Historical Erasure at the Pictures Generation

May 18, 2009

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current blockbuster, The Pictures Generation 1974-1984 is on the one hand a sprawling historical survey, and yet also a revisionist history. Jerry Saltz describes it as “less a critical survey of a highly influential aesthetic than a feel-good class reunion. Rather than opt for scholarship and tough choices, curator Douglas Eklund cultivated a gang’s-all-here coziness. It’s a huge show, with hundreds of objects, books, posters, films, and videos, and works by 30 artists.”

Philip Smith, All the Answers, 1998

Philip Smith, All the Answers, 1998

Given the breadth of the show and its apparently inclusive approach, it is particularly surprising that Philip Smith was not included, even though he was one of the five artists that Douglas Crimp selected for the original “Pictures” show at Artists Space in 1977. Crimp’s revised essay, published several years later in October, is arguably responsible for the enduring currency of the “Pictures” moniker, and substitutes Cindy Sherman for Smith. It’s a critical decision that the Met has apparently perpetuated; Eklund has explained to CultureGrrl that “I didn’t respond strongly enough to his work to include it.”

Fair enough.

Remembering that chief photography curator Malcolm Daniel explained the Met curator’s mission as “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,” it is clear that Eklund had the license to exclude Smith on the grounds of quality alone.

What disturbs me more is the way that the Met has entirely erased Smith’s inclusion in the original exhibition. At least one wall label for a work by Tory Brauntuch mentions him as one of the four artists in the Artists’ Space exhibition. The didactic material here needs to be qualified.

Reviewing the show, Martha Schwendener perpetuates the error: “The show at Artists Space featured only four artists. Ironically, neither Cindy Sherman nor Richard Prince, who would become figureheads for Pictures art, were included.”

So what happened to fact-checking? The museum gift shop, at the exit to the exhibition, is discretely selling copies of the catalogue for the Artists Space show (only $30). One need only flip to the title page to see that Crimp’s artists numbered five: Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith. CultureGrrl cornered Crimp at the press preview and asked what he thought of the omission:

Q: What do you make of Philip Smith’s absence from the Met’s show?

A: He was not so much of the group, of the social world, of the people who formulated this. He’s gay and this [the Met’s show] is a very straight configuration of artists. I don’t know what’s happened to him, career-wise. It’s a slightly touchy subject: I think Philip is upset, reasonably.

Schwendener rightly points out that the show “was organized by a photography curator intent on showing how the medium was integrated into “mainstream” contemporary art.” Beyond the social circle aspects of the show that Crimp and Saltz emphasize, I wonder if Eklund’s curatorial omission also has to do with the fact that Smith’s work seems to be grounded in drawing.

Whatever Eklund’s his reasons for excluding Smith, the historical record is being distorted. It might not make good copy for wall labels and audio guides, but this decision making process should be more transparent, or at least represented truthfully in the history of Pictures.

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Jack Goldstein: The Jump

May 10, 2009

via Ubu. (and YouTube due to embedding difficulties)

On view in The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, through August 2.

Picturing Monument Valley: Cindy Sherman and Martin Kippenberger

May 4, 2009
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #43, 1979

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #43, 1979

Certain discourses in contemporary art frequently arrive at a critique of Fordist production, but the term usually references automotive factories rather than Western films. Currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art are two works by significant contemporary artists, each self-consciously engaging the iconic landscape of Monument Valley, the preferred backdrop to many a John Ford film. In their respective works Untitled Film Still #43 and If You Can’t Handle Freedom, Try Seeing How Far You Can Get With Women, Part I, Cindy Sherman and Martin Kippenberger each make photographic portraits of themselves deliberately engaging the generic conventions associated with the Western landscape in cinematic representation.

Sherman’s 1979 Untitled Film Still #43 is included in the photography exhibition Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West. The image has been used extensively in promotional materials for the exhibition, adorning poster’s on the subway and the homepage of the museum’s website. The corresponding image by Kippenberger (only one of ten photograph’s making up If You Can’t Handle…, and part of the retrospective exhibition Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective) is also likely familiar to many readers, as it enjoyed cover placement for the February issue of Artforum. While Sherman’s #43 was made in 1979, Kippenberger’s piece comes from 1984, and there is a knowingness that suggests that he is directly citing Sherman’s earlier photograph. Discussing If you can’t handle…, George Baker’s review in Artforum points out, “Kippenberger would offer – perhaps in ironic, backhanded solidarity with the “women” of his title, if artists like Cindy Sherman are to be taken among them – an autotypology of male-artist clichés: so many portraits of Kippenberger as tourist, criminal, drunk, well-hung exhibitionist, rock star, cowboy, prankster, bohemian, or inept terrorist.”

