Pervasive Nature: Recent work by Matt Siber

Matt Siber’s photographs are deceptively simple with profound cultural implications. In The Untitled Project, Siber photographs familiar urban scenes, ranging from department store makeup counters to bustling expressways, and digitally removes all of the textual elements from signs and advertisements. The removed textual elements are then presented on a second panel, paired directly next to the photographic image that has been stripped of text. Each resulting artwork is a single photograph neatly divided into two components – text and image.

This single manipulation reveals acute insights about our culture. Our contemporary lives are heavily saturated by text in the form of commercial signage, advertising, and governmental imperatives. This is clearly evidenced by the quantity of removed text, which clusters poetically in herds like small animals against an overwhelmingly blank background. In a testament to the effectiveness of advertising, the photographs are “naked” but color, design, and other graphic elements still convey the branding. Hooters is still Hooters even without explicit textual identification. We are so accustomed to the industry visual language that a first look at the photographic panel might not even reveal the manipulation without a closer look. The visual appearance of branded elements is enough to penetrate our consciousness and trigger the desired corporate Pavlovian response.

Siber’s photographs carry forward a long tradition of cultural analysis in the field of photography. Untitled #25 depicts a man bent over the wheel of a multicolored pickup truck in front of a billboard for a sleek new SUV. The bed of the pickup is filled with rough-hewn wood palates and there are stains and rust along the flank. There is a disconnection between the ideal image in the advertisement and the harsher reality of the patchwork truck. This disconnect is reminiscent of a Walker Evans photograph from 1935 in which an urban African-American man leans against a billboard advertisement featuring an idealized white suburban couple. Evans’ photograph pulls back the curtain from the advertised hyper-reality to show us the actuality of class and race divisions. Like Evans, the compositional relationships in Siber’s photograph also reveal this gap between the advertised and the real. Through the removal of textual elements, Siber pulls back a second curtain to further illuminate the artificiality put forward by the advertising industry.

The European component of The Untitled Project expands on these themes by placing familiar images in the context of another culture. Untitled #35 presents a poster-covered wall in the French public transportation system. Despite the language barrier, the advertisements contained within spring directly from quintessentially American culture. A triptych of Playboy magazine covers, made famous as a lifestyle magazine by Hugh Hefner, appear with French language titles. Siber’s photograph leads us to consider the homogenization of world culture and the universal demand and common language shared by pornography. Even in a foreign language, certain cultural commodities are ubiquitous and use a universal visual language to speak to the intended audience.

In the Floating Logos series, Siber presents luminous corporate logos, digitally disconnected from the moorings that anchor them to the earth. The symbols of these massive corporations and franchises tower above us as if to suggest a messianic return. The historical deities are gone, replaced by new corporate demigods. The vantage point of the camera in the photographs reflects the dominant presence of these companies, continually hovering just above our awareness. This series, as well as The Untitled Project, addresses the pervasive nature of corporate presence.

Siber’s strategic digital manipulations alter our perception of the familiar and the commonplace. His photographs shatter the carefully manicured facade of the advertising industry, make explicit the implicit and shake us awake from our daily sleepwalk through the clutter of competing corporate messages. We are ultimately asked to consider our complicity in the creation of the hypnotic lullaby of this contemporary landscape.

Nate Larson
Assistant Professor of Photography
Maryland Institute College of Art
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