Last summer I visited Foley Gallery in New York City’s Lower East Side to see High Summer, an exhibition curated by Joseph Desler Costa and Jeremy Haik, and had the chance to interview both artists about their work and approach to art-making. Desler Costa, who is represented by Michael Foley, recently celebrated the opening of a solo exhibition of his own work, Particle Paradise, a display of seventeen new photographs and sculptural pieces. I visited the gallery on an overcast afternoon and was met by the artist for a private tour of the show. Continuing our conversation later, we discussed some of the finer points of his new work.
Interview by Adam Ryder
Adam Ryder: You’ve told me that you’re a commercial photographer by trade, something that’s evident in the care with which you craft your images. In what ways, if any, do you think your professional work has influenced your artwork?
Joseph Desler Costa: It has completely influenced the way I approach my art practice. I used to try to separate art and commerce and I created a kind internal hierarchy about each practice. Then I saw other artists incorporating their commercial work into their art practice, like Roe Ethridge and Collier Schorr or even Andy Warhol, and it was really freeing. It’s really hard for me to photograph one way and then switch it off entirely, so I found I was able take certain elements of my commercial practice that were really interesting and adapt them and even address them in my art practice.
Ryder: So, you grew up in Pittsburgh, and as a kid you read a lot of magazines. Many, if not all, of the works in Particle Paradise recall the slick production and high-gloss advertising images seen in magazines both past and present. Which publications were your favorites growing up and what attracted you to them?
Desler Costa: Yeah, I grew up in a rusty part of Pittsburgh and there was always this thought in my mind wondering about how the rest of the world was living. And about leaving for a better, shinier place. I found that world, or at least the illusion of it in magazines like The Face, Interview, Travel and Leisure, Vogue, and any other fashion or lifestyle mags I could get my hands on. My father had a waiting room in his office, so there were many subscriptions lying around for me to choose from. I also spent a lot of time looking a car and motor sport magazines. I wanted that high-gloss world to be real and I think part of the reason I seek to make hyper-realistic glossy photo objects derives from that same desire.
Ryder: Looking at the images as a whole, I’m reminded of the Christopher Williams retrospective at MoMa, The Production Line of Happiness, from 2014. Like Williams’, you’re also producing clean, tack-sharp images that make reference to commercial product photography. However, Williams’ work is a détournement of this mode - his aims are to skewer late capitalism and materialism. Your images seem to do the opposite; instead working within and expanding upon the visual language of advertising photography, fetishising the products pictured in your works and imbuing them with, as you mentioned to me, a kind of transcendent spirituality. What do these works imply, if anything, about your beliefs about material culture and consumerism?
Desler Costa: I think we live in a world where truth and image are no longer concrete things. For better or worse, everything is more flexible and malleable in a way. Consumerism offers a promise of something better. It usually never delivers, but believing in it can sometimes be a comfort. It at least offers up the idea of transformation. We re-imagine and re-invent ourselves constantly as an effect of images we see and digest. It’s scary but also beautiful that we have this opportunity.
Ryder: Some of your images, like Air One Oleander (above), are potent examples of photography’s agency in the beautification and elevation of otherwise mundane objects in the service of commercial activities and you are clearly a master in the techniques required to do this. But there is an interesting tension between your subject matter and the highly aestheticised treatment that’s been applied to them. Light, diaphanous layers of Coors Light cans, Cherry, which depicts the remnants of a cigarette begging to be ashed and Solo Jazz Cup, have more in common with working-class Americana than they do with the showroom or the catwalk. Could you talk a bit about why you chose these particular subjects to work with and the effect that your visual treatment of these objects is intended to impart to the viewer?
Desler Costa: I think that everyday and mass-produced objects carry within them the potential for transformation. A beer can has a certain ‘can-ness’ inherent in it, but it also has so much more potential. I feel like as I move through the things I photograph, I can make them something other, elevate them or transform them to the point where I forget what they are originally.
Ryder: You’ve told me that you love glamor and there seems to be a kinship with your work, especially seen in pieces like Cowboy or Daylight, in its imagery and stylistic choices, with commercial photographs from the 1970’s and 1980’s. How is glamor depicted or expressed differently today than it was 30 or so years ago? What attracts you to this brand of glamor from the past?
