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Lost and Found: Wintergarten LTD's Photographic Narratives

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A photograph is not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.
- Susan Sontag

Wintergarten, the German name for a hothouse that protects vulnerable plants and fauna during cold winter months, stands as metaphor for Wintergarten LTD, the collective that repurposes photographs, postcards, magazines, and printed matter. As artist and one half of the collective, Parker Davis notes: "in general, we collect from flea markets and junk stores then 'organize' the images as we see fit into collages and books which seek to activate the photographs both in terms of their existing and 'dormant' or 'potential' content and form."

Consisting of Davis and anonymous partner, the duo make philosophical statements about contemporary morality through a series of curatorial arrangement. This is apropos, since in his day job Davis works as an archivist at a film studio, and whose interest in historical preservation is a passion.

The project was conceived in 2008 with Davis returning to the States. After a year of traveling through South America, he had little funds to pursue art, lacking both supplies and space. "I was talking to my collaborator about this issue and they mentioned that they had begun collecting found photographs, which they were able to purchase rather cheaply at local junk stores and suggested I might do the same and we could pool our respective acquisitions and work with them together."

Davis has a friendly energy and full-bodied laugh. The artist doesn't initially come off as serious or introspective. He's quick to make eye contact, easy to talk and eager to explain his ideas. Surfaces are Davis' expertise and his own exterior can be as glossy as they come. His smile is what's described, in comically literary terms, as either "fetching" or "radiant" and he flashes it often. He can also be gruff, hilarious, cantankerous, joyful and generous. When asked a more serious question however, straying instead to the topic of his temperament or lifestyle he gives a quick menacing grin and pops his neck. His most common response: "I don't want to talk about that."

He has quietly cultivated an air of curiosity about himself, the off-kilter, stubborn pseudo-genius that sometimes burns hours, opportunity and brain cells. But in reality, being stupid has never been something he's associated with, and for good reason, Davis is intelligent, well read, progressive and politically informed. At one point announcing, his face, serious with quietude, "being compared to Chelsea Manning is probably the best compliment I've ever received."

He doesn't talk about Night Gallery, where he used to be a fixture and collaborator, before it moved to its new location downtown. He doesn't talk about alcohol, although recently while a guest on fellow artist Max Maslansky's, K-Chung Radio show, Riffin, he joked, "that would be one good thing about not being an alcoholic or pot head, I'd have dreams again, both literally and figuratively."

Davis comes up with mouthfuls of dense verbiage in which nuggets of information and wisdom are extolled in great quantities, making everything sound like a manifesto. It is left to the listener to decide what is real and what is not. His persona, with its oscillating truths, is very much like Wintergarten's works.

"Our first books 'Men' and 'Women,' were essentially formal explorations of our initial collection of images in book form, which we divided into groups by gender so as to give the consumer their choice based on their sexual preference," he says. "The 'ltd' part of our name was meant as a kind of tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of our role as reluctant participants in the capitalist exchange of goods. We both shared an interest in the 'erotic' as a subject, as well as an interest in German philosophy."

A native Angeleno, Davis attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and later, after a somewhat tumultuous teen-hood and flirtation with dark illicit substances, left the city for the Museum School of Fine Arts. He was lured by the gritty portrayal of counter-culture life in SMFA alumnae, Nan Goldin's photographs. Davis left the West coast in what would be a formal education in both theoretical context and execution of intent. There is a meticulous neatness and organization of blank space that lends itself to the eye of academic.
The theme of travel present itself in the works. Photographs are often arranged in a way to suggest a Margaret Mead fascination with the "other." Colonialism, its repercussions and our interpretation -- and preoccupation of that "other" -- are highlighted in beautiful, grotesque detail. "The first books used quotes from Marx and Brecht to introduce the images," he says of their first works, "which, in black and white, offers the viewer an erotic display of bodies, which meld into an almost film-like funereal montage, yet each remains a singular testament to desire, chance, the beauty of human countenance."

These works are studies in human behavior. And not always the behavior of the person being depicted, but rather, shining a light on the other person present, but missing one element: the photographer. "I'm interested in portraiture because it attempts to describe a person, or how the artist sees them," he says. "They are mediated experiences of subjects. I'm also interested in how people are represented or choose to represent themselves based on largely, socio-economic circumstances and how that informs peoples perceptions of beauty."