Both Sherman and Kippenberger thrive on the generic and the cliché; what better location than Monument Valley: a site that is eternally a picture, ripe with associative possibilities. Against this backdrop it is interesting to consider the similarities and differences in how each artist has staged their photograph. Sherman appears in period dress, barefoot astride a gnarled, ancient desert juniper. Absurdly coifed hair frames her familiar face (Sherman’s photographs are all of her, and yet she is in none of them), chin uptilt, one armed suggestively braced on the bough of the tree between her legs. One wonders whether her coach or home is nearby, explaining her bare feet? But no, Monument Valley is always passed through; it is a site on the way to other places, to other areas of civilization and development. As such it is a battleground and proving place, most generally in which the masculine hero asserts himself. The female role then is one of general passivity, waiting in the shade to be rescued perhaps. And yet Sherman’s photograph implies no such narrative possibilities—we simply glean them from the iconic backdrop. It is a picture out of action, Sherman’s character seeming to exist only for the purpose of being at subject to be looked at, simultaneously available and yet vacant.

Artforum, February 2009: Martin Kippenberger

Artforum, February 2009: Martin Kippenberger

By contrast Kippenberger is framed out in the open, astride a (too-small) stead. He would seem to be placed in the space of action in which the male is tested, and yet we also guess that Kippy is merely at the edge of a parking lot or highway turnout, riding a rented pony intended for the children who spill out of Winnebagos. Saddled in, the artist wears a mohair wool sweater and black slacks along with his incongruous cowboy boots rested in the stirrups. He looks stridently out across one horizon, highlighting his jaw and earnestly attempting to look the part of John Wayne. But the sad-faced horse and eurotrash costume are too much. It is a failed enactment of the cowboy Western. Yet it is helpful to recall the Germanic affinity for Cowboy and Indian narratives, as well as Kippenberger’s own failed attempt to become a movie star, strangely enough in Florence, Italy. Describing the dubious culinary taste implied by “Italian pasta made for a German palate in the City of Angels,” Baker mentions Kippenberger’s habit of calling pasta “noodles.” Appropriately, this photograph might be his Noodle Western. As Baker points out, one of Kippenberger’s primary aesthetic strategies is inversion and negation.

We might then consider Kippenberger to be deliberately inverting Sherman’s photograph, at taking up the guise of the male hero to her female object of desire. But we see it to be a poor masquerade, and Kippy certainly knows it as well. But that wouldn’t stop him from trying.

Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West is on view through June 8.

Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective is up through May 11.

Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles

April 29, 2009

38942224My recent visit to LACMA was filled with highs and lows. Let’s start with the good stuff:

Franz West: To Build a House You Start with the Roof didactic wall text: It’s a good sign, and indicative of curatorial wit and perceptiveness here, that I laughed out loud a number of times when reading the curators’ descriptions accompanying wall labels. One example elucidated West’s intention that an art object be used while “doodling or relieving oneself;” another work, a painting with a hook is contextualized with text that blithely implores “Please feel free to try on the cap.” The labels were not lacking for contextual or serious information, but it was also with leavened by a humor simpatico to the work it described. Bravo.

Focus installations from the collection: Tucked into odd corners of the permanent collections, these mini-exhibitions were little windows into the curatorial mind: pet projects that just plain work. In photography there is a humble installation juxtaposing the 1970s magazine-based works of Robert Heineken with Elad Lassry’s contemporary photographs, often based on imagery from that era. Simply titled Photographic Conversations No. 7: Found, it speaks for itself, and how.

beall3Deep in the Art of the Americas building is a revelatory gallery featuring a selection of posters by graphic designer Lester Beall. Basically Constructivism meets the Heartland, it is fascinating to see how avant-garde aesthetics get filtered over into posters for the Rural Electrification Administration. The colors are bold and brash, with dynamic, simple lines activating the rather banal imagery. For more info check out Unframed’s post on the subject.

