Archive for March, 2009

Collecting Atrocities

March 26, 2009

octoberOver at Modern Art Notes Tyler Green has an interesting discussion with MoMA Chief Curator of Photography Peter Galassi regarding how the Abu Ghraib photographs might fit into MoMA’s collection. Galassi and Green each raise interesting points about what physical representation such a thing might occupy (magazine? JPEG?). Green asks if the hypothetical MoMA acquisition might function as part of a “specific national process.” Galassi doesn’t think so:

But what I think is interesting about it is that it represents a new stage of vernacular photography because it was both the ease of making these digital pictures and then especially the ease of sending them around is what made Abu Ghraib blow up. And so in that sense, if Lynndie England had just had that picture in her locker, no one would have ever seen it.

While MoMA has significant holdings of vernacular photography and works that primarily function as documents (the Eddie Adams photograph), it is interesting to consider the criteria for works that enter their collection in contrast to other institutions. In a recent interview at PhotoWing, Malcolm Daniel explains the Met’s perspective:

Other curators have a different perspective than we have here. Our mission is here on the bulletin board: To collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all at the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards. There it is. That’s our perspective…

In New York, for instance, there are a number of institutions actively collecting and exhibiting photographs. But I think when you go to The Met, the Modern, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, ICP, for each of us, there’s a kind of institutional personality and there’s a perspective of individual curators. It’s a different experience at these different places.

Given Daniel’s comments, it’s hard to imagine the Abu Ghraib photos ever ending up at the Met. MAN’s discussion of Abu Ghraib is worth noting in relation to a controversial acquisition that did take place: the archive of photographs S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine joining MoMA. The photographer, Nhem Ein, was hired by Pol Pot’s regime to document every person admitted to an extermination camp as part of the Cambodian genocide. The photographs subsequently came to the attention of the art world when they were exhibited at the 1997 Recontres de la photographiques d’Arles. Eventually a set of the photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. In his essay “Art in the Face of Radical Evil,” available for free on October’s website, Thierry de Duve grapples with what it means for art theory when artifacts such as the S21 images enter the aesthetic space of the museum and acquire the label “art.” He rightly brings Avedon’s formally similar portraits into the discussion, and finally concludes,

Calling the photos by the name of art, baptizing them, in the second person—“You are art”—is just one way, the clumsiest, certainly, of making sure that the people in the photos are restored to their humanity; and this, not their so-called art status, is of course what matters. To speak of shouldering the role of the artist that Nhem Ein could not assume is another way of saying the same. There is nothing honorific to the name artist in this sense. If anything, it testifies to the impossibility of claiming to speak on behalf of all of us without speaking for the evil part of humankind as well as for the peaceful and civilized.

Josh Azzarella: Untitled #24 (Green gloves)

Josh Azzarella: Untitled #24 (Green gloves)

This comes back to the question of the archive and it’s role in the aesthetic sphere. Galassi makes it clear that MoMA is not an archive in the historical, rather than aesthetic, sense. But artists certainly make use of such archives as sources for their works. Josh Azzarella’s work is worthy of consideration in this regard, particularly addressing Green’s interest in a national processing of the legacy of the images. Azzarella’s intervention involves the erasure of the prisoners from the photographs. Their tortured, shamed bodies become conspicuous by their absence; the work functions in a strange way between formal analysis (seemingly inappropriate negative space) and mass media familiarity (our recognition and subsequent differentiation of the images). Azzarella’s Brechtian estrangement of the image allows us to see their horror once again.

Further reading:

William Vollman: Seeing Eye to Eye (Bookforum)

Automated Response

March 18, 2009

I will be out of town through the weekend. Regularly scheduled posting should resume next week.

*(Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel)*

In the meantime, check out these things:

Ry Rocklen at Marc Jancou

Walead Beshty at Wallspace

Paul Sharits at Greene Naftali

Huma Bhabha and Jason Fox at Andrea Rosen

John Stezaker at Friedrich Petzel

Trevor Paglen at Bellwether

Will Rogan at Small A Projects

Zoe Leonard at Dia at the Hispanic Society of America

Kori Newkirk at The Project

Emmet Gowin at Pace MacGill

Fia Backstrom, Mario Garcia Torres, Stephen Kaltenbach at Jack Hanley

Most importantly, the immortal Kate Bush:

Moyra Davey: Long Life Cool White

March 16, 2009

Long Life Cool White sounds like the name of a Miles Davis album, so I’ll admit I looked at the titular image of Moyra Davey’s book probably five times before I realized it was referring to the product description on the tube lighting at the top of the frame. Such incidental—or perhaps accidental—details are to be discovered throughout Long Life Cool White, which serves as the catalogue to the exhibition of the same name last spring at the Harvard University Art Museums.9780300136463

Davey’s work indulges in the descriptive, indexical potential of photography. She acknowledges her anachronism, writing about her anxiety in the face of the Gursky phenomenon. After all she photographs dust, bookshelves, whiskey bottles, and pennies, shoots film negatives and usually prints 20×24. Her photographs are intimate forms of domestic poetry, communicating a reverence for the material world, and the magical translation of making an image. She redeems the worn and used, exalts the analogue and melancholy.

