January 17 – February 28, 2009
Kodak and Fuji are shuttering plants. Ilford is discontinuing favorite paper stocks. And Polaroid film has gone the way of the dodo. So it is only inevitable that contemporary artists—not exclusively “photographers,” that second-class breed—have taken up these expiring media. Whether motivated by a sense of urgency, nostalgia, or some misplaced desire for purity in the face of an exclusively digital age, this is ostensibly the jumping off point for the exhibition A Twilight Art. But rather than this technological dialectic, the more satisfying critical lens may be the final two essays in LACMA’s Words Without Pictures project, organized by photography curator Charlotte Cotton. The essays by artist Walead Beshty and art historian George Baker (titled “Abstracting Photography” and “Photography and Abstraction,” respectively) are too much to go into here, but each is concerned with questions of photographic abstraction (more semiotic than formal) and social process. (The essays are archived as pdfs at Words Without Pictures)
Most notably the selection of artists and works marks a stark turn away from the cinematic, narrative photography of the past decade. Still, the curators seem inclined to avoid these linear developments, and the press release suggests a desire to look “across generations.” But other than the inclusion of early works by Allan McCollum and Barbara Kasten, it’s hard to find supporting evidence of this claim, as the show has three 25 year old works along with 30 other pieces made in the last five years. While the desire to curate an exhibitions exploring both synchronic and diachronic relations is a noble one, the idea could have been developed further. As it stands the exhibition seems poised between comparing contemporaneous works by artists of different generations and relating past and present modes of production. Wolfgang Tillmans is a worthy stand-in as leader of the pack, but the omission of James Welling is glaring. Kasten could easily have been substituted by Eileen Quinlian’s ubiquitous Smoke and Mirrors. Sigmar Polke may have a place here too.
Still, there is no shortage of opportunities on hand to consider the history of photographic production. A number of works transparently belie their debt to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray. The inclusion of Amy Granat might have transcended such a comparison, as her recent photograms of quotidian objects were violently torn at the edges, forgoing any reference to the rectangular photographic frame and suggesting a limitless field of such exposures, from which the displayed object was arbitrarily chosen. On hand here, Matt Saunders’s silver gelatin print from a hand drawn negative starts with Gerhard Richter and goes in reverse. Like a sudsy windowpane awaiting the squeegy, it suggest early experiments with photography by Mel Bochner; the vertical band bisecting the canvas is a Barnett Newman-like zip, but also evokes the unexposed frame between individual negatives.
McCollum and Tauba Auerbach each made photographs enlarged off television screens, installed adjacent to one another here. While McCollum’s Perpetual Photo still carries a modicum of information that can suggest at form, Auerbach’s is pure surface static, something that will soon disappear from our airwaves when broadcast television goes completely digital. Ultimately the concerns of these two works are different, and any contiguity rises from their formal qualities. Conceptually McCollum’s contribution has more in common with Carter Mull’s work, presented immediately to the left of Auerbach’s. Both use processes of repeated re-photographing to the point of subsuming the original indexical function of the camera, creating images that are worn to illegibility.
Elsewhere nice curatorial sequences emerge, employing comparisons that are variously formal, material, structural, conceptual and content-driven. A row of works by Walead Beshty and Marcus Amm play off similar textures and surfaces as traces of chemical processes. Visual puns function almost syntactically as a stunning Liz Deschenes builds sound wave-like peaks from Left/Right, leading to a Sarah Charlesworth composition of colorful dishes (alluding to chemical processes in photographic developing) in the shape of an arrow, which points to another of her images of a cube in perspective; lastly, this resonates with four small folded photogram abstractions by Simon Dybbroe Møller that also hint at perspectival space in their square forms. Anthony Pearson’s contribution is a large vertical c-print showing striations of lens flare, enlarged to exclude all other content, and is placed on an otherwise awkward column dividing the large storefront windows at the front of the gallery. Though this viewer only saw the exhibition in the evening, one imagine it plays well when the south facing gallery is overtaken by bright winter sunshine.
A Twilight Art takes up a worthy mantle. Something is clearly beginning to coalesce in contemporary photographic practice and theory that might be better served by the additional research and resources available to a larger institutional. Some of the issues facing curators Lisa Oppenheim and Jessie Washburne-Harris may have to do with the limitations of working with consignments from other commercial galleries and the availability of work. The artists’s galleries may be less inclined to mete out superior works by their artists that they might (at least until recently) have been able to sell easily. Eponyanymous rightly brings up the point that for all the talk of renewed materiality, almost all the work on hand fits nicely into a frame. In other exhibitions a number of these artists use sculptures (Beshty, Pearson, Laura MacIntyre, Mull) or painting (Amm, Auerbach, Saunders) or video (Erika Vogt, Dybbroe Møller) as integrally related to their photographs, complimenting the materiality or production process of each format. This exhibition seems to lack the energy that such an expanded field could offer, as it never quite sates the desire for more impassioned discourse between works. Nonetheless, the artists are effectively united by their self-reflexive approach to the medium and concern for way in which photographic meaning is produced. With A Twilight Art, To Be Determined up now at Andrew Kreps, and previously Untitled (Vicarious) at Gagosian last fall, there is clearly ambivalence about the critical language of contemporary photography. With outlets like Words Without Pictures leading the way and promising exhibitions like A Twilight Art, expect good things to come.