Compositional, sculptural, performative and active, the American artist’s photographs emerge from a desire to connect to the prosaic and the everyday, juggling ideas of intimacy, fantasy and imperfection. In his latest book, hundreds of images of his mom, Kathleen McCain Engman, destabilize the idea of “mother,” lifting her from the baggage of the real.
Words: Francesca Gavin
What do you get when you mix the hyper-flatness of commercial photography, the rawness of late-’90s grunge, the color intensity of post-modern Kodak and the humor and awareness of the Internet? If you’re lucky, something like Charlie Engman. The American artist—currently based in NYC but originally from Chicago—describes himself as a “hyper-overachieving child.” That overflow of production and ambition manifests in his career today: he has shot for American Vogue, POP, Dazed, Prada and Nike and exhibited at Lisson Gallery (London) and Scrap Metal (Toronto). This month sees the release of his first monograph, MOM.
Moving from Illinois to study Japanese and Korean at the University of Oxford, Engman realized he was desperate for a creative outlet. He started “moonlighting” at the art department at The Ruskin School, partly through his continued interest in contemporary dance. He caught the attention of faculty members, in particular the head of the school, Richard Wentworth, who enrolled him. “I really wanted to get into video making and sculpture and performance,” Engman remembers. “I had the pre-iPhone version of a crappy camera. You know those little silver boxes, which everyone would use to take drunken pictures of their college revelry? I was walking around town and taking pictures and doing these very weird self-portraits of movement gestures or objects and textures. I started using photography basically as a note-taking device or a kind of sketchbook.”
In time, he realized his photographic notes were more than mere sketches. Photographs could be compositional, sculptural, performative and active. They were also easy to relate to. “I think there’s some aspect of sharing something that isn’t precious that I find very important. It has a very orthogonal relationship to history and memory,” he says. “Photography crept up on me and caught me by surprise.” To this day, he still uses his Sony snap camera, among others, resisting the romantic idealization of the process and medium. “I think I’ve worked very hard to maintain a plebeian or layman approach to photography. People don’t necessarily understand the mechanism of photography in a very sophisticated way. Images are first and foremost about imagery,” he observes. You can see this desire to connect to the prosaic, unidealized, everyday elements in what he does. His is an aesthetic constantly in flux; one emerging motif is the presence of awkward poses and positions, perhaps a reflection of his background in jazz dance and current interest in Gaga, an improvised movement language often used in dance therapy.
These are flat images. At times, Engman emphasizes their flatness with light, drawing focus to their object-ness, reinforcing a sense of the banal. Cutting things up and layering them highlights the innate manipulative nature of photographic image; one of the fundamentals of the medium, after all, is transforming the three-dimensional object or environment into something 2D. His compositions and style also reflect a strong awareness of the context of image creation. As he points out, lighting, resolution, digital, film, high-definition and crappy webcams “all have social and visual and cultural associations and conventions and expectations that are attached to them. They imply various different things. A webcam has a certain intimacy or relationship to privacy, while something that’s very glossy and high-resolution has some sort of relationship to wealth and commerce. Film has a certain nostalgia or textural preponderance, something that’s really about materiality. I think my work is primarily motivated and focused on those boxes rather than what’s filling the box.”
Engman’s awareness of the environment in which images are consumed comes across in his approach to display: he often incorporates collage elements and plays with graphic design and layout in his final image. “I think it’s very easy to buy into the myth of the image—to look at an image as a sort of facsimile of truth or objectivity or authority. But I’m hyper-aware of how much bullshit that is,” he highlights. “So many factors go into how an image looks and is created, not only technically, but also socially, culturally, like context. I know what’s going on outside of a picture, and I know that the person who looks at the picture does not know what’s going on outside the picture.” Collaging brings attention to the fact that a photograph is a material, one stop in a whole line of processes. It is mutable. As he puts it, “You can fuck with it. You can make it blue when it was green. You can cut it in half and paste it with something else. You can manipulate it.”
