Less Americains by Mishka Henner

Mishka Henner: Canal Street

There’s a well-known quote along the lines of “less is more,” that has grown and transpired within the art world over the previous decades. Mishka Henner seems to have whole heartedly embraced this artistic ideal in Less Americains (2012), a display currently showing at The Open Eye Gallery. Taking the highly praised, pivotal work of Robert Frank’s photobook Les Americains (1958), Henner has proceeded to erase and remove large portions of the original photographs, leaving behind random, scattered and often indecipherable remnants of the seminal works.

Les Americains was the creative by-product of Frank’s Beatnik wanderings across the vast continent. Upon returning, his photographic observations generated considerable controversy. Rather than portraying the official happy-go-lucky culture of wealth and unanimity, the 83 black and white photos of ordinary Americans’ daily lives revealed a dark loneliness that lurked beneath the post-war euphoria and prosperity.

Frank’s work drew upon sensibilities and concerns much in line with the existential, Beat counter-culture that was developing at the time. Preaching the dehumanising nature of society, they believed the warm, compassionate blood of America was being sucked out by a cold, materialistic and alienating culture, devoid of any sensuality. The individualism of the American population was becoming diluted in the name of a socially conforming self, a “norm” that was modelled strongly upon the cheery domestic, suburban families of TV commercials.  It was a society spiralling head-first down into the murky abyss of consumerism and materialistic greed. Jack Kerouac himself wrote an introduction to the American edition of Frank’s book, praising: “The humour, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures (!)”

If Frank’s originals do indeed capture the true “everything-ness” of the time, with their dark, gritty textures and dejected subjects, what happens when an artist, 60 years down the line, decides to begin stripping chunks away? Do the parts that remain behind contain any of the everything-ness Frank achieved in capturing? Or are we left instead with a 21st century collection of artistic “nothing-ness?”

From the frames of Henner’s editions glares a stark, clinically white backdrop where illegible shapes are sparsely blotted -remnants from the original works casting their darkness on a blank slate. The snippets he chooses to leave behind are so wholly removed from the characters of the photos, who have melted away into the glaring white and left behind nothing more than an assortment of useless possessions and accessories. The most striking example of this is a photo whose original portrays a crowd of people rushing by the camera. It reveals a chaotic, metropolitan melting pot: old, young, white, black – all the people of America in one frame. Yet, there is no interaction between the subjects, who are all too focussed on where they need to be, what they need to be doing. There are no dreamy strollers in this shot, no individual wanderer, but only a rushing sea of anonymous faces caught up in the haste and demand of capitalism. In Henner’s version of the same photo, the people have all been erased. He leaves behind only their hats and jackets in a sea of nothingness. I can’t help recalling the 1955 poem “A Supermarket in California,” where Ginsberg suggests that the very source of life’s basic necessity (food) has itself been manipulated into a mass produced component of the capitalist machine. The “neon” lighting of the supermarket, the zombie-like shoppers, the stripping away of all natural elements to be replaced by a cold, unnatural world of commodities: it’s all here in Henner’s work.

As much as he has been criticised for this artistic venture, perhaps Henner is ultimately expanding further upon what Frank began on all those years ago. The materialism that Frank and the Beats condemned, as they witnessed it spread across the country like a plague, has surely only accelerated over the decades. If they believed in its dehumanising effect, the stripping away of humanity from society, perhaps Henner’s work seeks to portray the advancement to its present stage by literally removing all traces of human subjects from the page. The title itself even suggests there to be “less” of the American population than previously. Something related to this group of humans has been weakened in essence – physically diluted.

All that is left behind in a body of work that seeks to capture Western society in its entirety is nothing more than a sparse collection of our clothing, transport, flags, accessories – mass produced products to represent a group of people. It’s a bleak yet powerful message- a further stab at our consumer culture. Perhaps Henner’s version does still reveal the same “everything-ness” that Kerouac praised. But this time, there is simply “less” that truly makes up our essence….

Image from: http://www.guardian.co.uk

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