Now for the bad news. This was my first visit to the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. When it first opened in February 2008 I remember the Guerrilla Girls making a stink about the severe lack of diversity in Broad’s collection and the inaugural installation of the BCAM. At the time, 30 artists were included in the installation, of which 97% were white and 83% were male. The Guerillas engaged in a delightful tête-à-tête with Joanne Heyler, director and chief curator of the Broad Collection. No wonder their archives ended up at the Getty.

Fifteen months later, things are even worse. The few women represented in that installation were primarily located on the second floor, subsequently displaced by the exhibition Art of Two Germanys. Gone were the Jenny Holzer’s and Cindy Sherman’s. What is now on view is the usual white, boys’ club, names sung by Louise Lawler’s trained birds: Baldessari, Warhol, Ruscha, Cy Twombly, Beuys (at least some of them are gay) plus Johns, Serra, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, etc. But unless this was some Sturtevant retrospective masquerading as the Broad Collection, it is nothing short of offensive that this was the best LACMA could pull out. To add insult to injury, much of the art looked impotent in the cavernous space. The curatorial politics of such a presentation are laughable.

Aptly, the one work I noticed at BCAM by a female artist was Barbara Kruger’s special commission lining the central elevators, titled, Cassandra-like, Shafted.

W. Beshty: Trapped in the (Crystal) Palace

April 27, 2009

800px-crystal_palace_interior

Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, was a remarkable architectural manifestation of this paradox. The structure took the industrial dream of endless production and limitless expansion as defining principles, innovating a modular design that eschewed the monolithic stone construction and the revivalist pastiche popular in its time. Despite its immense scale (it was over 550 metres in length and covered 19 acres) and industrial construction, it had an overall feeling of ‘lightness’, the glass panes alternating between reflections of blue sky and surrounding greenery. Its sheer ethereality so perplexed contemporary critics that it was denied even its existence as architecture, and was referred to it instead as a ‘structure’, its author as an ‘engineer’.9 The Crystal Palace was not of the world of buildings and monuments. It was a machine, a container for vistas, a scrim upon which spectacle could be projected: a proposal which was alien to the public affirmation of cultural stability that architecture had come to represent. It was perpetually new, a structure whose modular construction allowed endless substitution. Or, more exactly, it was an embodiment of newness. It would leave no auratic ruin for tourists, burning up in an explosive fire that was all too fitting for a building seemingly concocted out of gas. As a site, it was a microcosmic image of the reach of the Western world, an egalitarian fantasy that invited visitors to engage in virtual transport, offering the compression of time and space — a safari of capitalism staged in an interior, presented as evidence before the nation and the people whose golden age it implicitly affirmed.

-Walead Beshty, “On American Ingenuity (and the Problem of the Readymade),” Afterall 17, Spring 2008.

It is no revelation that exhibitions have disembodying effects, it was, after all, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace – a transparent modular exhibition hall made of glass sheets and iron beams – that would define their most spectacular qualities, thrusting the term “exhibition into the cultural imagination. Yet, in trying to reconcile the spatial and optical conditions of Asher’s work, I experience firsthand what I had assumed was merely theoretical flourish, the alienating cleavage of the corporeal from the visual, a potent reminder that at least since Alberti’s treatise on perspective, architecture has had literal and metaphoric governance over vision.

-Walead Beshty, “Parallax views on Michael Asher at the Santa Monica Museum of Art,” Texte Zur Kunst, Issue 70, May 2008. via Leap Into the Voidcrystalpalace2

The Great Exhibition of 1851, held in London’s Hyde Park, defined the conditions of exhibition in the modern sense. From the early 1500s onward the term “exhibition” had only specialised legal meaning, referring to a giving of evidence: literally to “hold out” before a higher power. But with the Great Exhibition, and in World’s Fairs that followed, the antiquarian meaning and implications of the term blossomed. The Crystal Palace was not of the world of buildings and monuments. It was a machine, a container for vistas, a scrim upon which spectacle could occur; a proposal that was alien to the public affirmation of cultural stability that architecture had come to represent. It was perpetually new, a structure whose modular construction allowed endless substitution. At every turn, its interchangeable serial components shone with a “fairy like brilliance,”[26] as if dropped from the heavens. Architecture and vision became a singularity rendered in iron, as though Alberti’s diagram of Renaissance perspective had been made concrete. If the Crystal Palace was the first building that fully capitalized on the theatrical spectacle of exhibition, the readymade was the first art object to be solely constituted by theatrical distance. Here the ritual act of viewing became the artwork’s material, the object itself a hollow shell, a decoy. Thierry de Duve put it succinctly when he wrote that, in the wake of the readymade, the only truth to which the art object could attest was the power of its own name, rendering palpable the “pact that would unite the spectators of the future around some object…that added nothing to the constructed environment and did not improve on it but, quite the contrary, pulled away from it, bearing no other function than that of pure signifier.”

