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SAM ERENBERG

September 20 - October 26, 2008 at At Space Contemporary, Orange County

by Margarita Nieto


In a forty-year career centered in and around Southern California, Sam Erenberg has been pursuing the elemental in the making of art. A prolific artist his practice encompasses performance, photography bookmaking and above all, abstract painting. Each of these explorations have marked a circular journey toward an essential commentary on abstraction and on the questions of absence/presence, voice/silence. Often monochromatic, his paintings examine space as surface, texture, shadow, and light. His constant search for a more essential abstract language blurs and slowly erases the artifice of representation, drawing him ever closer to the purity of the abstract.

This exhibition of “Small Works and Short Films” includes short experimental films from the sixties and seventies manipulated by painting, bleaching and even through the process of heating up and burning the film. Films are accompanied by small, white, oil on wood paintings, all untitled and ranging from 4 x 5 to 9 x 7 inches. The largest works here weigh in at 12 x12 inches. Tiny photographs, some as small as one inch wide, are mounted either vertically or horizontally about two inches from the top of the white surface. Approximately twenty-five of these are photographs of photographs, which Erenberg has taken from anthropological texts or which he has photographed himself during his travels. These black and white photographs are of aboriginal or tribal groups, individuals, tools, utensils or ritual objects, and in the case of his own photographs, purposefully unidentified architectural spaces. The images themselves have been worked over, distressed and manipulated by the artist. In some cases, the yellowing image conveys a feeling of a daguerreotype or what the artist refers to as the “antique space” the photographs once occupied, a space now taken over by digital technology.

There are also three series consisting of six works apiece, each dedicated to cosmological images: the sun, the moon, and a third series on creation (the Big Bang) and destruction (black holes and exploding stars). These works pose a different issue than the twenty-five referred to above, in that these images are even more worked over and manipulated. Revealing the artist’s hand, they free the viewer’s eye to interpret the image.

Erenberg emphasizes the aesthetic space and composition of these small oil on wood paintings with tiny photographs. Each is mounted on a wood frame which is painted white; thus the specific spelling out of their description. Each “white, oil on wood painting with a photograph” is conceived as a totality. The result is that the white ground on which the two-inch photograph is mounted creates an intimate space that allows the viewer a one-on-one relationship with the image.

The two approaches--the appropriation of anthropological documentation via the photograph of the printed image, and the distorted and blurred heavenly bodies of the “Cosmological” series--allows for quite distinct perspectives in our viewing experience. In the first, we see the image of the primitive accented by Erenberg’s manipulations, which add the antique patina of a decades old black and white newsreel.  Rather than taking you back in any nostalgic sense, it calls up our own primitive impulse to stereotype.


Sam Erenberg, view of
selected works from sides.







Sam Erenberg, "Untitled from
the Cosmological Series" (detail),
1993, altered photograph and oil
paint on wood panel, 7 x 5".







Sam Erenberg, "Untitled from
the Cosmological Series" (detail),
1993, altered photograph and oil
paint on wood panel, 7 x 5".







Sam Erenberg, "Untitled," 1993,
altered photograph and oil paint
on wood panel, 9 x 7".







Sam Erenberg, "Untitled," 1993,
altered photograph and oil paint
on wood panel, 9 x 7".

If this series heightens our awareness of historical perceptions, in the “Cosmological” series our awareness is directed outward. The three sets of tiny distorted images of what could, but may not actually be the sun, the moon, and other stellar bodies provoke reflection on our most mundane sensory consciousness, not only of the planets and stars but of our a priori and conditioned response to the world around us. The group of stellar bodies convey the strongest feeling of cosmological phenomena and scale, which provokes reflection about the consciousness of our origins and our end, challenging us to think about where we come from and where we are headed. It’s fine that we are beguiled into seeing these representations prompted by the images’ assigned name, but keep looking and the certainty of what we think we see starts to break down.
 
In 1999 Erenberg created a LA MetroArt Lightbox project, “The Complete works of Roland Barthes,” an installation of twenty-four hand-bound books with the titles of Barthes’ works displayed along with a series of photographs of well-known LA artists holding the facsimile books. The current exhibition of small and exquisite works is surely Erenberg’s latest homage to Barthes, in that one of Barthes’ main thrusts, particularly in his writings on photograph, was his interrogation of the bourgeois love affair with “realism,” the question of subjectivity, and, to quote from the author “the birth of the reader” (or, for us, the viewer).