NEW YORK, NY.-
The underlying narrative behind American Psyche: The Unlit Cave
, an unsettling and prescient new monograph by George Elsasser (Daylight, June 2020), is the photographer's exploration of the anxious state of the collective American Consciousness in the era of Trump. American Psyche combines artful abstract imagery with urban landscapes and street photography made in the United States from 2005 to 2019. Together, these photographs serve as visual metaphors mirroring the artist's feelings about racism in America, the current moment, and our inability to live up to American ideals. In his twenties, Elsasser was deeply affected by Carl Jung and his concepts of synchronicity and the unconscious. His story ultimately points a way towards clarity and healing.
In his afterword, Elsasser explains, "For this book, terms such as the unconscious, 'the shadow,' or 'the unlit cave,' all point to the same thing. Like the iceberg, the largest part of our psyche-about 90 percent-lies below our conscious waterline ... A collective unwillingness to explore our 'unlit caves' contributes to our ugliest and at worst deadly behaviors, as revealed in tribalism and groupthink."
In her essay "To dance on an orb," Deborah McLeod, curator and owner of Chroma Projects Art Laboratory in Charlottesville, Virginia likens the spirit of Elsasser's photographs of America to The Historic "Apollo" Moon Landing which was recently honored by NASA on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
McLeod writes: "We celebrate this remarkable achievement of know-how and promise, of optimism, determination, hubris, possession, tourism, and faith. This is our culture ... George is not just a careful observer and cataloguer of his fellow earthlings' lives and habits, but an interpreter of their secret souls. Many of his candid shots would make him seem an anthropologist, a scientist, his camera the binoculars and the microscope, catching his subjects unaware as they romp and venture, display and assert ... "
The photographs in American Psyche are divided into six sections each introduced with a one-word heading: Predicament, Liberty, Scar Tissue, Currents, Innersections, and Interface. These headings, along with the photo captions in the plate list at the back of the book, provide pointers or clues about the artist's inner thoughts about our complex nation.
Elsasser's color saturated images incorporate shadows, intriguing juxtapositions and angles that are unsettling, sometimes humorous. An image in Interface depicts a boy sitting in a chair looking out at a beach with his face away from the camera. He appears oblivious to the scantily clad young woman with red hair in the background who is starting her climb up a monster mountain. In Currents, the first photograph is a water pistol followed by an image of a policeman with a gun in his holster visible. Behind him is a man in a jumpsuit with an American flag pattern.
In Predicament, the first section in the book, there is a NASA earth image in black and white to which the artist has added a red arrow pointed towards America. On the opposite page is the following text: "A refusal to examine our unconscious caves drives us ever closer to our collective undoing." In the last series, Interface, there is another NASA earth image this time in color with America in the center covered in patches of green. The photograph that follows is of a woman standing on a beach holding a baby. Is Elsasser suggesting there is still hope for humanity if we take a different path?
The endpapers in American Psyche feature four of Elsasser's graphite drawings from his series 'photographer's pencil' (1998-2001) which he describes as 'personages.'
George Elsasser, who has been drawing since childhood, discovered photography at twenty-one and found that, unmoored from traditional uses, it was perfect for his artistic intuitions. He's been included in shows at the Chrysler Museum of Art and New York University (NYU). In 1997 he received a 20-year Retrospective at the Hermitage Museum, Norfolk, VA.