Desler Costa: I should add that aside from magazines, I was very influenced by film, so the idea of Hollywood and its stars in all their glamour definitely contributed to the way my formal sensibilities developed. The suburb I grew up in was a very affluent one in the 60s and 70s, but much less so in the 80s and 90s when I was growing up. So there was this kind of dusted 1970’s/1980’s glamour in the houses in the neighborhood. Bright colored wall-to-wall carpeting, patterned wallpaper, lots of golf pants - but all a bit yellowed. I used to imagine what it would all look like if it was brand new. I spent a lot of time in the library recently looking at fashion, lifestyle and even technology magazines from the 70’s and 80’s. But rather than trying to copy the nostalgic feel, I was more attracted to the precision of the photography and the way the graphics were placed into the ads and images.
Ryder: Something that differentiates the work in Particle Paradise from earlier work I’ve seen from you is that it incorporates graphic elements into the picture plane. Could you describe the evolution of this choice and when and why you’ve chosen to utilize these elements in your works?
Desler Costa: Most of my work is done with multiple exposures and at some point I started photographing cut paper and tape as exposure layers in certain images. I found I could create depth with tape lines and cut paper, or cleaner gradients by shooting colored papers at an extremely soft focus. In my earlier work I had done some photos that were really geometric abstractions and studies consisting solely of tape, paper and foam core constructions, but I realized I didn’t want to make abstract work. So I decided to merge the studio constructions with the objects in this body of work and reference the graphic element present in much of the imagery we look at.
Ryder: You’ve gone to great lengths to produce these images with in-camera and analog techniques as much as possible and we’ve spoken about a perceived hierarchy in the fine-art community about production methods. Why was it so important for you to work this way in an age when so much can be accomplished in post-production?
Desler Costa: On one level, I really enjoy figuring out how I can pull something off technically in the studio, and in doing that, the process sometimes starts to influence the content of the pictures in a really exciting way. I love when that happens. I do want people to know that I use very little Photoshop in the creation of my pictures but not because I am opposed to it or see it as a lesser tool. For me it’s more about the pleasure I get when something happens that I didn't necessarily intend.
Ryder: Each piece in your show exhibits the same attention to craft in printing, framing and mounting as you’ve applied yourself to the shooting and editing of the images, they’re quite impressive. Each is a dye-sublimation print, an uncommon medium for photographs often used in industrial applications - could you tell me about your choice to use this process?
Desler Costa: I wanted these works to embrace and even show off that they are capable of living as objects. Printing on aluminum makes them strong and durable in a way that photos generally are not. Now when they are done it’s like kicking the tire on a new car- they are tough. My hope is that they show themselves as an impenetrable physical surface made up of actual imagery that is very fluid in content. I extend that same thought to the frames which are mostly made of polished brass and aluminum. Is it possible to pimp out a photograph?
Ryder: You’ve also created a neon wall-sculpture for the show, Paradise, that recalls Jukebox-era nightlife. Could you speak to how this piece interacts with the other works in show? Do you see it as fulfilling a similar function as your photographic pieces?
Desler Costa: There is a bar called George and Jack’s in my neighborhood in Brooklyn that I frequent. The neon piece is a copy of the logo on the jukebox in the back, but I changed [the logo of] ‘compact discs’ into ‘paradise’. The color palette of the jukebox was an influence on the colors and gradients I chose to shot in the photos. I did a lot of reading on neon and was really interested in it as a technology that was invented with pretty much the sole purpose of catching someone's attention. I like shiny.
Particle Paradise is open through April 30th at Foley Gallery at 59 Orchard St. NYC.
Adam Ryder is an artist working in lens-based mediums in Brooklyn, NY. He is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Photography, Video and Related Media in New York City. He has previously created work in collaboration with Brian Rosa. Ryder also writes about contemporary photographic practice and has contributed to Photograph, American Photo and Popular Photography magazines
Joseph Desler Costa is a photographer living in Brooklyn, NY and Pisa, Italy. He holds degrees from the University of Colorado at Boulder (BA) as well as ICP Bard College (MFA) and attended the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Televisión (EICTV) in Cuba. His pictures and films have been exhibited at venues including the Aperture Foundation, Baxter St. Camera Club, Arsenale di Venezia, Newspace Center for Photography, International Center of Photography, Lianzhou Foto, and Volta NY. Costa has curated and organized a number of exhibitions, books and zines including group shows at Baxter St. Camera Club of NY and Foley Gallery. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Self Publish Be Happy, VICE, Visual Studies Workshop Journal, and Musee Magazine. In 2014, Costa co-founded the artist-run publishing collective Silent Face Projects.