Ethan Greenbaum: The Observer Effect
Ethan Greenbaum is known for producing work based on images of the urban environment. He transforms this imagery into uncanny, jarring, and visually alluring objects that are equally 2D and sculptural. In many works, there is an almost “faux Trompe-l’œil” effect at play. That is, rather than producing 2D images that look like 3D objects (as is typical in Trompe-l’œil), his works often appear to do the opposite. It’s as if they’re 3D objects meant to be read as 2D images. Or, maybe, the work does both simultaneously.
This tension between image and object in Greenbaum’s work seems to underline some essential components involved with viewing, experiencing, or reading art and images. On one hand, is the artist’s visual creation; on the other, the viewer’s comprehension of what they see. While the former is limited to the visual evidence on display—and imbued with the artist’s intent—the latter involves personal or conventional interpretations that the viewer brings to the experience.
The theorist George Kubler addresses this duality in his book, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962). In it, he posits that all objects are either prime objects (originals) or replications. Behind the meaning of objects, he identifies two other factors involved: self-signals and adherent signals. Self-signals are properties belonging to the physical object (i.e., its color, arrangement, or design), while adherent signals are related to its cultural meaning (including language or knowledge specific to a certain field).
Based on these definitions, one component of meaning is thus determined by the physicality of the artwork, and the other is contingent on perceptions brought to it from the outside. Both, however, are required to construe any basis of meaning-value. As Kubler states: “…existence without meaning seems terrible in the same degree as meaning without existence seems trivial.”
In Greenbaum’s work, there seems to be an additional layer inserted into the center of this duality. This layer is like a conceptual midground where, from this position, the physical components of the work disintegrate into formlessness, yet as a complete image the work becomes “resurrected”. Viewers find themselves caught between the physicality of the work and their own interpretation until they step back to take it in as a whole. This occurs as the inkjet glitches, pixelation, and other physical artifacts reveal components that have been deconstructed and appear as debris. The device of the frame then, with slabs of gouged plexiglass constituting an illusionistic reality, acts as a containment device so that the work resumes composure as an aesthetic image and object.
I recently spoke with Ethan in his studio as he was finishing work for his next exhibition at Galerie Pact in Paris, opening later this fall. Our conversation touched on several thoughts and subjects, from physical processes to styles of representation, to phone apps and the state of the art world. In light of the comprehensiveness of the subject matter in his work—photography, text, architecture, and the urban environment—this range of topics flowed seamlessly. Everything seemed relevant to what he was doing in the studio.
In addition to this wide range of subject matter, Greenbaum’s approach to art-making also seeks to reconcile seemingly incompatible concepts. Common taxonomies such as “inside” and “outside”, for example, seem totally collapsed. Categories of “old”, “new”, “hand-rendered” or “commercial” are often riding right on top of each other, similar to the way a painter solicits different hues or textures from the same medium. In fact, the range of Greenbaum’s subjects seems to recognize no boundaries other than what is visually available, accepting all perceivable differences as equally valid phenomena in the visual-cultural landscape.
Where one might experience the compulsion to pause in front of something familiar, like lettering on the sidewalk, look at it as if it were alien, and then take a picture of it, Greenbaum’s work appears driven by a similar impulse. It comes across as a comparison of personal memory, photographic fact, and an attempt to explain these things verbally. Imagine this thought process leading to an object outsourced to a commercial sign-maker asked to reassemble the fragments from handed-off pieces, and you have a sense of the implied historiography in his work.
Take the work Current (2018), for example, where an image of a pair of aged barn doors is printed directly onto a carved wooden frame. The frame looks like distressed wooden siding. The entire composition appears as if it might have been captured from a single setting, except one component is a printed image and the other is a built object. They exist in different states of reality in terms of their historicity. One can’t be sure whether the wooden frame is a replica of the printed image’s original setting, or if it’s there to convey a new reality.
There are multiple forms of memory, or referents to documentation, at work here as well. One is the photographic record of the object captured outside; one is the image transferred to the carved region now standing in as barn doors; and another is the visual approximation of the carved external wall setting. A consistent logic remains throughout, where the unifying factor of the components is their visual proximity. All of this works, despite the disparate provenance of the elements involved.
