The artist ordered his friend an undying houseplant as a gift. To contextualize Handsome Rewards, Jeff Downer’s solo exhibition at Duplex, the artist shares this anecdote in his press release: “I found myself flipping through [a] merchandise catalogues…while walking it straight to the recycling bin. What caught my eye was something called a ‘resurrection plant.’ According to the ad, the plant can survive extreme dehydration and can live for several years without a drop of water…I bought it for a friend who is absolutely terrible with plants.” More catalogs for other, vaguely useful objects began to arrive in his mailbox courtesy of Publisher’s Clearing House, a marketing company that tenders large checks to winners of dubious sweepstakes and lottery drawings. To them, Downer was now a potentially returning customer. Would these images compel him to buy more shit? Fortunately, a fluency with images spared Downer from buyer’s remorse, as he instead fixated on the inexplicable ways these objects were staged and dramatized, and the feeling of “What even is this?”
Handsome Rewards—which is also the title of the exhibition’s accompanying artist book—re-presents a selection of product photographs culled from such merchandise catalogs. The product images, scanned from the catalogs, are enlarged and pressed against the wall with plexiglas. The products, originally presented to appeal to the behavior of consumers, become images presented for a different onlooker “potentially returning customers” are replaced by an art audience, who cock their heads as they try to discern what they’re looking at, among the friendliness of each image’s colors and the models that demonstrate the products’ use.
In one image, a perfectly pedicured foot, donning freshly painted red toenail polish, steps out of a shower, hovering over a fleecy bathroom mat. The leg doesn’t appear to be wet. The peach color of the mat against the soft lime-green stone tile in the set satisfies visually. In the bottom right corner, an image of the round version of this same mat displays how the mat could also live in the kitchen. This image caters to both an aesthetic sensibility, and an always-latent desire for options. Next to this image, Downer has placed one of a less ubiquitous item: a strip of plastic, available in three colors, which bridges the thin gap between stoves and countertops. Splatters of tomato sauce have fallen from the careful hands that have dressed this scene. While the formal association Downer has presented seems clear—the red of the polish and sauce—here, he shows a potential rift between the ubiquity and apparent employment of certain items (exemplified by the dual-purpose mat), and the less easily grasped usefulness and certain junk-fate of others, both rendered in the same visual vernacular. The marketplace of Handsome Rewards is the anti-MUJI.
When I walk down aisles of kitchenware products, the shelves seem to be stocked with verbs that have been designed into objects: apple peeler, cherry pitter, can opener, and nut cracker are all things can be identified solely by their function. Sure, some of the objects Downer has chosen to feature in his selection have obvious functions—such as the headstone cleaner, bug buster, spelling corrector, socks—but more frequently, viewers are caught in a moment of misrecognition. The success of the catalog that inspired this exhibition relies on the alienation of the object from its ability to demonstrate its quality and function simultaneously. Though Downer has stripped the didactic text, he has held onto certain phrases and repackaged them as quick text works that suggest a mild thrill: “THIS IS JUST THE THING FOR THOSE TIMES WHEN EVERYDAY SEEMS THE SAME” could easily be referring to a throw blanket that has been printed to look like a massive $1 million dollar bill you can drape over yourself for some lols in the basement, and “Drama in Chiffon” could be applied to a leopard-print headpiece with a fluorescent green veil.
Many of Downer’s other photographic works subvert our expectations of what’s really out-there by capturing odd, often humorous human interventions in urban and domestic realms. In this case, he has only taken that sensibility and presented us with the actual phenomena that is the Publisher’s Clearing House merchandise catalog series. For Handsome Rewards, he has graduated from instances of merely witnessing an episode in idiosyncratic human behavior to sharing a testament of the consumer paths that have fallen from popular consciousness. This kind of product photography serves a very specific kind of shopper with a distinct geopolitical profile, perhaps immobile, hermetic, or rural, and at the very least, subscribed to the fantasy of lotteries, sweepstakes, and having at hand a specific object for each one of everyday life’s tasks and needs. It isn’t just a matter of simply acknowledging the quality of amplification in all product photography that’s at play here, or even that the counterfeit joy portrayed within these products obscures the short-lived satisfaction that awaits in the future with this random and often gaudy stock. Downer reveals an economy that persists in spite of the minimal, curated, utilitarian, modular, and bespoke. It’s all a construction and a lie, but his is an unpretentious one.
Handsome Rewards is part of Capture Photography Festival and on view at Duplex in Vancouver through April 30, 2017.