“Sequences and Singularities” at Carl Hammer Gallery

Chicago

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"Double Exposure" on view at "Sequences and Singularities"
“Double Exposure,” 1960s, Anonymous 5 x 3.5 inches – #18 Courtesy: Carl Hammer Gallery

Sometimes, what’s produced as a result of everyday life can be far more affecting than what an artist’s mind can invent. Such is the case in “Sequence and Singularities: Vernacular Photography from the Collection of Nicholas Osborn,” consisting of family photos, photographic postcards, medical images, accidental compositions, and peculiarly hand-altered pictures dating from the 1900s – 1990s. Osborn spent over two decades collecting thousands of found and discarded photographs. However, this exhibition is not a representation of his collection as a whole: this is clearly the weird stuff.

The underlying theme is both cohesive and enigmatic. Here, anonymous photographers have captured, by chance or design, subjects that are curious, violent, unnerving or otherwise able to disturb. In some instances, the theme is obvious: an atomic bomb blast dates to 1957, a crime scene Polaroid from 1978, a tornado ripping through Dallas in the 1950s. In others, subtle emotional auras come as a result of technical mistakes or accidental clicks of the shutter. A closely cropped shot of an empty couch and a blank wall is palpably lonesome, while an image of a man reclining on a bed is double exposed with a shot of the empty mattress, creating a ghostly, transparent figure. Other photographs infiltrate the viewer’s consciousness. Rife with clues, they prompt speculation of underlying personal narratives. In Addict Diptych (1959), a pair of photographs captures a jolly baby basking in a sunlit window and posed in his highchair, not unlike photos any doting new parent takes. Upon these sweet scenes, scrawled in ballpoint pen: “Oh look / a loser heroin addict born / I will grow up as a low life.” Whether this altered photograph suggests a kind of self-loathing of that child as a grown man, or an emotional response of someone hurt by him, the passage of time is tangible, as is the sense of betrayal and disappointment of a life’s potential impeded by drug abuse.

The insight into and dedicated familiarity with vernacular photos that Osborn brings to the table provides a crucial curatorial component. Osborn identifies underlying connections, creating a context in which these photos transcend their intended purposes. Although amassing a diligent, purposeful collection is not necessarily on par with artistic creation, “Sequences and Singularities” is surely somewhere in between those two kinds of actions.