Born Detroit, 1959 / BFA, Washington University, St. Louis, MO; MA, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA; MFA, The University of Michigan School of Art and Design (now Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design) / Lives in Bloomfield Hills, MI
Conceptual photographer Cynthia Greig admits to being uninterested in the mechanics of photography; rather, she is fascinated by the facts and fictions of the photographic image. She came to photography through studying art history and filmmaking after an undergraduate degree in printmaking, and is a collector and published historian of nineteenth-century photography. Manipulated photographs, such as enhanced scenes of the Civil War and trick portraits of circus performers, hold a particular fascination. Inspired, in part, by these rudimentary red herrings, her own work as a photographer and video artist has centered on photography’s ability to manipulate what we think we see. With sly wit underscoring elegant images, she explores the area between idea and belief, between the physical and the imaginary, between perception and reality.
Early 16mm films, such as the short Death of a Postmodernist (1988), wink at the metaphysical, often campy, aesthetics of surrealist films while exploring the alteration of narrative through the manipulation of time. This film and other early works establish important tenets of her style: working in black-and-white; the evocation of the work of other artists or other styles; and subtle humor, as well as an emphasis on deceptively simple compositions that gain from close looking.
In the series “Nature Morte,” she combines video with still photography, painting, and drawing. To reveal the “life” behind traditional still life painting, Greig combined real and artificial fruit in a bowl and turned on the video camera; the resulting video, Still Life with Peaches (Sam Taylor-Wood) (2009-10), documents the changes to the real fruit over time, contrasted with the unchanging artificial one. Inspired by a 2001 video by the English artist Sam Taylor-Johnson, Greig’s video posits the cycle of decay and regeneration, using video to both record and erase the hand of the artist. Similarly, Growth Gravity (2010), a time-lapse video filmed in her backyard over seven months, is a meditation on the change of seasons, growth, and aging.
An important recent group of photographs uses art galleries and studios as sites for intervention, observing and interpreting minute architectural details. The photographs in the series “Studio Skins” (2013) look ominously like flayed, scarred skin coiled against a dark background, but are actually latex strips that exhibit the physical imprint of cracks in the concrete floors of artists’ studios. Calling out this detail in the ordinary construction materials of these spaces lends each studio a unique identity, as well as hinting at its history. Her series “Gone” (2013-15) is a set of photographs depicting close-ups of small geometric shapes, often marks from the legs of furniture, on art gallery floors. The composition references geoglyphs such as the Nazca Lines, enormous designs on the desert plateau of southern Peru, documented through aerial photography. The visual link between the marks of an ancient culture and the traces of a contemporary one, inverted in size and scale, suggests a curious continuum. The intriguing series “Threshold” (2012-17) strands visitors in empty art galleries. Greig has digitally stripped away the works of art from the gallery walls, leaving only the human figures, dwarfed by a seemingly limitless white space. This simple premise, harking back to her early interest in manipulated photographs, renders the visual experience of the gallery space as abstracted, enigmatic, often flattened in a cubist manner. The quietly comical video Too Big to Fail (2016) explores the tyranny of the red dot, that marker of commercial success, with a close-up of red dots being stacked one on top of another until they fall off the wall. Greig’s irreverent take on the obsession with sales harnesses the breathless anticipation of a fake dynamic.
The sound of breath exhaled onto glass, “Breathscapes“ (2015) posits the question, “What does breathing look like?” This series is perhaps the purest expression of the conceptual thread of the paradox between knowing and seeing that runs through her work. By trying to capture the ephemera or the insignificant details that make up our world and confound them with the push-pull of two-and three-dimensionality, Greig’s work does more than question photography’s persistent reputation for factual objectivity. Through her focus, the ordinary and often overlooked is given monumental significance, drawing attention to photography’s ability to manipulate, frame, highlight, and shape the way we perceive reality.
MaryAnn Wilkinson, April 2017
Copyright Essay’d 2017