Q&A with Blouin Artinfo and Erin O’Keefe

The Phenomenon of Light and Shadow: A Q&A with Erin O’Keefe

Picking up in the tradition of still life photographers such as Barbara Kasten and Jan Groover, as well as sculptors like Brancusi and David Smith who used photography to explore the perspectival limitations of their own work, Erin O’Keefe makes pictures that reinvent physical space. She creates sculptures in a sense, but they’re not autonomous; they cannot exist without the photograph. O’Keefe exploits the camera’s ability to collapse the world in front of it into a single plane. In her work, you can never fully distinguish between the foreground and the background, or what is real and what is simply an illusion of light and shadow. Some people even insist they’re not photos at all.

Her current show, “Book of Days,” on view through May 14 at Denny Gallery, brings together two of the artist’s series. The first, “Things as They Are,” has been ongoing for several years. These works were created by photographing a simple set of materials in various arrangements—two painted boards that form a corner, and a handful of everyday objects (Plexiglas, mirrors, and sticks) that she uses to reflect or block light. The resulting images feature a series of clean, geometrical shapes that at once recall constructivist design and minimalist painting. The second series, the “Book of Days,” is newer, and more abstract, achieved by photographing dense layers of roughhewn cardboard. It was also born from a place of personal pain.

ARTINFO spoke to O’Keefe about the show, as well as her interest in architecture, painting, and the simple beauty of objects in light.

You trained as an architect and taught design for years before becoming a photographer. What about photography interested you?

It started with sculpture. I was making sculpture, and then I started taking photos of it and seeing all sorts of new possibilities in that. The timeframe for sculpture is much longer; the logistical requirements are much heavier than they are in photography. It was a pretty natural decision.

Does architecture still influence your way of thinking about the work? It seems like it must.

Absolutely. I guess for me it’s about the alignment of objects. When things are lined up in a composition, it creates a moment of spatial ambiguity, and suddenly you’re not sure about things being in the foreground or background. That’s certainly something you confront in architecture. I feel like the set of issues I’m interested in are the same in architecture and photography—issues of scale, perspective, transparency. I’m interested in the mechanism of that disassociation between physical reality and retinal reality.

The other connection for me is materiality. I love objects in light and the consequences of materials having inherent qualities that you can’t separate out. I’m interested in that tactility existing in the photos, so that you see it. In the new series, “Book of Days” the texture and imprecision of the subject are very important to me. And in the “Things as They Are” series, I’m trying to exploit the properties of a piece of Plexiglas, or a stick, or whatever it may be. These objects have properties that give rise to so many possibilities. I definitely see that as connected to architecture.

In your series called “The Flatness,” you used photographic prints in your pictures, effectively re-photographing them with the rest of the scene. In those works you’re playing with this idea of letting the object speak for itself—the physical print is allowed to speak for itself, but the subject of the photograph is not. Why did you move away from using prints in your work?

I wanted to see what could happen without another image. When including photos, you also bring in all of the baggage that comes with photography. Once you start, there’s no end to that—it could be this, it could be that. I like the idea of working with a reduced kit of parts and seeing where I can go with it. That was what gave rise to the “Things as They Are” series. It was just a simple set of rules. It’s a few pieces of Plexiglas, a few boards, a few sticks, and that’s it. With the “Book of Days” pieces, there was also a very limited palette of materials— just cardboard, paint, and scissors, which came directly from my experience building study models as an architect.

I’ve heard you say that some people insist your works are not photographs, which is funny to me. I wonder why people would think that.

I feel like each one is asking you a question. It’s an image, and you can see it that way, but then you can think, “Well, how is this image constructed?”

The “Things as They Are” series especially. Those works invite you to ask the question, “What’s going on here?” And you’re usually able to figure it out. The logic behind their construction isn’t as complicated as it seems at first.

Absolutely. In some cases, I’ve made them, printed them out, and then, when I looked at them later, had no idea how I did it. I’ve definitely gotten lost in my own tracks. For me, there’s an absolute visual pleasure in that, in the trying to figure it out.