I have admittedly seen her photographs in person only twice, in Photography on Photography at the Met and Arthur Ou’s The World Is All That Is the Case at Hudson Franklin earlier this winter. But the images trigger something, like memories already possessed and then stumbled upon in the dusty corners of the mind. In her photographs, my eye drifts across her desktop, picking up details in the array of objects. A Laura Nyro album, covered by an opaque sheet of wax paper that is slipping away, barely reveals the chanteuse’s dark eyes. The shallow depth of field focusing on fluorescent tubes makes for a decidedly minimalist composition. Weighted heavily to the top of the frame, the eye wanders, looking for the sharp focus and alighting on these surprisingly fascinating objects. If one keeps looking the background begins to emerge: Along the back wall an MTA Subway map is pinned. Atop a table in the lower right appears to be view camera, its back open to the viewer. In Davey’s work objects are embedded with poignant emotional content.

Crucial to this lovely little book is Davey’s essay Notes on Photography and Accident. Davey leads us on a peripatetic, personal journey through her favorite writers on photography. Amidst quotes from Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Davey tells us about her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, her struggle to take pictures, her ruminations and changing judgments on a book of Annie Leibovitz photographs. The writing is sharp but accessible, tactfully dealing with theory but forgoing the jargon. Inhabiting a mix of genres, it could be called confessional criticism, wonderfully honest in its contradictions and personal admissions. One of the many interesting sections is her appraisal of the relationship between images and the printed page:

I am convinced that reproducibility in book form is part of the vocabulary of the photograph … Is it that, as Benjamin and Brecht speculated, photographs are more at home with, even in need of, words? … I notice that [students’] photographs become vastly more interesting to me after I read what they’ve written about them; I like seeing their images shrunken and recontextualized, embedded in paragraphs of descriptive text.

This ode clearly conflates her love of reading and photography while acknowledging photography’s historical origins from William Fox Talbot’s earliest bound volumes. In contrast to many recent developments in photography, it is very interesting how Davey focuses on the image (rather than object) qualities of a photograph. She delicately uses the “image in book” criteria to redeem classical Eggleston work and indict recent Wolfgang Tillmans large-scale abstractions.

Davey is generous enough to share her candid appraisals on numerous historical and contemporary photographic practitioners—sometimes with surprising positions. So it is exciting to discover shared appreciation for Liz Deschenes, James Welling, Zoe Leonard, and Francesca Woodman. Likewise she uses Leibovitz as an unusual foil for her own work:

Leibovitz describes her method as personal reportage, an expression I’ve never heard before, and she says that when she dives advice to students she tells them to “stay close to home.” My own work could not be further from Leibovitz’s, yet both these terms could be used to describe what I do. And while I don’t want to make what she makes, I do want to look at it, and on a fundamental level I subscribe to the ideas that underpin this particular work.

Just as her writing drifts among quotations and diarist confessions, the viewer of Davey’s photographs is encouraged to wander amidst her possessions, perhaps picking up an open book or album one recognizes, and listening for just a moment, a polite domestic flaneurie.

Rachel Harrison’s Gone to the Dogs

March 9, 2009
"Posh Floored as Ali G Tackles Becks", 2003, mixed media, installation view at Arndt-Partner

"Posh Floored as Ali G Tackles Becks", 2003, mixed media, installation view at Arndt & Partner

There is something ghastly to Rachel Harrison’s sculptures. In spite of their material endurance and figurative references, these works are like spectral presences. They are not artifacts, which would imply the remnants of a bygone age. Rather they might be thought of as casts of negative spaces. Looking at installation views of Posh Floored as Ali G Tackles Becks, 2003, a series of works exhibited in 2004 at the Camden Arts Centre and Arndt & Partner, one might recall the famous Pompeii dog. The association is not least due to the texture of the works and their papier-mâché and stucco-like (Parex) surfaces. Engaging Harrison’s work always involves a sort of cultural archeology, but the references involve last week’s People magazine just as often as they do art history.

The black construction in the foreground of the above picture is a dead ringer for the Pompeii dog, an idea furthered by the video projection in the background: a Dalmatian shovels around the camera with its snout. Not that this clarifies things in any way, as the video also brings to mind Disney animations and early William Wegman videos with his Weimaraner lapping up milk.

pompeiiancastofdog_800Going back to Pompeii, the image we see here is one of the plaster casts made during excavations of the site. They are after-the-fact figures of what was once there. All of the organic material was long since decayed, but they left a negative impression in the packed ash. Upon discovering each cavern, excavators were able to fill each void with plaster to create a positive impression, thus leaving the forms of the vanished Romans and their household pets. As this description suggests, the process of discovery and reclamation has a relationship to photographic processes. The rhetoric of the artifact (this is from what was) can be differentiated from the photographic (this has been).

