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Job Piston: Fossilizing the Ephemeral

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Job Piston, "Oisín," 2013. | Courtesy of the artist.
Job Piston, "Oisín", 2013. | Courtesy of the artist.

In Partnership with UCR ARTSblockUCR ARTSblock's mission is to provide a cultural presence, educational resource, community center and intellectual meeting ground for the university and the community.

Six unique prints from Job Piston's "Reds" are currently on view in Riverside as part of the "FLASH!" contemporary art series at California Museum of Photography, part of UCR ARTSblock. Piston made this series of photograms by pressing light-sensitive photographic paper to the surface of a glowing laptop screen, then, as he poetically describes, "dipping the pixels into a chemical bath." This process produces intimate yet provocative red portraits that hover in a state both analog and digital.

Joanna Szupinska-Myers:You work in a variety of media from performance to collage. As I understand it, some of your most compelling work comes out of ongoing investigations of portraiture as fueled by questions of identity, desire, trust, and the nature of our relationships to images. It seems that you photograph your subjects--models and friends--in close collaboration with them. What does portraiture mean to you, and how do you use it to build relationships over time?

Job Piston: The "Reds" are an exploration of my anxieties around portraiture: power, objectification, identity, desire, self-mythology, a loss of control. Making a "selfie," for instance, is like going through an existential puberty before you've made it to first period algebra: Who am I, what do I wish to be? Whereas there used to be a diary under the bed, now there's the interweb. We are all a bit more self-conscious as a result of the rapid speed of information.

We know that no single portrait can tell the story of a person, if anything at all. We are multiple identities at any given moment. I've photographed Natasha extensively, for instance. She is blonde and in skinny jeans one day, and the next she's in a nylon head-wrap and baggy clothes. So it's important for me to revisit people over a lifetime. The frame of a person leaves little clues about how one wants to be perceived, what one believes in or what one aspires to be. Those decisions are constantly in flux during a coming of age.

All the images in "Reds" are staged for the public, but there's very little left of the person's identity there. We're quite literally looking at a fossil of the computer screen. The image has been photographed, processed, scanned, uploaded, downloaded, pixelated and exposed before it has had time to come up for air. The result is a slippery residue of what's left.

Job Piston, "David A," 2013. | Courtesy of the artist.

JSM: Your work has been straddling digital and analog media for some time. Explain the lineage that led you to make "Reds."

JP: I had a rigorous upbringing in "straight" photography during my undergraduate study at California College of the Arts and Crafts. During my time in the Bay Area, I was influenced by masters like Larry Sultan, Todd Hido, and Jim Goldberg, as well as by artists working conceptually like Tammy-Rae Carland. There is an academy-type of training happening there. I'm grateful for that because I had to know the rules before I could break them.

When I moved to Southern California to pursue by MFA at UCLA, I became engaged in an ongoing discussion about the materiality and the impending death of photography. Meanwhile there was this rapid evolution of the Internet: Google came out public, YouTube went viral, Facebook was spreading like a virus. How could I examine these parallel conversations within the technical limits of my medium? I gave myself permission to tinker and to take risks.

Job Piston, "Meg Ryan", 2013. | Courtesy of the artist

The process for "Reds" came about quite accidentally. While the processor developed prints, I was searching my emails, following breaking news and status updates, and fortuitously exposed an entire box of light-sensitive paper in the darkroom. So "Reds" come out of an act of disobedience and a curiosity to discover what might happen if I abandoned the negative, easel, and enlarger to just confront the pixel head-on. What can this medium do without those tools or confined rules? The project is an exploration of new media, a challenge to open up a new set of possibilities.

JSM: What's rather uncanny about the prints, these photograms of the computer screen, is their size. Of course the referents pictured in the images--the pictures of your subjects projected by the computer--are variable in scale. But the outline of the laptop screen, the shadow of the keyboard that is occasionally registered (as in David A, 2013), and your fingers holding the paper are all true to life. With these you've managed to arrest the image of the screen, concretizing the otherwise virtual, immersive, and ever-changing space of computer interface. Are you trying to freeze a slice of that reality, preserve it in tangible form? Are you pointing toward a total dissolution of the static image in contemporary life? Do you think such a dematerialization is a real problem, and could there be any way to stop it anyway?

JP: It's not so much that I'm freezing as I'm fossilizing a slice of a virtual world. I'm excited by the unruliness of the medium, the loss of control. I fail to make a picture more often than I succeed. The laptop photograms amount to a search for new standards in image-making. New media are undeniably bringing on a transformation in art. So the dematerialization of the image is not a problem, but a freedom from any rigid understanding of identity. I use this freedom to explore questions of gender and sexuality in this untamed territory.

"Flash: Job Piston" is on view at the California Museum of Photography, part of UCR ARTSblock, through February 22.

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