To reframe Picasso’s famously pithy remark “good artists copy, and great artists steal” for the contemporary art scene, appropriation can be used in an artist’s work to borrow authority from history, or to subvert it.

The iconoclasm of the latter can be satirical, as in Yasumasa Morimura’s pastiches of canonical images from Wstern art history, or loftily disengaged, like Thomas Struth’s observations of museum visitors looking at paintings.

Anne Collier’s “Women with Cameras” slideshow of 1970s found photography, at the Rat Hole Gallery, is compelling because, rather than following either of those paths, it evokes affection, but also provokes intellectual rigor in equal measure.

The premise and presentation of the show is fairly straightforward; Collier has amassed a number of amateur snapshots of women with cameras and rephotographed them against a plain background. These images are projected using an old-timey slide projector for this particular exhibition, but other formats for this ongoing project have been used in different exhibitions elsewhere.

None of the photographs are of high quality, in the sense of being sharp, detailed or well-printed. They are the kind of photos you’d find in cheap plastic photo albums or forgotten between the leaves of a paperback. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would have called them “middle-brow art”; intended as personal mementos, but which are actually highly generic. No matter where you’re from or who you are, there’s a good chance that your family photos have more than a passing resemblance to everyone else’s.

It doesn’t sound like an interesting setup, but the project is moving and smart. Collier finds a delicate balance between intimacy, critical observation and broader social commentary.

The emotional resonance of the work may perhaps be stronger for viewers who grew up in the ’70s, but the potency of the exhibition doesn’t hinge on that, or on appealing to a particular sense of nostalgia. Collier’s edit and presentation of women “caught” pointing cameras back at us, the viewer, or busy organizing their own photographic subjects, astutely portrays the agency of looking and recording visual information. Through Collier’s retrospective liberation, anonymous blondes in bikinis are transformed from being objects of sexual desire, into observers and creative thinkers. We are allowed into the personal worlds of housewives, office colleagues, friends, mothers and daughters, but are also kept at a critical certain distance, as they are shown assessing how to portray their environment, the person photographing them, and finally us, the viewers of Collier’s work.

The project manages to be knowing but not overly sardonic, poignant without being sentimental, piercing but not predatory. It’s a brilliant use of archive material to disrupt casual assumptions about who has the right to look, and who it is we look at.

“Anne Collier: Women With Cameras” at the Rat Hole Gallery runs until Feb. 19; 12-8 p.m. Free admission. Closed Mon. www.ratholegallery.com


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