-Walead Beshty, “Abstracting Photography,” Words Without Pictures, November 2008 (Book forthcoming).

Surprisingly, the tone of the addition evoked less the pomp and circumstance of institutional solidity than the user-friendly populist branding of the weekend’s big-box sponsor (a chromatic resonance I wonder whether anyone had noticed beforehand). Of course, museums and department stores have much in common. The modern manifestations of both were prefigured by Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built on the occasion of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. That single event was the dual birth of both highbrow and lowbrow populist leisure, which were again brought into spatial and temporal proximity at BCAM’s unveiling. The hushed narrative of the opening was the revelation that the Broads, contrary to all expectations, would not be donating their collection to LACMA after all. The ambiguous state of our public institutions, permitting the loan of the institutional imprimatur of public good to a privately held collection, elicited much grumbling about a compromise between LACMA’s public and private missions.

-Walead Beshty, “ 2008 On the Ground: Los Angeles,” Artforum, December 2008.

Bolaño Decompression

April 25, 2009

I finished The Savage Detectives on the flight back from Los Angeles Monday night, thus ending my sustained encounter with Bolaño’s longer novels. (I read 2666 in an exhilarating 11 days in January.) The first of piece of his fiction I read was an excerpt from Nazi Literature of the Americas, published in Harper’s Readings section in March 2008. The Savage Detectives was published in November 2007, so I imagine I’d heard the buzz by the time I read “Luz Mendiluce Thompson.” This sharp, ironic portrait of an exiled Nazi poet reflects Bolaño’s ongoing interest in literary hagiography, not least a self-constructed one. Indeed, I’ll admit to being leery towards the cult of personality surrounding Bolaño, one that was cultivated and tended during his lifetime.

“Luz Mendiluce Thompson” owes a lot to the fictional reviews, biographies and re-writes of Jorge Luis Borges—to whom Bolaño acknowledges a great debt, along with Julio Cortázar. But it also adds another layer in its acknowledgement of the close relationship between literature and politics that is central to 20th century Latin American culture. The Savage Detectives satirizes many of the entrenched relationships between oppressive governments and the hacks willing to write paeans in exchange for salaried appointments and protection. For those not completely versed in this particular cultural history (myself included) it can be dizzying to track who is on which side of the Octavio Paz debates, evidently the most important aesthetic and ideological demarcation for a poet in the milieu of Mexico City circa Bolaño.

26662666 swirls around a violent moral abyss, while The Savage Detectives instead focuses on losses in literature and love—a bildungs roman both of its protagonists and of a generation. 2666 begins similarly with “The Part about the Critics,” but becomes increasingly ominous before descending into the unflinching litany of murders with “The Part about the Crimes,” a catalogue of the hundreds of women in Santa Teresa (Ciudad Juárez)that are mysteriously killed as though through a conspiracy in which an entire culture is complicit. A number of reviewers have described this long section, with only minimal advances in plot, as difficult and slow, but almost all agree that it is the core of the book. Jonathan Lethem sums it up brilliantly:

If the word “unflinching” didn’t exist I’d invent it to describe these nearly 300 pages, yet Bolaño never completely abandons those reserves of lyricism and irony that make the sequence as transporting as it is grueling. The nearest comparison may be to Haruki Murakami’s shattering fugue on Japanese military atrocities in Mongolia, which sounds the moral depths in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Bolaño’s method, like Murakami’s, encapsulates and disgorges dream and fantasy, at no cost to the penetration of his realism.

Like Murakami, Bolaño describes a world unhinged. Although the five parts of 2666 are each arguably capable of standing alone, the totality is awesome; the very structure seems calculatedly perfect. But the very notion of the novel’s structure and Bolaño’s intentions are open to dispute. The Frieze editors’ blog recently included a post (via AFC Fresh Links) about the ethics of posthumous publishing in relation to the recent discovery of two additional manuscripts of novels by Bolaño, as well as what is thought to be a sixth part of 2666. This first made headlines over a month ago, so it is unclear why Sam Thorne is writing about it just now, but for my purposes it is timely.

