Photographic Analysis: “Untitled (President: 4)” (1979)

September 29, 2008 |  Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Photographic Analysis: “Untitled (President: 4)” (1979)

Sherrie Levine, “Untitled (President: No.4)”, 1979

 Sherrie Levine. “Untitled (President: 4)”, 1979.

-Joan Bowlen

As an example of Sherrie Levine’s work concerning questions of mass media and its role in the formation of stereotypes and a commodified culture, this 1979 collage cut-out provides a look into Levine’s early articulation of these concepts concerning artistic representation.  Using mass-produced images ripped from commercial magazine ads, Levine formed silhouettes of three of America’s most iconic presidents, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy.  Rather than display these prestigious profiles in an easily read, monochromatic form, Levine fills the profile with a complex photographic image that is striking in its discontinuity from the silhouette.   The simplification usually associated with a silhouette becomes intertwined with the varying colors and contours of the photograph, creating visual confusion and leaving the eye uncertain which aspect of the collage to consider first.

In her collage “Untitled (President: 4)”, Levine presents the viewer with a silhouetted image of President Lincoln, using the exceedingly familiar silhouette of the American penny as her prototype.  This utilization of the symbol of the lowest form of American currency places the collage within the confines of American consumer culture and the picture within the silhouette furthers that feeling of containment.  The image of a fashion model cut out to the form of Lincoln’s head sends the message that this image can be bought and partitioned out to the ones who are willing to fork over the pennies demanded for purchase.  The model is constricted by the delineation of Lincoln’s head, she is held on all sides by a symbol of money.

Such a constriction presents the model as a bound image, an she is a woman to be desired and acquired.  This figure is not viewed as a 3-dimensional woman, but rather as a 2-dimensional model: composed of clothing and a provocative stare from heavily made-up eyes, but no sense of inner thoughts and psychological drama.  The one-dimensionality of the Lincoln outline reaffirms this sense of the woman as a simple, flattened construction with no indication of her existence in the round.  This lack of individualism works to highlight the magazine’s original intention to use the woman as a model for all other women.  The original photo was designed to provide consuming women with an ideal model of womanhood which is dependent on the purchasing of a product and Levine’s collage emphasizes that this image is a meant to be a photo of a “model” of a woman, not a photo of a woman.

Sherry Levine has appropriated a mass produced object (the magazine image) and through a slight reorganizing of the image’s parameters (the silhouette cut-out), presented an image that now highlights a very different aspect than the one intended by the magazine.  Rather than taking the slick beauty of the model as a natural component of advertising in order to make a sale, Levine draws attention to the fact that such an image is not a direct product of nature, but rather has been manipulated through the perpetual historical subjugation of women.  She has placed her models within the borders of a silhouetted presidential figure head as a way to present the patriarchal systems under which women have been subjugated.  This presentation within a symbol of a Western superpower provides a commentary on the way in which the patriarchal power systems are dependent on the continued repression of women.  In the collage, the presidential head is defined by this cut out of the model; without the interior image, the silhouette could not exist.

The placement of the female model within Lincoln’s profile also works to underline this connection between women and the governing patriarchy.  The cut out exists on the same linear plane as the Lincoln head, the woman’s face fills Lincoln’s face.  If Levine had altered the position of the cut-out to place the woman’s eyes further down Lincoln’s silhouette, less of the profile would rely on the woman in order to gain a defining shape.  Lincoln could then be made up of more of the bright flashing lights behind the model or possibly more of the model’s lower body, but Levine very consciously placed the model in the center of Lincoln’s face: her eyes stare out from the place where Lincoln’s brain would be located, providing the implication that the patriarchy has been the intellectual propagator of this false image of the magazine model as the ideal woman.   It is through the eyes of this false image that the viewer is engaged with the work, the model draws you into the profile of Lincoln’s Roman classical profile through the seductive gaze of her sapphire oculi.

Through her placement of an image within an image, Levine has again forced the viewer to see a symbol through another symbol and to therefore question the validity of our certainty of that symbol’s meaning.  Meaning is gained through the comprehension of the two divergent symbols and their interaction with one another.  Just as in the popular optical illusion of the old woman/young woman, to just see one woman is to miss the point of the image entirely.

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