In 1955, Jasper Johns painted White Flag, an American flag made of newspaper clippings covered in white encaustic paint. The piece survives both as an emblem of America and a physical archive of life within its borders, as captured in the columns and headlines frozen beneath Johns’ hardened wax brushstrokes and drippings. In his new exhibition, photographer Roe Ethridge responds to Johns with Johns Flag (all works 2017), a snapshot of the canvas taken in extremely low resolution and transformed into a field of white, off-white, and light brown pixels. The already difficult-to-read newsprint is rendered completely illegible; the icon of America, and of 20th-century American art, is muddled. The exhibition may be called “American Spirit”—a nod to both the cigarette brand and Alfred Stieglitz—but as Johns Flag makes clear, Ethridge does his best to cast suspicion on any product or image that claims to succinctly summarize America or American-ness.
The centerpiece of the show, Untitled (American Spirit), seems at first glance to depict a textbook suburban home set on a lush green lawn bordered by dewy red roses. Look more closely, however, and you notice Chinese writing looming eerily in the upper-left-hand corner. The text is the result of a glitch in batch photo editing which Ethridge leaves in, as a reminder of the image’s constructed nature: Is this scene any less organic than a Doris Day movie? A Norman Rockwell painting? The incursion of Chinese into the frame also hints at how digital media shapes identity, something further addressed in the strange and spellbinding Pic ‘n Clips, a series of collages made from image files saved on Ethridge’s desktop over twelve years, and backed by ghostly, enlarged photographs of flat American Spirit cartons. The images, sourced from fashion spreads, advertising, personal photographs, and internet screenshots, appear in enigmatic arrangements. Some even seem randomly generated. In Pic ‘n Clip 9, photographs of ocean waves appear alongside pictures of tide forecasts and an ad for the “Tide 3.0” watch—a precarious merging of image, information, and commerce reminiscent of a Google search.
Ethridge named the collages after his mother’s coupon clippings drawer. It’s a form of hoarding quite different than that in Johns’ flag, though no less American. “American Spirit” takes many forms, and Ethridge is a brilliant and fiercely non-judgmental or reductive observer of them all.