed ground" and "radish skin." He also uses large-format ink-jet printing to re-create an ancient fresco plaster-painting technique on wall-size installations.
Cracco is creating collages of pre-existing images, which he assembles with the help of the popular graphics software Adobe Photoshop. "Choosing the right images is the most difficult and the most important part," he says, "because for me, a piece of work must speak through its content, not just through its process." But he adds that "digital photography gives me a lot more finesse and flexibility in that process, with the ability to manipulate layers, the transparency of each image, and so on. As an aesthetic proposition, Photoshop is a really complex program."
So complex, in fact, that Levine says he's noticed a "technology generation gap"—older artists who didn't grow up with computers but who often hire younger techno-savvy assistants to help them realize their concepts.
Consumer versions of programs such as Photoshop are available for less than $100, theoretically giving anyone with a computer the ability to "fix" images beyond the capabilities of even the best retouchers and airbrushers of the past. Indeed, it's now comparatively rare to find a published photograph that hasn't been digitally "improved" with graphics software.
In a growing number of cases, digital manipulation is blurring the lines between fixing and fraud. Recently, a freelance war-zone photographer digitally edited a photo of bombed-out buildings in the Middle East to add more smoke and damage. Although he claimed it was an oversight, the news agency that published the photos fired him and made a public apology.
There were no such repercussions when an alert television fan noticed that a CBS publicity photo of incoming news anchor Katie Couric was identical to an image used earlier in the year—except that in the new version Couric's face and figure were digitally narrowed to make her appear 20 pounds slimmer.
"The bottom line," says Cracco, "is that it's become far easier to do more sophisticated types of deception that are far easier to hide than what you could do in an old-fashioned darkroom. But the digital software is only a tool. Like everything else, it all comes down to the ethics of the person who's making the image."