Engman’s pictures point to the conventions of consumption, capitalism and advertising, as well as the almost invisible image that emerges in catalogues and “how-to” books. He unpacks the hierarchy of imagery. “I think I have an interest in certain prosaic things, because they’re often overlooked or overshadowed. I have a very friction-filled relationship with ideas of hierarchy—what an image is supposed to look like and how it’s supposed to be executed. Those are things that are established through certain historical accumulation and accretion. As a queer person, I’ve always had a side-eye towards ideas of formality and convention and correctness, and a love for the marginal. It defines how the center works and where the center is moving.”
His creative relationship with his mother is another vehicle for rethinking the structures of hierarchy inherent in images. His latest book, MOM (2020), published by Patrick Frey Editions, is true to its title, its pages filled with hundreds of images of the artist’s mother, Kathleen McCain Engman. This is a recurring theme in art history, from the obvious Renaissance Mother and Child to the 19th-century realism of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt to Louise Bourgeois’ giant spider. Notably, the theme has also become a trope for male photographers in recent years. Juergen Teller created a haunting series called “Irene im Wald” (2012), which depicted the artist and his mother walking through the woods near his childhood home. We are aware of their distance. Leigh Ledare’s provocative (some would say Oedipal) images of his mother from the early 2000s, meanwhile, were part of a wider body of work depicting his family in crisis. In offering an unflinching, literally revealing view of his mother, a former dancer then working in a strip club, Ledare was coming to terms with his anger and frustration at the expression of her sexuality.
Engman’s take on his mother is different. He first published images of Kathleen in 2012 for an independent magazine commission. “That was a catalyst for sure,” Engman recalls. “I was taking pictures of everything and anything in my photographic infancy. I was voracious in just trying to understand what caught my attention,” he recalls. Charlie had graduated from university, his visa expired, and in his post-university spiral, he’d moved home to Chicago. For the burgeoning artist, having the accessibility of his mother as a subject was liberating; he could play and direct her in different ways. In the years that followed, after he had moved to New York and started making headway in a fashion context, she would prove to be the perfect canvas. “I was in my early twenties, and I had already kind of calcified my relationship with her in my mind. ‘She’s my mom. I know who she is. I know what my relationship with her looks like.’ But through this photographic interaction, that started to come into question and shift a little bit. I was starting to look at her in a bit of a different way,” Engman explains. He was aware of the complicated dynamics of control and submission between subject, object and author, which in this case destabilized his idea of who his mother was.
Viewed collectively today, the resulting images offer an interesting take on intimacy, through lenses both photographic and familial. As one pages through MOM, Kathleen’s character seems to shift and change; she dresses up, takes off her clothes, changes her hair, and seems to morph into different “types.” She often meets the lens with a direct gaze, almost confrontationally. Throughout, there are echoes of Cindy Sherman: though Engman eschews Sherman’s use of the abject and horrific, there are similar touches of the irony in how we project narrative and character onto a subject. But of course, instead of presenting himself as a model, Engman is using another person as material. “There is obviously some kind of intimacy at play, and I want to engage with it visually,” Engman explains. “I feel like it’s very important to be vulnerable, and then by extension sort of represent vulnerability.”
MOM contains two texts: an essay by Rachel Cusk and an interview between Kathleen and Miranda July. In their conversation, July highlights the freedom Kathleen has to lift herself from the baggage of the real, to play with inhabiting a different way of being. It’s a rare opportunity. “That kind of described it in a very good way to me,” Engman says. “The idea of being able to measure your own weight by lifting some of it and holding some of it in a different way.”
This is a mother representing a plethora of mothers: through these images, Engman questions what a mother should look like, how she should behave. There is also a large dose of humor to offset the seriousness. “How they dress, whether they use makeup or not, how they treat their body, things as simple as hygiene—those things fit into different rubrics of convention and expectation,” Engman explains. His images of his mother are also about his desire to transform her in some way. “I have a lot of ideas about my mom and how I wish she was. I also have a certain kind of embarrassment about her, which everyone has about their parents. She was really fully submitting to me in a way that allowed me to say, ‘Well, I actually think you look better like this. Why don’t you look like this? What changes about you that makes me feel less interested in you or even afraid of you?’ ” Ultimately, what makes Engman’s images so successful is how they juggle both the idea of fantasy and the representation of imperfection. At this intersection lies a sense of freedom.