A US dollar might be small and worth little, but it is no simple thing. That 156 millimeter by 66 millimeter canvas comes from hours and hours of deliberation and work, and the product fulfills both practical and aesthetic purposes. The bill features three symbols that have become linked with American identity: George Washington’s visage, and the eagle and Eye of Providence from the Great Seal of United States. Even if someone viewing the bill knew nothing about America, that trio of images outlines a narrative about the country.
Multimedia artists Jeff Louviere and Vanessa S Brown understand the power of currency’s deviously simple iconography. In Counterfeit, one of five series exhibited in Exquisite Collaborations: Concerto da Camera, the New Orleans-based couple (who collaborate under the moniker Louviere + Vanessa) pulls images from paper currency around the world, magnifies them substantially and creates 12 fascinating pieces. Counterfeit never explicitly references the bills from which the original pictures come; even the information packet accompanying the exhibition avoids specifics. (We do know that “Not Even a Princess Can Balance Two Worlds” is from a Confederate bill from Louisiana.) America’s first president is nowhere to be found in Counterfeit, nor are any of his successors or compatriots, but that’s one of the sources of the show’s appeal: Every image is happily unfamiliar.
In assembling Counterfeit, Louviere + Vanessa used a process called photo noyée (“drowned photograph” in French), which they invented while working on the 2008-2010 series Instinct/Extinct. The method involves printing magnified images on thin, handmade Japanese kozo paper and resting the prints against pieces of glass. The artists then saturate the paper with resin and capture the remaining images and resin within the glass, leaving several imperfections. Subdued colors mix with brilliant neon tones, and the papers (or what’s left of them) appear incredibly aged, leading to pieces that feel simultaneously ancient and fresh.
Every piece in Counterfeit contains four defining characteristics. First, each work is made of six frames pieced together to create an overlapping image. Second, every piece carries a grandiose title such as “A Natural Lust for Condemnation” or “It Was the Oneness that Drove the Stone to Tears.” (The device is overdramatic, but it works here.) Third, every image contains thousands of netting-like marks that evoke either antiforgery threads or creases embedded in the bills. Last, each piece has the word “counterfeit” scrawled somewhere across its surface.
For all the grand vision contained in Counterfeit’s concept and titles, the images it magnifies are wonderfully modest, showcasing a precise, line-heavy drawing style akin to book illustrations. Most of the images aren’t ones you’d expect to find on currency: stallions running together, a dog staring upward, a man clutching his gun, children about to be attacked by a snake in a forest, a butterfly resting on flowers.
“A Snowflake Cracked the Stone with a Smile” exemplifies Counterfeit’s ability to straddle the line between simplicity and detail. The piece is really just a close-up of lips, but the intricate detail within them is captivating.
Counterfeit doesn’t delve into man’s relationship with the concept of money itself. Instead, it’s a series of images providing errant puzzle pieces of unrelated stories. If it weren’t for what Louviere + Vanessa tell us, you wouldn’t even know these pictures came from bills, and with so little background information, the viewer has the pleasure of making his own mythologies to go with them.