Clifford Owens, Better the Rebel You Know

Drawing overtly on political issues surrounding the visual representation of race and power, and the often highly complex relationship between artist and audience, Clifford Owens’ work is electrically charged. In his exhibition at Cornerhouse, New York-based Owens presents a body of existing and newly commissioned work, consisting largely of pieces in which photography and filmmaking record the result of performative gestures and live encounters. By working alongside audiences and by using the creative influence of other artists in his projects, Owens explores issues around authorship and how the medium of photography, and to a lesser extent, film, has shaped and continues to shape the history of performance art.

As its title would suggest, in the series ‘Photographs With an Audience: Manchester’ (2013) Owens worked with people from Manchester to develop portraits over several sessions. These photographs are provocatively subtitled ‘Heroin,’ ‘Brown People’ and ‘Alcoholic Parents’ and other facts that were revealed to Owens by the subjects in intimate sittings. Such terms transform the viewer’s perception of the subjects entirely, from seemingly innocuous portraits to politically challenging images with direct, penetrating, perhaps accusatory gazes. These are ‘groups’ which are frequently ignored or marginalised in popular culture: here they are brought to the fore.

‘Photographs With an Audience (Manchester) Alcoholic Parents,’ 2014, C-type print, courtesy of the artist and Cornerhouse

More broadly this ongoing series challenges assumptions about identity and self-definition, while exposing prejudices. These photographs require the viewer to look a little closer and to think a little more deeply, particularly regarding the complicated set of visual exchanges occurring between the audience inside and the audience outside of the photograph’s frame.

‘Anthology’ (2014) is a series of works resulting from performance proposals (written scores for performative actions) solicited from British artists that are concerned with similar issues of difference including national, racial and social stereotype. Submissions come from artists such as Hetain Patel, Sonya Boyce, Simon Fujiwara and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. A very important set of power balances exists within the exhibition, and within several adjacent works. One is a series of five photographs and a film in which Owens approaches an assembled gallery audience lined up along a wall. Selecting an audience member, he attempts to kiss them, or simply turns his intense gaze upon them. In another film his naked body lies prone on the gallery floor as audience members gently and sensually move his limbs around, re-positioning his body like a life-sized doll. Both gestures explore aggression or passive aggression, sexuality, desire, the awkwardness and embarrassment of the live encounter with another person, and a struggle for power played out in front of the camera’s lens.

‘Anthology (Nsenga Knight),’ C-type print, courtesy of the artist and Cornerhouse

Owens’ body of lens-based work is visually arresting and highly challenging. It undermines many assumptions about making and looking at art, and about recording it. It also asks many more questions than it attempts to answer. What does it mean to be an artist, a performer or a photographer? What does it mean to have your identity determined for you by your race, class, sexuality or gender and do how these labels shape our lives? Who is subject, object or audience member? Who is the author? Who is in control?

Clifford Owens
Better the Rebel You Know
Cornerhouse, Manchester
10 May – 17 August 2014

Commissioned and published by Photomonitor. First published 26 July 2014.

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