The enormity of the undertaking is staggering. For their new collaborative project “Artist Unknown/The Free World,” on display through the end of
January at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, visual artists John D. Monteith and Oliver Wasow compiled 20,000 examples of images that were never meant to be art in the first place: private, anonymous photographs living eternally on the World Wide Web.
These images of people and the places, pets and events they held dear hang on two of the Art and Culture Center’s walls – the personal mementos of others displayed as outsider art. On another wall, countless webcam images of (mostly) sexually provocative women fade into each other on 30 miniature television screens, like an egalitarian version of the wall of sexual playthings in Federico Fellini’s “City of Women.” In an age of widespread public exhibitionism and its accompanying disintegration of privacy, “Artist Unknown/The Free World” is the best exhibit I’ve seen yet to capture the zeitgeist of the 21st century, even if, ironically, the photographs in question all emerged from the 20th.
The artists brought different preoccupations and disciplines to the project. Wasow’s interests lay in the vintage photographs, shot with Polaroids or the clunkier devices of yesteryear which, in a pre-Internet age, would have to be scavenged at estate or garage sales (If you’ve seen videos of the quirky pop band the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, these are exactly the kind of images the group would develop songs around, while projecting the photos at their concerts). Today, they are, like everything else, public record, having been blogged and reblogged so many times their origins are unknown.
Wasow’s artistic hand came into play in the organizational stage of the exhibition, providing linkage and context to the vast expanse of imagery. To this end, the exhibition is structured into dozens of clusters of like-minded images. There are batches of photos that show various activities – playing, getting drunk, diving into bodies of water – and some that celebrate events: performances, parties, journeys. Some are connected by dark humor – misshapen people are often lumped together, resembling portraits from the cutting-room floor of Diane Arbus – and others are linked by their disturbing multiplicity. One batch shows children smoking cigarettes, and another depicts violence, including what appear to be an animal attack, a hanging and a knife fight. Sometimes Wasow will join shots of objects, from a 7-Up can to a homemade doll, loosed and isolated from their owners. Some of my favorites are connected not by their content but by the form: A bunch of superimpositions reveal an experimental flair in these shutterbugs, while a collection of “defective” photos is ghostly and fascinating.
The cumulative effect of this body of work provides a powerful overview of modern culture, showcasing what we choose to value and immortalize on film, some of the results more inexplicable than others. Writers will find this project particularly inspiring; because they’ve been extracted from their original meanings, there are new narratives to be explored for each of these snapshots.
Monteith’s scope is more limited, focusing on the webcam imagery that has turned legions of bored coeds and plump housewives into amateur seductresses. As I mentioned above, the Felliniesque structure of this sordid amalgam, communicated across more than two dozen flat-screen monitors, each changing images every few seconds, cries out desperately for our attention, much like the people on the screens. It also reflects the increasingly ADD-addled nature of web browsing, our brains barely capturing one image before distractedly surfing to another.
As for the content of Monteith’s projection display, it works best in tandem with Wasow’s collection of vintage photos. A fourth wall at the Art and Culture Center is devoted to just this collision: A seemingly never-ending montage of split-screen images plants Wasow’s people next to Monteith’s, revealing the dramatic extent that both photography and the subjects themselves have changed over the past half-century – as well as the motions and emotions that stay the same, set in a timeless loop of longing.
“Artist Unknown/The Free World” is at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood, through Jan. 29. Admission is $7 adults and $4 students, seniors and children. Call 954/921-3274 or visit artandculturecenter.org.