Serrah Russell: The States Project: Washington
Serrah Russell was one of the first artists I met when I moved to Seattle from NYC a few years ago. I was drawn to an early series she made using a Polaroid Day Lab copy stand camera to re-photograph editorials and advertisements from old issues of National Geographic, fashion and lifestyle magazines. Her pictures recontextualized the images into landscapes and other abstract forms, altering how we understand their meaning. These ideas play out in much of her work, whether it’s her innovative use of the copy-stand camera, or her simple, yet poignant daily collages using similar source material. I included a few of her recent collages in my latest group show “Future Isms” which opened at Seattle’s Glass Box Gallery on March 2. Earlier this week, Russell completed 100 Days of Collage, a collage-a-day series made in response to the 2016 presidential election, some of which are included below.
Serrah Russell is a visual artist and independent curator, living and working in Seattle. She uses instant film, found imagery and digital photography to create works of collage, photography, video and sculpture. Russell received a BFA in Photography (2009) from the University of Washington and has mounted solo exhibitions in Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; Vancouver, B.C.; and exhibited in group exhibitions in Los Angeles, CA; New York, NY; Miami, FL; London, England; and Athens, Greece.
Additionally, Russell was co-founder and director of Violet Strays, an online curatorial project with an emphasis on temporality and artist experimentation from 2011-2016. She works as managing partner and curator of Vignettes with founder, Sierra Stinson, has served on the 2014 and 2015 curatorial team for the NEPO 5K, and is Art Director at the photography startup Prints.ly.
This is not a solution or an explanation. It is an attempt to see.
I believe that photography is inherently and absolutely embedded with meaning. Photographs are constantly changing, with their meaning malleable, always based on surrounding context, shifting cultures, and each individual’s personal association.My work is an ongoing investigation of this belief.
Using instant film, digital photography, and pre-existing photographic material, I create works of collage and appropriation that alter the original intention of the source material. I continue to find ways to further remove photographic imagery from its original context and to exploit/explore the photographic medium. I layer found imagery into new collages. I create pairings between two images to provide a new way of viewing the imagery or objects represented. I cut a portion of an image and coat it in resin to reveal the image as a fragment, causing the viewer to fill in the blanks.
My work focuses on the act of seeing, but beyond just the seeing, I am drawn to the act of seeing and the way it can be transformed from sight to meaning, from sign to emotion, from moment to memory.
I am drawn to the non-spaces, to the corners, to the outskirts that surround the subject of the source image. I want to reveal the images that exist within the context, within the surrounding environment. While the original source images are intended to sell a product or promote a brand, I intend to create new images from these commercial images that form a new narrative, regarding ideas of beauty and loss, experience and memory, body and landscape.
My work is an ongoing investigation of how photography as a medium allows for reality and fiction to exist simultaneously. Through my cropping and titling of the original source photography, I reveal how easily perception can shift and be manipulated, forming a new memory.
Your collages are simple, yet layered with meaning. I don’t think I’ve seen one that combines more than 2 images. What’s behind this approach?
That’s because I’ve buried the ones that have more than two… 😉 haha
That’s not completely true but honestly, I sometimes try to push myself to make collages with more than two components but it rarely seems to work for me so they don’t often make it out of my studio.
As for why only two parts…well I think in some ways, it’s really the way my mind works. I’m not able to focus on too many things at once but I love the back and forth, the conversation that happens with two entities. I love the juxtaposition and balancing act that occurs. In fact, now that I think about it, it might come from being an introverted Libra. I am always seeking balance and fascinated / energized by that in-between that hovers between two weights, powers, people, voices.
I also am fascinated by minimalism, by editing, by how we can do less for a larger effect. Next up is making collages using only one image…
Are you a photographer? Visual Artist? “Artist who uses photography?” Who cares?
I ask myself this a lot. And sometimes I want to say “Who cares” and just move on, but I also think how that words and definitions do matter and help to guide the understanding of the work, so here’s a peak into my thought process when asking myself that question: I would never call myself a photographer, even though I did my undergrad in photography. I think it’s because I consider a photographer someone who could photograph anything at any moment, as in photography is their way of living and seeing and interpreting the world. I don’t identify with that. I tend to think of myself as a “visual artist” believing that all aesthetics and details matter and are a way of seeing and understanding. However, I would say that “I see photographically.” I can’t escape that training and that beginning entry-point into art. This background gives my collage work that photographic language, as opposed to someone who studied painting and then began creating collage. I think we would have different concerns, different influences. I can say that I wouldn’t consider myself a collage artist specifically because I think of collage as an off-shoot of photography. In the same way that photographs are a way of framing and contextualizing the world around them, I believe that collage is a means of framing and contextualizing the photographic world.
