It isn't often you get to see an artist's starting point, but at Ghostprint Gallery's new show, "Group Photo," it's all right there in the front window. Barrett Gordon's raw materials are anonymous group photos from the beginning of the 20th century, the inspiration for the works in the show, and for context the originals are displayed separately from the collages that follow.
Because Gordon considers the dog-eared and sepia-toned images historically valuable, he begins by photographing and enlarging them before making them the basis for collages with found objects. A published poet and community organizer from Buffalo, N.Y., Gordon describes this process of replication and removal from the original as "populating the process with free radicals of chance, distortion and mutation." The results hint at the past but are rooted in today.
Gordon considers himself a visual artist with a focus in collage and the painterly aspects of artistic expression. Unsurprisingly, his parents were creative, his father an architect and his mother a retired fourth-grade writing teacher. "I got into drawing, scrapbooking and writing at a relatively early age," he says. "I nurtured the itch in high school and college via painting and sculpture, as music gradually became a key interest too. Sometimes I wonder if collage was a unifying response to having strong interests in three separate fields."
Looking to develop a new body of work in late 2013, he latched onto the idea of group photos because they lent themselves so well to collage. Something about both the groupness and the anonymity presented an interchangeability that felt accessible. He'd acquired a selection of old photographs back in 2005, so he stowed them away as a sort of lovely but untouchable contradiction. "I was also very drawn to the way reproduction of the originals alleviated preciousness and allowed for a significant spectrum of alteration and expression, not to mention reversibility."
A dedicated multitasker, Gordon likes to have at least two pieces going at once, preferably vertically oriented. "I'm often squinting, looking for visual cohesion much more than meaning," he says. "Much of it is chance in terms of what ends up in my hands."
Because he's the one actively collecting most of the source material for the collages, it's intentional to some extent, but he acknowledges that it often comes down to what's at the top of the pile.
Despite the somber photographs that inspire Gordon's work, the overwhelming sense when looking at the collages is of the fun he's imbued in them. "Headshot, Group II" begins as a sedate group of men, half standing, half sitting, all suited and serious looking. But over the head of each, Gordon has affixed a cutout face from a colorful comic character, some of couples kissing, others of a woman's tear-stained face or dramatic expression. It's jarring and fanciful.
In "Dessert Builders," Gordon uses an old photograph called "Engine no. 11, truck no. 4" as the basis for a composition that has him cutting and rearranging the figures in an image of a fire brigade in long coats in front of a horse-drawn fire truck. Whimsy is added with a colorful print of two armored men jousting, placed atop the truck, and a crushed Genesee beer can in the lower corner. Gordon leaves interpretation up to the viewer.
"I would hope that people feel challenged and inspired," he says, "by the crossroads of preconceived notions of ownership, authorship, re-appropriation, and simple, visually stimulating work." S
"Group Photo" by Barrett Gordon is on view at Ghostprint Gallery, 220 W. Broad St., through April 26. The gallery is open noon-6 p.m. on Friday, April 25, and Saturday, April 26. Information by phone at 344-1557 or online at ghostprintgallery.com.