Hypertextual dialogues abound within Bolaño’s ouevre, so it might be appropriate to disregard the boundaries of each book’s cover. The very notion of a proper form for his work may be irrelevant in considering Bolaño’s literary project. Bolaño’s notes evidently suggest that 2666’s narrator was intended to be Arturo Belano, a stand-in author and one of the picaresque protagonists of The Savage Detectives. While the year 2666 is never mentioned in the actual book, reviewers frequently point out that it does appear in his novella Amulet. What they also fail to mention is that it is alluded to in The Savage Detectives. The last section of that earlier novel finds the young visceral realist poets in Sonora (the setting of 2666) where they finally track down the obscure original visceral realist poet Cesarea Tinajero. In their sleuthing, they interview a former acquaintance of the poetess who recalls Tinajero making a detailed map of the canning factory where she works, explaining it is for “times to come;” pressed further about what time, she mentions the year 2600-something. Might not this be related to the “hidden center” of 2666 that Bolaño noted? Tinajero works at one of the maquiladoras along the US-Mexico border, also where many of the murdered women are employed fifteen years later in 2666’s Santa Teresa . At the chronological (but not sequential) end of The Savage Detectives, Arturo Belano has become a journalist, reporting on civil wars and internecine violence in Western Africa. Ever the “detective,” it is easy to imagine him returning to Sonora (the site of his own violent past) and recording the atrocities taking place there. That it would coincide with his adolescent interest in Tinajero provides another return, a literary hall of mirrors in which pasts converge on a single point on the horizon, spiraling towards the ominous year of 2666.

Obligatory Futurism Post and Travel Notice

April 15, 2009

giubberosse_003If you read any of the major international art magazines then you have probably realized that earlier this year marked the 100th anniversary of the First Futurist Manifesto. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s impassioned rant still holds some water evidently. Thus we get Maurizio Cattelan posed in any number of historically inspired states of buffoonery.

If not for my efforts to plow through 1500 pages of Roberto Bolaño, I might actually be able to say something intelligent about Futurism. At my parents’ home in Portland, Oregon over the holidays, I picked up a copy of Marinetti’s Critical Writings at Powell’s Books. (Aside: How great is Powell’s? I got a brand-new hardcopy of this book for $8.99, down from the original $40.) It’s an incredibly thorough volume, more than any accept for a few scholars could every possibly need.

My first encounter, so to speak, with Marinetti was as a student in Florence one cold winter and frosty spring. An overly enthusiastic Italian professor waxed about the Futurists and their avant-gardism, excitedly pointing out the Giubbe Rosse caffe in Piazza della Repubblica where they used to sip their macchiati. I had no idea what she was talking about until a couple of months later when I stared at the Bocconi’s of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

I became more intrigued when Rachel Kushner, writing the 2006 On the Ground: Los Angeles feature for Artforum, singled out the Getty’s exhibition A Tumultuous Assembly: Visual Poems of the Italian Futurists. There is no denying the intensity of Marinetti’s beliefs, even as in hindsight we can view them as naïve or self-destructive. Hopefully post-Bolaño I might get the chance to indulge myself further.

On another personal note I am traveling to Los Angeles this week. Let me know if there is anything I definitely need to see.

Although I love MoCA very much, I’m going to bypass this time since Dan Graham is traveling to the Whitney. Otherwise I hope to see Nine Lives at the Hammer, and Art of Two Germany’s / Cold War Cultures and Franz West at LACMA, as well as see some friends in Culver City. Other ideas? Or particular gallery shows?

Also, I just got an email that Skarstedt Gallery’s exhibition of early Barbara Kruger collages have been extended through April 22. I haven’t made it uptown for this one yet, but a couple of art historians whose opinions are worth listening to have assured me it is a must see.

Objects Most Resembling Contemporary Art

April 6, 2009

In her reviews of recent art fairs, Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City gave out “awards” to booths and artists on display, denoting both highlights and lowlights. Of my favorites, and ubiquitous to the contemporary art fair is the “Object Most Resembling Contemporary Art.” This negative interpretation can be attributed to the nature of the environs, which don’t exactly encourage deeply thoughtful critical reflection, often negating any sense of context or allowing favorable conditions for display.

