John Edmonds at ltd los angeles
By Anna Garner
Through June 3rd
The enduring romanticism of surface, subject, and light is alive in John Edmond’s affecting portraits. His first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, Higher, at ltd los angeles, is weighted with equal portions of vulnerability and strength, that ruminate on the personal and historical mythos of the photograph and the photographed. The exhibition comprises two photographic bodies of work ‘Immaculate’ and ‘Du-Rags’.
‘Du-Rags’ (all work 2017), displayed in the lower gallery, is a series of six large-scale portraits of people wearing du-rags, which are printed on Japanese Silk. Primarily photographed from behind, the identity of the sitter is never fully revealed; instead the form and materiality of the du-rag is offered for consideration.
‘Immaculate’, on the second floor gallery, includes another six portraits, produced between 2012 and 2017. The works in this series characterize a more intimate photographic approach. Sourced from chance encounters, the artist approaches the subjects with a tenderness that transforms the subjective detachment of street photography and the normative relation between subject and lens.
I met John in the gallery to discuss these two bodies of work and the influence of his previous series, ‘Hoods’, which examines the composite symbolism of hooded clothing and has garnered the artist much recognition and support. What emerged was a conversation on the significance of the photographic surface, the role of the portrait artist, and the implication of the viewer in the act of looking and determining meaning.
Anna Garner: In your ‘Du-Rags’ series and in your earlier ‘Hoods’ series you shoot from behind or from the side, not allowing the viewer to fully see the subject. I am interested in this limited viewership within your work.
John Edmonds: Nothing is ever completely hidden, but at the same time nothing is ever fully revealed. I’ve really been interested in the surrealists lately and Renee Magritte is one of my favorites. He says, “Everything you see hides another thing.” You never fully see anything, even if someone’s face is completely revealed to you. In some of the ‘Hoods’ pictures, there is just a sliver of the nose or hair that titillates the viewer to actually think there will be a moment of reveal, but there never is. I was speaking about the work recently in terms of hide and seek, like a child’s game, being able to both withhold and withdraw information that only the artist themself knows. The viewer has to look closer, look deeper, and the more you look into the image the more you look within: at your own preconceptions, biases, or understanding of what it is a hood or a du-rag may signify.
AG: ‘Du-Rags’ is printed on Japanese silk and this lends an evenness to the images; they are much more muted than your previous series ‘Hoods’.
JE: Yes, this pushes the objecthood of how the photograph describes the garment itself. The photograph becomes an object that is a du-rag.
AG: Yes, they become more of an object than a photographic surface.
JE: That is one thing I have been thinking through within my practice and photography, how to push the boundaries of how we read pictures, how we see pictures, and the possibility of what a photograph can be. There have been many artists who have screen-printed photographs on different surfaces. Yet, my own desire comes from how we experience photography so often on a screen. The idea of objectness, touch, surface, or mass with a photograph is something that is not a part of the way we think about pictures. One of my favorite things about American Gods is how the guy on the very top of the pyramid with the red du-rag is so present, it’s almost like you can touch his face. It’s the same with ‘Hoods’, it’s like you could touch the individual or as if you could turn them around. Photography has a unique way of conjuring desire while titillating the viewer by the impossibility of touch. In the ‘Hoods’ pictures, you can see but you can’t really see. There is a way that the material of the hood is expressed as though you could touch it, and even with the du-rags you can see and perhaps you can touch but you still can’t really touch the object itself. There is this very regal presence in the image, that feels very unattainable, the impossibility of it.
AG: What material are du-rags commonly made from and does that reflect your choice to print on Japanese Silk?
JE: The ones I purchased are all from a corner bodega in Crown Heights, and they are made with a nylon fabric that is silky and very luminous. The choice to use the silk had a lot to do with the luminosity of the Japanese Silk that strongly suits the photographs themselves and how light is such a part of the images formally; the subject is the light as much as it is the du-rag. I use the silk to not only reiterate the materiality of the du-rag, but also to reiterate the way the du-rag is photographed and the luminosity of it.
AG: Because they often have a sheen.
JE: The thing I really love about these du-rags is that you buy them for $2 or $3, very cheap, yet they have this luxuriousness to them that is so beautiful; anyone could buy one. Du-rags have a very utilitarian function, for the protection of the hair, for the creation of waves, and preservation of all different types of hairstyles. But the amazing thing to me about them is that they are so majestic. They have a pyramid shape that feels like a temple. This headdress is like a temple. The shape of a du-rag comes from being placed on someone’s head. They literally have no shape unless they are placed onto someone.
AG: The silk is starting to fray at the edges; I’m interested in the materiality of that, the roughness and imperfection. Did you know or intend that it would fray?
JE: The image itself is imprinted on the fabric. The silk is very strong, despite looking delicate. When I first showed these at NADA, I noticed the threading on the edges, and was attracted to that part of it; we see these very beautiful pictures that have this rough edge. The photographs have an interesting timelessness to them—you don’t know if they were made this year or if they were made 200 years ago. They feel like relics in that way, old but new. They have a special beauty to them.
AG: This one (Ascent) looks like feathers or a cloud; it feels even more that you are elevating the person or the object of the du-rag. It embodies how you talked about the photographs being du-rags themselves and how the material and presentation turns them into into relics.