With such importance placed on the image and roles of perception, perhaps a better understanding can be gained by investigating the inherent and conventional qualities of photography. At all times now it seems we are busy scanning our physical surroundings—through our devices— for a potential image (or object) to acquire for sharing. This ubiquitous image-taking might also explain a change in how we approach or understand objects today.
In her essay On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag addresses this relationship between image and object in terms that seem eerily prophetic for our present moment:
To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store…
…Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern. Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.
To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge, and, therefore, like power.—Susan Sontag, ‘On Photography’
If the image is also an object, the question arises: can an object also be used to accumulate, store, and capture experience like an image? Can the object also be an extension of “consciousness in a state of acquisition”, like the camera?
In Greenbaum’s work, this certainly seems to be the case. His collection of images from the outside world and the “thickened environment” resulting from his compositional acumen adheres to the same principles that Sontag applies to photography. Creating a work using fragments and images accumulated from the world outside parallels the sensibility of a photographer using his or her lens to capture subjects. The analog of the photographic print, translated into object-based terms, might look something like Greenbaum’s hybrid artworks.
After some time in our conversation, the discussion took an interesting turn toward the themes of legibility and lucidity. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that experiences with lucid dreaming and hallucinogens played an important role in the development of his work. After putting aside my superficial concerns with the styles of imagery in his work, a deeper current of psychological content became more pronounced the longer I gazed.
Something that Ethan articulated about his experience of lucid dreaming has continued to resonate. He described how, when looking at the text in a dream, the letters and numbers would morph or degrade on close inspection. “When you try to read it, you can’t actually do it,” he said. “It becomes blurred or scrambled. As soon as you try to control anything, it immediately disintegrates.”
A key point in his description—that the effort to control the image results in it escaping your grasp—is important for viewing his work. Some might take a more metaphorical approach in unpacking this, but I was immediately reminded of the double-slit experiment from quantum physics. In this experiment, light and matter simultaneously display characteristics of both waves and particles (i.e., wave-particle duality). The experiment proves that matter can behave like light, and light can behave like matter.
This idea of a “spooky” duality that is proven by quantum physics gets us another step closer to a model for what is occurring in Greenbaum’s work. The closer one approaches to inspect and comprehend the work, the more it exceeds your grasp. When you then step back to take in the work as a singular composition, you’re presented with an object recognizable for its alluring imagery, arrangement, and the tool-marks involved in its making. Take a step even further back and you become seduced by a view that suggests it might sweep you away into a familiar, yet still unknown and mysterious world.
The play between what is known (the physical object), what is unknown (the completion of the image’s construction), and what is mysterious (the viewer’s desire to resolve an interpretation), appears as a consistent strength in Greenbaum’s work. Whereas the known remains with physical fact, the unknown seems to be a state we can’t fully penetrate, given our perceptual limitations within this slippage of the image and object. The engagement of the mystery, however, reveals to us that the position where we stand, as the observer, has a dynamic effect on what is seen.
Ethan Greenbaum is an artist living and working in New York.
His work has been shown in group exhibitions internationally at: KANSAS, New York; Derek Eller Gallery, New York; Hauser and Wirth, New York; Marlborough Chelsea, New York, Higher Pictures, New York; New York; Marianne Boesky, New York, Circus Gallery, Los Angeles; Steve Turner, Los Angeles; The Suburban, Chicago; Michael Jon & Alan, Miami, The Aldrich Museum, Connecticut; Socrates Sculpture Park; Long Island City and Stems Gallery, Brussels. He has had solo presentations with Lyles & King and solo exhibitions at Galerie Pact, Paris and Super Dakota, Brussels.
His work has been discussed in The New York Times, Modern Painters, Artforum, BOMB Magazine, ArtReview and Interview Magazine, among others. Greenbaum is the recipient of the Queens Art Fund New Work Grant, the Silver Art Residency, Dieu Donne’s Workspace Residency, LMCC’s Workspace Program, The Robert Blackburn SIP Fellowship, The Socrates EAF Fellowship, The Edward Albee Foundation Residency and The Barry Schactman Painting Prize. He received an MFA in Painting from Yale School of Art.