Emma Lehto is compelled through meticulous practices that seem bent on surprising us with the very materials that, in their ubiquity, least surprise us: published words and images. Her pieces present a record of painstaking surgeries, exacto in hand, following instincts to reconfigure words and sentences into shapes and patterns. Lehto seeks to disarm explicit photography by carving into its own colours and text; to reframe ethnic colour using the very printed colours that so influence our cultural narratives.
In spite of such precision, dedication, and skill in the execution of Lehto’s work - such sustained energy - her results preserve a generous interpretability for the viewer; inviting us to invest our own readings into the diverse meanings she offers.
Her work with books is its own form of literary endeavor, resembling the cutting and rearranging of words familiar in certain lyrics. She overlaps here into both collage and readymade objects, from Marcel Duchamp through Jeff Koons. It is easy see Lehto as a collaborator among not only fellow artists testing the boundaries of their form, but authors doing the same; her work cuts distinctions between writing, sculpture, and visual art.
Lehto’s paperback pornography series forms a distinct chapter of her overall thesis. In literally penetrating pornographic magazines with her scalpel, she reduces their images to a basic flash: colour; that which has attracted us since infancy, well before the contemporary barrage of porn assaulted our attentions. Especially when held against her more whimsical work (see: Calvin and Hobbes comics), we see a deliberate emphasis on simple and catchy shapes bursting from the usual focus points of genitals and nipples. The bands of colour and form left by her extractions also follow more general body contours, laying bands around the overall composition to the effect of cartoon simplification. She invites us to join in a mocking of pornographic tropes and their play on our sex-saturated gaze. We see this in striking evidence of carving, where depicted holes are replaced with actual ones. Lehto’s abuse of the magazines themselves heightens our awareness of abuse in their creation and consumption.
Lehto’s exploration of Japanese pop fashion magazines continues deeper into questions of erasure and enhancement. Sometimes the faces of models are removed; sometimes they are all that’s left. She succeeds in accentuating, even adding to, the vibrancy of these magazines by removing from them. Her extraction of significant parts of each image’s composition leaves cross sections through the magazines that only reveal more abundant colours. Meanwhile, turning to any one of these images reveals her precision in cutting around specifically colourful elements - pink panther dolls on pink t-shirts, a patterned red dress - so they jump out of that page, while partially peeking through the whole magazine.
Her cutting work takes on unique approaches and dimensions when applied to famous art catalogues, especially in the case of the Andy Warhol text. Removing the face from his famous Marilyn Monroe image on the book’s cover, she cuts a kind of canyon into the pages, which reveal new shapes and cuttings within. In destroying images and collections of known art she creates new meanings that both challenge and pay homage to the established traditions she is dissecting. One imagines Warhol and his peers especially enjoying her irreverent but carefully crafted interventions.
The possibilities in Emma Lehto’s work are manifold, and she shows no sign of stopping further revelations. Using or arranging words themselves as images, revealing contents through reducing them, replacing patterns of syntax with patterns of rhythm, alphabetization, interpreting word length as shape and space, stimulating touch as a reading sense; her exhaustive efforts continue. The results promise to reflect on her process and her person – a journey to discover the asserting of statements within the asking of questions.