That’s what I love about the “Things as They Are” series in particular. In a sense, they’re just photographs of light.

Yes—in many of the images there’s no mass. It’s literally just the phenomenon of light and shadow.

There’s no mass, but, within the world of the photograph, it has the same weight as anything else. In the image, the intangible form created by the light is equally as real as the things that did exist when you pressed the shutter. The camera democratizes the things in front of it. 

Yeah! People ask, “Why don’t you set one of these up in the show?” But, it’s not interesting as a sculpture. It’s much more interesting as an image that you got from this moment and this particular circumstance. It actually doesn’t work in that parallel way.

What about the colors? You seem to favor bright, flat colors.

I think that color is an essential pleasure, and I enjoy thinking about it. The most compelling color situations for me are in early Renaissance frescoes like those by Masaccio or Fra Angelico—they’re just so beautiful. The matte tone of those paintings is one of the things I feel really connected with. I can deviate from that in my own work, but that’s where I always find myself returning to.

You’ve referenced painting several times. What’s your relationship to it?

I look at painting a lot. I feel interested in those issues. When I was teaching architecture at design studios, we did this exercise where we would have students take a purist painting and build it as a model. It was fascinating to think about the translation of something and see what would happen when you would try to go backwards from it, to reverse engineer it. We also did another exercise with Albers paintings. I would have the students try to render them three dimensionally to see how the color operated.

I’m interested in dealing with painterly issues in my work—how to move things in the pictorial space, how color operates spatially, etc. And to think about objects without a narrative attached to them. For instance, at the recent Eggleston show at David Zwirner, “The Democratic Forest,” there’s a photo of a pile of tomatoes next to a sink. It’s beautiful. The hue of the tomatoes, the blue-green of the sink—as a color thing, it’s mind-blowing. There’s also a narrative embedded in all that. That tomato, where did it come from? What’s the feeling of that tomato, or the taste? Whose sink is it? Why is it there? Where’s the window? Where’s the light coming from? There’s all this stuff that connects you with the real world. And I’m not really interested in that. I’m more interested in the abstract world, which is the thing that painters seem to get.

I wonder why photographers don’t think about those kinds of painterly issues as much. Maybe it’s because you don’t necessarily have to make those decisions. The camera does it for you. You’re working with the material of the world.

I think Jan Groover was dealing with that. Barbara Kasten too—she’s someone who I’m obviously interested in. In terms of painters, Tomma Abts—I love her work. It’s always dealing with this kind of shallow space. There’s a lot of ambiguity about what’s what. Those are the issues that I’m interested in, but I want to approach them through a different medium.

It’s funny, Tomma Abts’s paintings look like photographs to me. And people often think your images are paintings. Theoretically speaking, why is important that your works are photographs and not a painting or drawing or something else?

I’m not interested in invention as much as I am in discovery. In the “Things as They Are” series, I like the quasi-scientific aspect of it. It shows the way light works. It’s real. It’s not an invention in your head. I like that things have real life consequences, which I think somehow relates back to the architecture part of my brain. I could never paint that—I wouldn’t be interested in doing it—but I love finding it as possibility. The same goes for this newer series, “Book of Days”—there’s the fake painted stuff, but then there’s the real stuff. Somehow you’re always in this echo chamber of never being able to work it out. I like finding that moment when you just have to give it up. You can’t know it. I think that’s a very fertile situation to be in.

What about the title of the show, “Book of Days”? Where did it come from?

Well, my studio mate was killed. He was run over by a motorcycle on the Upper West Side. It was absolutely awful. He and I always had a lovely, productive dialogue in the studio, so it was very hard to get back to work after that happened. I started making these kinds of works because it was easier to just do them. Somehow it felt more like play or something. I worked very non-judgmentally for about a year. It became a way of getting back into the studio day after day, hence the title “Book of Days.” Any time there is a loss like that, something positive has to grow from it—this series came from that experience, and has opened up my work in unanticipated ways.

Q&A with Blouin Artinfo and Erin O’Keefe