JE: In this pairing of images (Ascent and The Prince) this one (The Prince) is closer to the utilitarian use and wear of du-rag before going to bed or waking up in the morning, and in this one (Ascent), the figure is wearing a fur, giving them a very elevated feel, there is a self-possessed beauty to the way each subject is posed and fashioned. What I really love about photographing from behind is this hyper-description, this keeping from making who the individual is very clear. The viewer has to be generous in their looking. With the ‘Hoods’ pictures, many look at those pictures and immediately go to the political. But, the strength of them is that they are so quiet, contemplative and reflective. In the Hoods pictures, there is an openness to the work that really does ask for you to fill in the blank, room to interpret and reflect.
AG: I am interested in what you are saying about peoples’ assumptions that there’s mainly a political agenda to the work and I feel like that’s really common. Especially in work that shows the black body or the black, queer male body, which is primarily your subject. People immediately go to the idea that you are making a critique; you’re making a political statement. Do you feel that your work is always going to be read with this political slant because of the subjects? And do you see the way that you’ve been working with obscuring as a strategy to push it back to the viewer?
JE: I think often people look at the identity of the maker and the subjects in the work, and yes, there are assumptions. When I make my work I am making images that I want to see and I am making photographs with individuals that I want to see in my work, who I want to look at; all the work comes from my desire. The fact of the matter is that certain presences will always be political, because of the white, cis-male status quo in the history of art. I obscure to create a little distance that the viewer has to fill in. I implicate the viewer in the work. I do that in a number of ways—both with light and shadow and photographing a figure anonymously. I think of it as a way to actually protect the individuals. When I was in grad school, I felt uneasy putting very personal work of people who I had gained trust with, for others to publicly critique and talk about. It’s difficult because if you really care about your subjects, you don’t want to put them in that position of being judged or making them so vulnerable for other peoples’ biases. And in the end, I strongly believe that the maker is the subject of the work, before their sitters. Therefore, as someone who is primarily a portrait artist, my main goal is first and foremost to protect myself and to protect the people in my work. That’s my job. The main goal for my work is to make the images that I want to see and to put them out in the world with self-awareness.
I make the work that I want to make. Period. The question I ask myself is how does it enter world. How does it enter into a space where people are actually going to see it and talk about it?
AG: One thread through your work is clothing or fashion. Can you talk more about this?
JE: The gays love fashion! So that’s a big part of it, but also fashion is a very important part of culture. It is an important part of how we both say things about ourselves and how we desire to be seen. Fashion is political. For me fashion has always been a way to actually posses oneself, and that is really powerful. In the same way that a lot of the work has a reveal and non-reveal, clothes are something you put onto the body, something you use to accentuate or conceal certain things about yourself. Fashion should be more of an important tool in visual art, and is something that can be really pushed. That is an aspiration I have for my own work. Of course I’m not doing fashion photography, but a lot of the work is in conversation with the history of portraiture as well as the history of fashion. There is so much that can be said through how one chooses to self-fashion.
AG: I was just reading Hilton Als’ essay about the fashion editor, André Leon Talley. The way he represents fashion emphasizes the importance of looking good and presenting your best self. I thought about that in relation to some of your work, especially with ‘Du-Rags’ because of the opulence of the fabric and Talley is also a very opulent dresser.
JE: I have always felt that the reason both art and fashion has stayed very exclusive is because people are not given the agency or power to realize how much of a role it has in their own lives. I think that’s part of the power of the work, that I am scouting everyday people on the streets, on the train, on the bus and making images that are very fashionable. And that because of that, there is something somewhat subversive about the use of the “look.” The overall theme or message in the work is that things are never quite what they seem, and I think it’s very beautiful because it allows for closer looking and seeing humanity—both from the viewer’s behalf and in the subject.
AG: Was there a reason you put ‘Du-Rags’ on the bottom floor and the series ‘Immaculate’ in the upstairs gallery?
JE: I separated the work in that way mainly in terms of aesthetics. I wanted to put the more formal pieces on the second level. Firstly, you come in on the ground level, where there are very relic-like pieces of anonymous people. The power of ‘Du-Rags’ in first level is that the Black body represents a universal body. You look at this majestic being from behind, they could be any age, male or female; there is a real freeness to them. In ‘Du-Rags’, there are felt moments of ascension, whereas the second level is much more grounded in reality. There’s heaven, and then you are back on earth. I felt it was a very powerful way to orient the works. I was also happy to have the two levels to give each body of work its own feeling and psychological space.
AG: What’s next for you? Do you have any new projects in the works?
JE: I have been photographing here in Los Angeles in various neighborhoods. My process is pretty much the same. Yet, the game of hide and seek is more active. Beauty and power is always at the core of my practice.
Recently, the work is more realized fully in installation, like the work I did in 2015 entitled ‘All Eyes On Me.’ That work is made to be seen as an installation. It will be very interesting to see how work from the west coast and east coast come together. The themes are consistent—closely looking at the constructions of race, gender and performance through ideas of presentation. There is always an intimacy to the images, but place is different. More recently the work reads as no place, so sometimes it feels like just a figment of the imagination. I’m so grateful to meet so many wonderful and complex people on a day-to-day basis that trust me with my vision. So, I’m very excited about where the work is going.