[Unpublished review from 1996.]
A recent show at the Toronto Photographers Workshop presented selections from five recent bodies of work by Toronto artist Stephen Andrews. Curator Cheryl Sourkes brought the pieces together: Sonnets, Album, Fingerprints, Personals and Crosswords.
Andrews is, despite his tendency to favour the personal and spiritual over the intellectual, a highly conceptual artist. Each of his series is marked by a fairly precise set of procedures. And these procedures have to do, generally, with the transformation of photographs of individuals into drawings of individuals that are smudgy, hand-made, imperfectly rendered. A lot of the work's emotional power and poignancy comes from these deliberate procedural transformations: photographic knowledge or evidence of a person is transformed: blurred, faded.
Photography exists as evidence, as an external, machine-perfect memory. Stephens is more concerned with the imperfections of photographic knowledge. After all, it is the fragility of memory that most informs the process of mourning. Photography's cruel joke is its false but seductive claim that it can cheat death and ameliorate loss, simplifying the complex process of mourning.
These works are about memory, or more specifically the impossibility of perfect memory. Memories not only fade, but are tainted from the beginning by desire, by our projections onto the person being committed to memory. But the processes Andrews uses to transform photographs also mimic the process of mourning. As the dead threaten to fade from our memories, so does all photographic evidence. The time is passed, the thing photographed has changed, irrevocably changed, and desire is rendered quaintly useless.
Perhaps the most seductive works are from the Fingerprints series. Each of the tiny works is a one-of-a-kind print made with Andrews' thumb. Using an oil-pencil, he quickly sketches out a tiny face on paper. Then, using his thumb, he transfers the drawing onto another surface. The result is a tiny smudged face superimposed with the exact whorls of Andrews' fingerprints. These little faces are precious (in a profound rather than simplistic way), brimming with desires that are as smudgy and half-formed as they (the drawings) are. Fingerprinting, generally accompanied by the taking of mug shots, is very much like a photographic process in that it captures something and re-presents it as evidence or knowledge (index). The knowledge contained in the fingerprint allows us to identify an individual, differentiate them from every other person in the world, dead, alive or as yet unborn. Andrews partially resists this photographic use of the fingerprint by having them instead depict other individuals. Ultimately though, enough of his fingerprint shows through to identify him as the sole subject. In Fingerprints, Andrews has created works that are virtually resistant to all attempts at forgery.
Personals is a plain-looking (I want to say ugly), strangely moving piece. Andrews has taken 200 headshots of people from glossy magazines and folded the flat sheets into cubes. The resulting misshapen boxes are marked with crease-marks, usually radiating from the subject's nose. The 200 portrait-boxes cover one wall, salon-style. Under each box is a little piece of text, also clipped from a magazine — usually from the personals. One can't help, of course, attributing the description below to the photograph above even though the juxtapositions seem more-or-less random. The work gains much of its poignancy, I suspect, from the remnants of its process, the almost mindless but labour-intensive process of ripping out the photographs and carefully folding them into little boxes, matching them up with personal ads. The somewhat pathetic project creates a little universe, a little community of desiring individuals, wherein each face is an advertisement for some utterly personal, though ultimately transferable, need.
Perhaps the most ambitious series is Andrews' Sonnets. Here he combines photocopies of Shakespeare's sonnets, often with words blanked out, and images he has clumsily pixelated by hand in shades of grey. The images read differently from different distances — from up close they can disintegrate into a meaningless grid, but as you step back they become readable. Diverse, elusive images are placed uncomfortably along the sonnets and each other. Personal snapshots become depersonalized. Messy and autobiographical, the work is evidence of a struggle.