In the 2010 collection, "Chinese Bondage In Peru," viewers are asked not only to form a connection between what they are being shown, and told in the text, but to ask deeper questions about objectification and one's role in it. "I have been accused of insensitivity to my subjects, of whom I generally know little if anything about," he says. "These photographs often depict their subjects in deeply intimate, private moments, and were generally not intended for public consumption. And yet we freely appropriate them, assuming authorship, and publishing images of people who have lost their agency, at least with regards to these relics, which we rob with impunity and repurpose for our own ends. But it is not our goal to exploit these subjects, or portray them as victims of history. Rather, I 'd assert that in our work they assume roles as heroic players in a study of how sexuality becomes a kind of wealth."

The photographs become an abstraction that helps to focus in on the larger issues being addressed, such as what we see and choose to expose to a larger public. "I don't want to change them too much," he says, referring to the pictures, "I want to just let them be what they are because they are interesting in and of themselves without my intervention. It's in the arrangement that you can see me."

There is a traditionally feminine -- or what has been often historically categorized as feminine element -- to the work. There are flowers, cats, gauzy silhouettes. The 2009 photo catalogs "Men" and "Women" take up the study of gendered presentation and sexual connection to the earth; how far does our obligation to our bodies and their function extend? There is also symmetry of purpose. The human form and the earth both function as seasonal bodies, shedding, growing, and preparing always for new cycles. How we intrude on these natural states of being is what Davis seems to grasp with. Makeup, lingerie, bulldozers, colonialism, war. We can't seem to stay out of our own way. Destruction the moment before or seconds after is a place the viewer is often returned. In tightly arranged diptychs Davis highlights how we continually subvert our own philosophical progress.

Intrusion becomes a reoccurring theme too. A lost photograph and the availability and ease with which Davis has access to it, is a reminder of the instability of our contemporary hegemonic, patriarchal, capitalist society. "I learned that many of the photographs I would find at flea markets and junk stores had come by way of estate sales and storage unit auctions and as such, saw them as relics of trauma of their former owners, whom ostensibly, had either died, or for some reason needed to put their personal possessions in a temporary storage for which they could no longer afford to pay rent on, and thus lost its contents."

As a result, much of the subjects shown often skirt the edges of society, a pantheon of Goldin-esque beauty at the fingertips waiting to be repurposed; the outsider, the anti-authoritarian, the drop out. As with the case of Wintergaretn's, 2011 show, "Mike Wilson (Diary of A Deceased Amateur Photographer)," which highlighted via a slide show, photos given to Davis by the man's sister after his death. Wilson's dazzling, lonely and untraditional life becomes a focal point not only visually, but as contemplation on purpose and normativity; two subjects close to Davis' heart.

As noted by Artforum critic Catherine Taft: "Wilson appears too, as a transient poster boy for late-1970s drug culture, perched on a yellow Volkswagen, cupping a handful of marijuana. After cycling through this series, the projections plunge into a period of darkness punctuated only by the clicks of the slide carousel that cannot help but evoke, with haunting simplicity, a representation of mourning."

Holding photos up to a new lens often confirms the transformative nature of photography, that it is always and never a record of the real, the truth of a life. Yet at the same time, when looked upon by new, unfamiliar eyes, many years later a photograph can also be the harshest, remaining truth there is.

There is also the symmetry of aesthetics. In Davis' wonderland of composite mushrooms, there could be also penises or areolas. Or, perhaps, a man's bedroom shadow perfectly mirrors a fern. Or, they simply are what they are: the truth of human nature left to the amateurs and the earth; no intermediary political, academic, religious sensitivities applied. Here, people construct love from psyche and plants remind us that we are simply soil, returning to the ground. We decompose, grow again and have lover's photograph us holding bright pink rayon silk valentine pillows, a bottle of cheap 70's wine in the background. We hump, we die.

The work has a refreshing lack of fear that most likely comes from Davis' could give a crap attitude toward success, a sort of paradoxical nihilism with the art world and its pretensions. "I don't believe it is possible to make apolitical work, nor would I want to. In general, the goal for me is to transform my frustration with the abysmal state of the contemporary political, economic, social, cultural hierarchies and the system which provides them with a structural foundation into an energy with which to create something radical and of value to my friends and comrades."

Davis has spent the past year slowly but steadily building an arsenal of new work, the first of which can be seen at the Emma Gray, 5 Car Garage, group show, "Abstract Perversion" which opened September 28th. An upcoming solo show at Brooklyn gallery, Know More Games is in the making.

Wintergarten's work is a philosophy, an angry, sympathetic and crude look at the sadness around us. It is an awareness of pain and vulgarity, yet a testament to the invention and protection of love: the first coping mechanism and most painful addiction of all. In the act of taking pictures, Wintergarten seems to suggest, we preserve a record of ourselves, giving meaning -- with flawed and simple logic -- to the hunger and validity of our own importance.

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