A fair amount of critical attention has been paid to the role of photography in Harrison’s work, but it has focused on the actual photographs in her assemblages (as well as recent typologies, etc.). Instead, consider how the autonomous sculptures might themselves reflect a photographic logic. Perhaps the “ghastly” presence of the stucco-ed shelves, plinths and pedestals is because they are casts of originals, evacuated of material and content—leaving only a rough shell.

This critical lens can’t be applied to all of Harrison’s work by any means, and it may only even apply to particular parts of individual sculptures. The artist plays off the multifarious forms and surfaces in each work (not to mention the titles). Biomorphic bases support “pristine” canned foods and other commodities. Even as the plaster bodies might suggest mummification or voiding, they are whip-lashed back to the present by these other objects—defying any gestalt effect.

emergenceAfter writing that last sentence I decided I needed to clarify my loose understanding of Gestalt theory and turned to Wikipedia. It is perhaps not at all incidental that one of the key aspects of Gestalt systems is the principle of Emergence. The classic demonstration of “emergence” involves a Dalmatian:

Emergence is demonstrated by the perception of the Dog Picture, which depicts a Dalmatian dog sniffing the ground in the shade of overhanging trees. The dog is not recognized by first identifying its parts (feet, ears, nose, tail, etc.), and then inferring the dog from those component parts. Instead, the dog is perceived as a whole, all at once.

WTF. So is Harrison really playing a bunch of dogs off one another? Pompeii and Gestalt theory: But what about Ali G, Posh and Becks? Such vexations provide both the pleasure and frustration of Harrison’s work. Are they like photographic images of things, twice removed? It’s actually not difficult to connect the formal properties of the Pompeii casts to a discussion of Gestalt perception, standing in as they do for recognizable forms. It just doesn’t get you very far.

The Melancholy of Robert Frank

March 5, 2009
Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955

Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955

Tucked into a corner of the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition, Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, is a remarkable photograph not included in the final edit of that iconic book. The image, Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955, shows a tightly cropped detail of a roadside visitor center or gas station. Visually dense, one immediately registers three images within the photograph, like windows incised in the picture plane. Bundles of postcards are arranged in a column at the center of the frame and held in place by a wire rack. Perhaps it is because of the bleached registers of the Southwest afternoon light, but the surrounding details are negligible, focusing the greatest clarity on the postcards.

The scene is familiar to anyone who has piled into the family vehicle (seen here in the background) and set off across the American highway. The car’s wheels turn off the highway, crackling through the gravel and dust along the shoulder, and pull around into the fueling station. Sticky bodies peel off the seat covers and get out for a stretch, tendons flexing and chins raised to catch any available breeze. Perhaps one walks inside to find a Coke or ice cream bar, or walks around the back of the small building, really just a large shack, to find a toilet. If this way station is anywhere near those constellations of the American road trip—national parks, casinos, roller coasters, in-laws—then there will surely be those selfsame postcard racks, totems to the vernacular picturesque. So we buy postcards, polite missives to those left at home or cheap souvenirs to be filed away in closets or cornered in scrapbooks.

The Robert Frank photograph in question was taken on the road trip that provided the source material for The Americans. Funded by a Guggenheim fellowship, Frank piled his wife Mary and their young children Pablo and Andrea into the car like so many other pater familias, and wove their way clockwise around the continental United States. Like other photographs taken on this trip, Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955 visually arranges information in a way that leads to an often disturbing revelation. Reading the postcards top to bottom, the images move from the Grand Canyon to Hoover Dam to a mushroom cloud. With deft economy these quotations suggest pristine landscape, nature harnessed by man, and finally nature destroyed. It’s an stunning indictment of human progress and a portrait of a world gone wrong.

And stunned I was. My jaw dropped seeing this image for the first time a few weeks ago. It fell even lower when I read the inscription on the print, which is on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery. In Frank’s hand it says, “For Pablo—Remembering the trip to California 1956 – Hoover Dam Nev.”* This photograph encapsulates the personal, familial nature of the trip, and the way a picture’s content can be read through the photographer’s biography. Pablo suffered from schizophrenia and died in a hospital in 1994. Much of Frank’s later work, especially in films like Home Improvement, confronts the psychological trauma of dealing with Pablo’s mental illness and the death of his daughter Andrea in a 1974 plane crash. I remember reading somewhere the dialogue from one of these films in which Robert admonishes Pablo for always seeing the worst in world, for his insistence on darkness and depression. Why then would he have chosen this photograph to give to Pablo? I imagine that in this gift the father acknowledges the demons of the son, and recognizes them as his own.

*It is interesting to note that Yale and the National Gallery date the photograph as 1955, while Frank’s inscription says 1956.

Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, January 18–April 26, 2009; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 16–August 23, 2009; Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 22–December 27, 2009

Exquisite Corpse: As if

March 2, 2009

A serious business

of Dispersion

as described by Michael Bell-Smith.

Postscript: Why?