Bethan Huws: Tour, 2007

Bethan Huws: Tour, 2007

With that in mind I couldn’t help thinking of Johnson’s award when I visited Yvon Lambert’s current group exhibition, Espéces d’Espace. One would like to think that artworks fare better presented in a gallery than an art fair booth, but sometimes no degree of formality can save them. Ostensibly predicated on an increased awareness of the space in which objects exist and the implications of space for the work of art and it’s display, the exhibition seems more like an opportunity to show otherwise unrelated new work by gallery artists. And some of it is a joy to see: a gorgeous new Jenny Holzer (but why not just go to the Whitney?), a mystifying drawing by Roni Horn (coming soon to the Whitney), a Jill Magid text-based work on paper exploring intimacy (no Whitney show that I know of–she seems more like a Guggenheim type).

But much of the work seems to compete for the Object Most Resembling Contemporary Art award. The competition is tough: a (carefully) fractured mirror would be too obvious a choice however. Zilvinas Kempinas is represented by Double O, 2008; two industrial fans face off, whipping magnetic tapes in wild oscillations. I suppose some viewers might be hypnotized by the self-cancelling airstreams and spinning black lines of tape, but the effect never rises above 7th grade science fair oohs and awes, perhaps relying too much on Olafur Eliasson-like natural world wonder but without any sense of the viewer’s alterity.

Zilvinas Kempinas: Double O, 2008

Zilvinas Kempinas: Double O, 2008

Worse, in my mind, was Bethan Huws’s contributions. Like many “contemporary artists,” Huws mines the legacy of Duchamp. The first work Nu Descendant un Escalier, 2004 spells out the title in movable type underneath a commercial signage display, the text wending its way downward in a misconceived moment of concrete poetic inspiration. Across the main gallery Huws’s Tour, 2007, takes Duchamp’s first unmodified readymade, Bottle Rack, 1914, and goes all Dan Flavin/Bruce Nauman: recreating said bottle rack in white neon. Is there a handbook for artists that says “take reference to Duchamp, add reference to Minimalism, pour over ice”? Combining Flavin’s phenomenological response to commercial lighting, Nauman’s linguistic puns with the title “Tour” (Tower), and Duchamp’s early work certainly shows that the artist can fluently parse Artforum, but does it add up to any more than that?

An Aprille Day for Chaucer

April 3, 2009

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

*Weather like this makes me want to go on a pilgrimmage.

Los Angeles: Two weeks.

Elad Lassry: Three Films

April 1, 2009
Untitled (Agon), 2007, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Untitled (Agon), 2007, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Like a generation before him, Israeli-born, Los Angeles-based artist Elad Lassry works with an awareness of the problems with pictures. But rather than exclusively adopting a position of skepticism, Lassry reinvests the image through formal and connotative means, creating complex temporalities within photographs and films, as well as historical dialogues in the multitude of signs he employs. With a self-reflexive approach to image-making appropriate to his base in Los Angeles, Lassry conflates historical moments, utilizing filmic and photographic conventions to manifest pictures with a multiplicity of meanings. While using the language of structural investigations, Lassry insinuates ruptures in the reception of familiar imagery, allowing a reconsideration of the image according to the ways in which pictures conceal and reveal themselves.

Lassry utilizes existing pictures as sources for his photographs, approximating the formats of the textbook and magazine as pedagogical forms in which the sincerity of the image is not questioned. This same interest in the didactic role of pictures extends to Lassry’s works in film. Lassry’s current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art offered the opportunity to consider his films in greater depth. Titled Three Films, the exhibition emphasizes the medium of the works on display, foreshadowing filmic representation as its subject. Significantly, all three 16mm films are silent and almost entirely comprised of static camera shots, underscoring their relationship to photographic representation. Only one film, Zebra and Woman, 2007, incorporates a minimum of camera movement, consisting of two slow horizontal tracking shots, deliberately moving across the contours of a zebra’s stripes and an actress seated in profile. The other two films, Untitled, 2008, and Untitled (Agon), 2007 each take photographs as their source material, using film’s duration to unhinge the temporal stasis of photographic representation.