Since election day, you’ve been working on “100 Days of Collage.” Tell me a bit about this project.
I actually begin a few days after election day (25 to be exact) but yes, it was greatly influenced by the results of the 2016 election.
I had to do something. I needed something as a daily ritual to express, to process. I was feeling so much. We all were. It was/is a lot to take in.
I had known some artist friends who had done similar projects in the past, challenging themselves to make a new work for 100 days, in a particular medium and to share on Instagram or social media. I was intrigued by that public ritual and also knew that if I put it out there on the internet, I’d be more likely to keep it going, because of that expectation.
The project essentially began as self-care and a way to work the muscle of creating, of seeing, of empathizing.
It’s turned into something a bit more than I thought. It is serving as a record for me of what has been happening culturally and politically. Many of the collages and their titles come out of thoughts on what happened in the news, in politics that day. Along with that, it’s been inspiring to have people tell me that witnessing the new works on a daily basis has been encouraging and cathartic for them too. That all gives me hope.
I see your work as being political. Feminist. And subtly so.
I don’t think that I always realized that it was. I know that when I was younger I wouldn’t have always claimed that political aspect, and in some ways, maybe wouldn’t have said that the work was feminist, even though I would have identified as one myself.
I really love this quote by Toni Morrison – “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS. What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’ We’ve just dirtied the word ‘politics,’ made it sound like it’s unpatriotic or something…My point is that it has to be both: beautiful and political at the same time. I’m not interested in art that is not in the world. And it’s not just the narrative, it’s not just the story; it’s the language and the structure and what’s going on behind it. Anybody can make up a story.”
I don’t want to be self-congratulatory though. I know that there’s a lot more that I can do as a person to disrupt the status quo. Art-making is just one. My making art is a way of expression and self-care, as well as a way to use my voice. I like the idea of making something that is pretty but is associated with something uncomfortable. I’d like to try to push that a little bit further.
Another quote I love by Leo Tolstoy – (You can tell I’m comfortable with appropriation, right?)
“Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.”
That’s where I think my feminist voice comes from. It’s coming from me and what I’m seeing, and trying to show that it’s us all. We’re all in this.
You’re also incredibly active in Seattle’s art scene. How does your curatorial work interact with your personal work?
I began curating, well actually it’s more that I began enabling art and activating space, when I graduated from the BFA program at UW, and it was essentially a means of connecting with the community by giving and offering rather than taking and asking. I put together a short show at the old Cairo space (now Generations) in Capitol Hill, then I began Violet Strays with Alyssa Volpigno. We were young and poor but wanted to be part of something, to connect, so we created an online site-specific arts platform, because a domain name is a lot cheaper than a gallery space. For the first year, we exhibited 50 artists, with each show evaporating/being deleted at the end of their week long exhibition. We ran Violet Strays for 4 more years, exhibiting a range of artists, always encouraging new work to be created for the site-specific platform, asking that the artist consider temporality and how art could be shown differently on the internet than in the gallery.
A few years ago, I joined with Sierra Stinson as a partner in Vignettes.us and we have collaborated together in hosting one-night solo and group exhibitions in her apartment and in local homes, gallery pop-ups, and site-specific video and text works projected in commercial and residential windows.
Along the way, I’ve done some other collaborative curatorial projects, including a recent traveling exhibition with artist/photographer Rafael Soldi called Just Visiting with the intention to connect photographic artists from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.
Essentially I am always inspired by being around artists, and learning from their process. Curatorial projects are a way to form connections and to have those critical conversations about art together. It also comes from a desire to see the works realized by the artists that I believe need more attention. So if I know of an artist whose work deserves to be seen, I like to make that happen if possible.
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
Megumi Shauna Arai: The States Project: WashingtonMarch 18th, 2017
Serrah Russell: The States Project: WashingtonMarch 17th, 2017
John Keatley: The States Project: WashingtonMarch 16th, 2017
Alan Hunter: The States Project: WashingtonMarch 15th, 2017
Rodrigo Valenzuela: The States Project: WashingtonMarch 14th, 2017