In its earliest days, photography lent itself to Spiritualism by reinforcing beliefs in the occult and the paranormal. Commercial photographers capitalized on double exposures and other tricks to create images of the dead, of spirits and ectoplasmic emanations. But while trickery often works best on the gullible and on those who are vulnerable to emotional manipulation, many of us choose to suspend disbelief in order to be awed by stage magic, theatrics and special effects. Collusion between creator and audience is sometimes essential.
If you go to see Corey Escoto: Sleight of Hand, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, you just might embrace the deception and come away a true believer. The Pittsburgh-based Escoto was born in Texas in 1983, and his work has been exhibited internationally and throughout the U.S. This exhibition, his first solo museum show and the first solo presentation of his work in Pittsburgh (where he moved in 2010), is curated by the Carnegie's Amanda Donnan as part of the Pittsburgh Biennial 2014.
In the show, Escoto uses a multidisciplinary approach to explore the changing nature of photography. Interested in illusion, he combines light-sensitive film processes and digital formats to create images that are alluring, layered and complex. What makes his photographs so engaging is that they combine the labor-intensive process of the handmade with the instantaneity of the digital. They are visually beguiling and will draw you in not just because of their small size but because they are at once odd and enchanting.
Actually, though his photographs are quite compelling, it's likely that you won't even notice them at first. Dominant in the gallery are Escoto's sculptures, which are, in fact, based on his photographs. Scattered about the space like a bunch of Louise Bourgeois totemic figures, each piece has its own personality. But you'll need to take some time to discover their secrets. None of them are easy. In fact, each is an enigma and together they flummox as much as entice.
Escoto's sculptures have a lot in common with the artist Rachel Harrison's in that they are perplexing assemblages that contain multiple references and a range of materials. Where they differ is that Escoto is mostly interested in photography. He explains that it is this particular juncture that is worth exploring because digital technologies and analog photography co-exist alongside the Internet, which he describes as a vast archive of images.
Escoto is not the first to question the truthfulness of the photographic image, but his methods are rather unique. He uses hand-cut light-blocking stencils, filters, multiple exposures, screen grabs and other fragments to create complex images that fold many moments into one. He then uses the textures and patterns of the photographs as prototypes for the sculptures. By recreating his photographs in three dimensions, he can explore surface, space and artifice.
As confounding as the images (and their titles) are, in three dimensions they are even more so. Take, for instance, "Soft Rocks, Cut Muenster: A Monument to the 6-Hour Brunch." The sculpture — made from Styrofoam, digitally printed silk, map pins, photographs, Plexiglas, plywood, Formica and paint — resembles the photograph, but it plays up the gimmick. It is a conglomeration of actual materials, simulated or faux materials, and photographs of those same materials. Is that really marble or just a facsimile of it? Does it really matter?
Explaining the photograph "It's a Sculpture! (Live at the Carnegie)," Escoto says that he created a multiple exposure from images he took of different pieces in the museum's collection. It is clear that he is keenly aware of photography's place in art history. Perhaps it is this self-consciousness that caused him to make the one misstep in the exhibition, a backdrop that mimics a green screen and that is meant to "interrupt the spatial logic of the gallery." Ultimately it is overkill, and just distracts from what he has already achieved — an audience willing to join him in the ruse.
As a photographer-magician, Escoto asks us to consider our mediated environment, and to question what we are looking at. But in the end he is no cynic. Instead he encourages in us the same sense of awe, wonder and whimsy that he clearly feels himself.