Untitled (Agon), 2007 depicts two dancers performing the pas-de-deux from Balanchine’s 1957 ballet Agon. Lassry used a diagram from Doris Humphrey’s 1958 book The Art of Making Dances to determine the placements of the camera, resulting in long static shots isolating parts of the dancers’ bodies, never revealing the full breadth of the space in which they move. Although the ideological collision of Humphrey and Balanchine creates its own dialogue, plenty is happening in front of the camera, as the static shots create strange abstractions of the human body. Based as they are on still images, the viewer is initially inclined to uncover what original diagram Humphrey’s text may have proposed. But the still qualities of the photographic composition cannot be re-captured; instead they open up the temporal filmic dimensions for consideration in ways that expand beyond the confines of the frame. If a single photographic moment in a dance choreography might be instructive, it becomes negligible when considering an extended interval of time, in which movement and gesture are more important than line and pose. But likewise the scripted camera positions never offer a broad view of the dance, prohibiting any gestalt comprehension of the scene.

Untitled (Agon), 2007

Untitled (Agon), 2007

Long takes in close-up of both performers reveal the dancers’ nervousness, their heavy breathing and their boredom as they apparently await their director’s cue to begin. They sweat. We notice her muscular neck, the rise and fall of his chest, the change in deltoid tone when she must have put her arm out to rest on the barre. Dances, after all, are not made of images; they are made of movements in space. Along with the reference to divergent aesthetic histories, Agon operates through a further procession of abstraction, depicting a series of positions, rather than representing the time of the dance. Drawing on the strategies of Structuralist film, one camera position does not sequentially lead to another, enabling montage to construct narrative; rather each shot is relatively autonomous, asking for a formal consideration of the frame as well as the subjects that inhabit it.

Untitled, 2008, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

Untitled, 2008, Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery

A similar effect is at work in Untitled, 2008, which re-conceives several 1970s photographs used in textbooks to illustrate perspective. Actors and actresses are roto-scoped on the crude illustration of a house: a man and a woman appear to sit on the roof of the house as another woman stands in the doorway. But the depiction and the actors never quite occupy the same sense of perspective. The longer the viewer watches, the stranger the presence of these people in their illusionary environment becomes. These tableaux vacillate between shots of two actors in conversation, presumably off set. We are unable to hear their dialogue, instead reading their gestures and expressions for any clue. Rather than the mechanics of vision, this film redirects the viewer to consider other possibilities of filmic representation, namely the subjectivities of the actors in the photograph. As with Untitled (Agon), by introducing the element of time into the original representation, the people in the film become subjects rather than merely figures. No longer functioning as illustrations, the images become unhinged, able to take on different modes of meaning beyond their didactic functions.

By re-constituting pedagogical images, Lassry is able to remove himself from authorial decisions, putting historical forms into dialogue as he exposes the manner in which film composes time. Writing about Deleuze’s books on cinema, John Rajchman has said,

They have another selective aim: to extract from the generality of films those singular non-linguistic signs and images invented by great film-makers to express time or movement in our own situations, milieus or worlds. They are thus not a-historical. Rather, they are abstract in another way, tied not to eternity but to the present and new problems, at once artistic and philosophical. It seems important to preserve this experimental aesthetic zone of questioning with which history is linked but to which it is not reduced.

One might take the same approach to Lassry’s works. Visiting Three Films, the viewer might sit on the ground, scooting like a crab between projection stands or sitting back to take in multiple films at once, the only sound being the whir of the projectors. Each film loops but runs at different lengths; thus chance encounters between each film surprise each viewing, inducing whiplash spins to check, and double check, if in fact the same actress appears in Zebra and Woman, 2007 and Untitled, 2008. Here the viewer is physically within the flow of images, faced with the opportunity to re-read these re-constituted pictures.

Lassry’s pictures are constructed in such a way that both formal and psychological readings are unavoidable in an image, manifesting “a world of illumination without revelation” (Rajchman). The formal construction of the image is not reconciled with the connotative effects, instigating a generative friction in the picture, in which the codes and conventions are laid bare. Out of its generic qualities emerges a capacity for distinction, assuming a place of difference; the very abstraction of the picture’s address displaces its innocuousness. Here we might comprehend the capacity for pictures to transcend their status as products of a society of the spectacle, taking on historical and emotional resonance. By introducing such multiplicities, seemingly mute images are endowed with a voice, speaking the many I’s and You’s in which pictures speak to us and we speak to them. Even in foreclosing the truth-claims of a photograph, an image can unfold to tell it’s own time.