Part 2: Sarah Charlesworth (including reflections and insights from July assessment)

Sarah Charlesworth was an artist who pioneered the use of found images in very interesting ways. She did this in order to think about how we as a culture reflect on this very image-saturated society. She saw the use of photography as engagement with a problem rather that a medium and that the creative part of her work was just as much like painting or design as it was photography (S. Charlesworth, interview with Betsy Sussler 1989).

 In her 1983-88 series Objects of Desire, she cut items out of magazines, ranging from classical statues to dresses, bowls and bondage gear. She then re-photographed them and printed on solid fields of colour and presented with matching frames. In an interview with artist Sara VanDerBeek in 2007, she described the series, “The idea…was that standing behind any individual’s identity or the way in which we position ourselves in the world, there is a whole set of pre-articulated possibilities of what is sexy or powerful”.



‘Figures, 1983–84,’ from the ‘Objects of Desire’ series. (Courtesy Inglett Gallery)


Later she shot images herself, and looked to a wider variety of sources for material, like renaissance paintings and drawings in the case of photographed collages that she made in the early 1990’s.


I have been particularly interested in her series Academy of Secrets because through this work she deploys symbolically charged imagery: the heart, the lotus, the womb – floating them on colors that visually infuse the psyche. These works are metaphoric and for the most part contain minimal juxtapositions of image fragments that are abstracted and exposed. The shape of an idea is central.



Temple of My Father
Cibachrome with lacquered wood frame
78″ x 57″
Edition of 4 + 2 APs
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver BC


This excerpt from an interview with Betsy Sussler she explains her thoughts around what she is attempting to represent and representation of the unconscious and the invisible. “I abstract objects that socially, carry a strong emotional charge or symbolic significance. I’ve abstracted them from the context in which we normally confront them, a fish out of a natural history magazine or a heart out of an anatomy magazine and recreated another context which is within my work. In The Academy of Secrets, I’ve tried to confront an emotion in myself and used these image-objects to create a complex, emotional field resembling a visual dream or a feeling. I’m trying, almost to cast into imagery a specific feeling. It’s not necessarily resolved in any structurally, easily, interpretable form. It is much more personal. I’m exploring a level of unconscious engagement in language, a covert symbology. There’s a level on which this involves a personal as well as a societal confrontation. In other words, I think that a symbolism is attached to particular images, becomes marked in the unconscious. To exorcise it, to rearrange it, to reshape it, to make it my own, involves unearthing it, describing it, deploying it inform, and then rearranging it. In each individual piece, I’m going for a different kind of emotional psychic chord”.

The following excerpt from the same interview is useful and important for me as it guides me toward using symbolic language that is open ended, non diadatic and allows the viewer entry and interpretation of the work that is entirely their own. This balance and openness I achieved in my artwork The Stand In by unanimous agreement of the assessment panel. The panel expressed to me that the ability to present symbolic imagery that is open and accessible to anyone is something that is important for my work going forward. A language of representation like that allows for complexity and ambiguity. I also think The Stand In was successful in achieving my intentions because the image of the lamb was abstracted (baked) which changed the context and allowed for another dimension in the work, the necessary complexity and new possibilities for how the work could be read.

Sarah Charlesworth states, “Frequently, I take very loaded, for instance, very sexual symbols and abstract them and deploy them in a piece without attaching any gender significance per say to them. The Bowl and the Column has a golden bowl on the bottom of a brilliant blue rectangular field and a golden yellow column on the other field. It’s the essence of what is thought to be a female symbol and a male symbol, and yet there’s no female or male gender attached to the piece itself but what the viewer brings to it. You’re confronted with a pure abstraction and you realize on a certain level where the symbolism begins and ends. A great deal of it’s brought to the piece by the viewer”. (Sussler, 1989)

Helpful to me also are Charlesworth’s thoughts around her formal choices for presentation of her work. Every aspect needs to be thought through, analyzed and interrogated to allow for the greatest possible potential for the work to be realized. “The color and the imagery are meant to work together as a whole. All the formal choices, such as size, arrangement of the images and, certainly the color, have a psychic charge. The pieces are constructed to be the size of the human body: they are supposed to confront the body, to contact the emotional body of the viewer”. (Sussler, 1989)

Insight I have gained from the exchange below is the need to let go of attaching a particular significance when using loaded images. In reflection on feedback from mid-year assessment I am aware that I need to understand how to make works in the future that are open in the way that The Stand In is open and I think that this ‘not attaching a particular significance’ is an important part of that learning.

Question from Betty Sussler,(Sussler, 1989) “Objects, images contain an ancient power. And it can evoke and elicit responses. You couldn’t produce this work without knowing that”.

Sarah Charlesworth answers, “Absolutely. But what I’m saying is frequently these loaded images or objects are used by me without my attaching a particular significance to them. In other words, what I’m doing is letting whatever power, whatever affect they have, work on its own”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s