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PORTFOLIO: Breaking Conventions

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Self portrait as an artist burning down the Museum of Contemporary Art (2005).

Photographer-meets-pop-artist Jason Lazarus (MFA ’03) is out to smash expectations

In Self-portrait as an artist burning down the Museum of Contemporary Art (above), photographer Jason Lazarus (MFA ’03) dons a grey ski mask and sloshes gasoline down rows of stone steps. The photo, part of his 2004 to present series, could also offer an appropriate representation of his artistic career—as an image-maker constantly breaking artistic conventions and rethinking creative definitions.

“Photography is such a megaphone way of communicating ideas. It says, ‘look at this, look at that,’ or ‘I created this, I created that,’” says Lazarus. “And I’m very cautious, or sometimes uncomfortable, with that role.”

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"I'm interested in things that I feel are a starting point to a line of inquiry, a line of investigation."

At Columbia, Lazarus developed what he calls his “artistic arsenal.” He began tracing the history of photography and understanding his own role as a contemporary artist under professors like the late Peter Thompson, who served on his thesis panel. Now, Lazarus teaches as an adjunct professor at Columbia, where leading classes such as Photo 2 (an introduction to Color Photography) allows him to revisit photography basics that continually affect his own work.

Raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Lazarus eschews the idea of artist as privileged thinker or sole authority, using his own work to bridge the gaps between high art and popular culture. “I’m interested in things that I feel are a starting point to a line of inquiry, a line of investigation,” says Lazarus. “I feel like there’s significant meaning at the edge of traditional academic disciplines, or between high and low culture, that I think is at risk of falling into gaps of established structures of discourse.” This juxtaposition comes to play in his recent film with Eric Fleischaur, twohundredfiftysixcolors, a collection of GIFs animated on old-school 16-mm film.

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Top Left: Self portrait as artist making something contemporary (2005); Top Right: Untitled (2012), featuring a quote from a Walter Benjamin essay; Middle:Spencer Elden in his last year of high school (January 2008). Elden was first famously photographed as the baby on Nirvana’s iconic Nevermind album cover in 1991. Bottom: The Phase1/Live Archive installation displays Occupy Wall Street protest signs recreated by the public. Many signs can be removed from the wall and carried throughout the museum.

Lazarus’ recent Chicago Works show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago—his second solo exhibition at the MCA—featured a pianist playing a Chopin nocturne, a room of Occupy Wall Street signs recreated from Internet images, and a gallery tracing Lazarus’ own photographic history. While Lazarus says the entire exhibit is rooted in photography, it never falls into predictability. Some images are wrapped in blankets or hung facing the wall. Protest signs can be removed from the walls and carried through the whole museum, transforming the entire gallery into a three-dimensional interaction between visitors and art.

Lazarus also curates several archives, through which he considers himself an editor as much as an artist. “I work with my own images and existing images fluidly,” he says. “I don’t differentiate my own as more important.” Many of the archives highlight a specific kind of nostalgia. In NIRVANA, Lazarus poses a simple question to the public (who introduced you to the band Nirvana?), then collects both an image of the respondent and the written memory. In the Too Hard to Keep archive, Lazarus solicits photographs and memorabilia from owners who deem the items too emotionally traumatic to hang onto.

“You make certain sacrifices to be a cultural producer as opposed to a business person. There’s less money, different kinds of risk, and different validation that you’re looking for,” says Lazarus. “I feel really lucky that at a certain age I just really started to explore something new, and I was willing to sort of start over.”

Whether he’s hanging his work in the MCA or pouring gasoline on its steps, Lazarus’ artistic voice is burning bright.
—Megan Kirby