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Joshua Citarella
"Body Anointed with Nitroglycerin Awaits Transfiguration", Framed C-print and Nitroglycerin Powder. 47 x 71", 2013Joshua Citarella

How to turn lead into gold

Artist and alchemist Joshua Citarella mixes kitschy 90s websites with commercial adverts as inspo for a bit of metallic magic

Experimenting with obscure and volatile chemicals, Joshua Citarella seeks to create physical equivalents of digitally generated effects. Inspired by commercial advertising, kitsch 90s websites and Photoshop techniques, he conducts experiments in his isolated laboratory-studio. Combining hazardous substances he conjures molten liquid mirrors and vivid flashes of green fire from raw materials.

"Digital images promise a kind of wish fulfillment, that we can transcend the life we have now and create a type of perfect world through these altered images," he tells me. "I wanted to see if through these new 'science' images there was a way to fulfill or at least to recoup that jadedness. I wanted to rediscover something like 'magic' in the real world, outside of digitally manipulated images."

Citarella photographs his chemically generated magic, and edits the images in Photoshop, creating artworks that glow with a perfect commercial sheen. He taps in to a feeling that the more computed our environment becomes, the more mystical and enchanting it seems. The virtual is rendered spiritual. 

Become a Magician

"So obviously there's no alchemical solution to transform lead into gold," Citarella tells me. "But digital images offer ways to at least make it look as if we can. I discovered this boulder and broke it apart with a sledgehammer. I painted half the fragments black and the other half gold. Afterwards I would intervene through Photoshop to kind of conflate the two supposed materials, transmuting lead into gold and vice versa. So the rocks have been painted and then I leave specific clues to suggest image manipulation -there'll be some transformation that cuts off at a right angle or there's a gradient fade that says 'this is the token presence of software', it's clear that something is not quite right. I re-use the same rocks in different photographs, sometimes it will be lead or other times gold. There's really no way to tell. I'm inviting the viewer to compare those objects across multiple images to see if and how they change. So it's really like every process, material and lens and digital, is all happening at the same time and that's part of the conversation."

Reimagine the retro

Citarella mines the retro virtual world for inspiration. "If you remember back in the late 90's, there were these sites that we super popular like Angelfire or Geo Cities -- they all had really long skinny banner graphics at the top, colored flames was a really popular meme then. It's an aesthetic that we now view as digital kitsch. I've been burning various chemicals in denatured alcohol to create green, yellow or blue flames. When you add copper to an open flame it turns the color bright green. Its a lot easier and definitely safer to make that kind of image through software, I've had some close calls in the past."

Embrace the obscure

Inspired by the YouTube culture of home-scientists experimenting in their basements, Citarella sources his art materials from the periodic table. "I'm currently working with a material called Gallium, element number 31 on the periodic table. Gallium is used in the production of electronics. It's used in modems, micro-processors and in LED screens. It's part of the physical substrate that these digital, ostensibly immaterial, images pass through. In its raw form it looks almost exactly like liquid mercury. It soaks into solid metal in an irreversible process. I'm also using it to make a liquid mirror, capturing it in motion, reflecting and visually combining different materials."

Create confusion

Citarella’s images combine layer upon layer of visual information until we have no idea what we’re actually looking at. "Combination Game is a term from the media theorist Vilem Flusser, this idea that any and all possible images are part of a larger photographic program: eventually given enough time, all possible combinations will find their way into the world. For that body of work, I started with one initial scene that I restaged and re-photographed over and over, gradually introducing life size prints of previous scenes, adding mirrors and frames, accumulating this archive of variations. I was aiming to confront as many photographic problems as possible. I imagined people encountering the photograph trying to figure out what objects and event first transpired in front of the lens, the reoccurring question: 'What is real and what is Photoshop?' Ultimately there's no answer and we realize that the initial scene itself is most likely a composite and subject to all the same irresolvable questions. I look at these images now and I miss things too. You don't necessarily remember 'Oh yeah I went there with a layer mask and that's an effect'.. I think that speaks to the power of these images. Even when we know better we can still fall into that deception. It affects the way we consider the world around us. That's part of what I'm trying to put forward."

Fake It

Citarella’s photographs love to play tricks on you. "I'm doing some giant marble pieces. I bought some two dollar tiles from Home Depot – they're porcelain, not even real marble but from far away they look super luxurious. I photograph these tiles and composite the images together into what looks like a huge slab of solid marble. Something whose weight would be extremely difficult to transport, juxtaposing that material rarity and value against the ubiquity of digital images and of course the relative ease of moving files from one node to another. Marble has that connotation of luxury or opulence and also its texture has become a meme for software-generated images, those patterns lend themselves to being stretched and altered. I think that there is somewhere embedded in that workflow also a latent desire to try reach toward material value through immaterial labor, all those aspects are intertwined. I love the idea that you can create something like this for the price of a two dollar tile and some software that you can pirate for free. That has incredible potentials and that's what keeps me up at night."