Posts Tagged ‘Photography’

Revisiting the Valley of the Shadow of Death

June 22, 2009
Roger Fenton, Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855; Courtesy Getty Museum

Roger Fenton, Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855; Courtesy Getty Museum

Often cited as the first war photographer, Roger Fenton was dispatched to photograph the Crimean War in 1855 at the behest of publisher Thomas Agnew. Documenting a widely unpopular military campaign, Fenton avoided turning his lens upon the destruction produced by the theater of war. The slow exposures and photographic technology of the time were prohibitive in freezing any motion and actions, making depiction of actual scenes of battle impossible. But whether by editorial bias or his general Victorian sensibilities, unlike his counterparts in the American Civil War, Fenton declined to make images of the dead and wounded. The resulting exhibition of photographs from over 300 wet plate negatives primarily depicted portraits of soldiers in camp, as well as the barren plains upon which they pitched their tents.

Fenton’s most famous photograph, Valley of the Shadow of Death, of which there are two exposures, was taken in the Crimea. A Martian landscape recedes before the camera, the packed dirt road winding to the distance, pocked by scattered cannonballs lying in the ruts and gutters. No tree breaks the horizon, no solitary figure wanders the road. For a photograph of a war zone it is remarkably silent; I imagine not the sound of cannon fire, but perhaps merely the low whistle of the wind. It is an image of a landscape devastated, admitting no life. Fenton adopted the soldiers’ name for the valley, evocative in its Biblical associations. The 21st century viewer might call to mind Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic settings in the American west.

This image has captivated subsequent historians and photographers alike (witness Errol Morris’s recent investigations into Fenton’s “stagecraft” of the photograph), so it is worth considering what about the image is noteworthy. As suggested earlier, Fenton’s work does not easily fit into a modern conception of war photography, marked as that genre is by notions of the event and action. Instead it is truly a landscape photograph, conforming to certain conventions, and suggestive of an archetypal quality even in its specific elements. It is exceedingly spare and elegantly composed, seeming to admit no extraneous details in order to communicate an idea of the landscape through a great economy of means. This restraint, I believe, is what makes the image so iconic. Thinking reductively, the contents of the picture can be cataloged thus: earth, horizon, road, cannonballs. Its very title speaks of death, and of an epic suffering, but also of divine faith (23rd Psalm).

Joe Deal, Road Cut (Homage to Roger Fenton) Diamond Bar, California, 1984; Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York

Joe Deal, Road Cut (Homage to Roger Fenton) Diamond Bar, California, 1984; Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York

Spare and understated, formally precise by with a minimum of inflection, and certainly depicting a “Man-Altered Landscape,” it comes as no surprise that Fenton’s picture was echoed over a hundred years later by one of the principal artists associated with the New Topographics style. Working on his surveys of suburban development in Southern California, Joe Deal made Road Cut (Homage to Roger Fenton) Diamond Bar, California, 1984.

Deal’s homage shares many of the same elements as Valley of the Shadow of Death, so it is illuminating to see where they differ, and how Deal’s citation of photographic history suggests the stakes of his own project. As with Fenton’s photograph, Deal’s relies on information provided by the title to endow the image with meaning, both in the invocation of Fenton and in the naming of the “road cut.” Deal replaces the cannonballs of the 19th century with the moist dirt clods of suburban development—his is not a landscape that bares witness to violence, it is a landscape under attack—the “cut” of the title a scar across a hillside, marked by human disturbance. In Fenton’s picture there are artifacts of violence whereas in Deal’s there are traces.

25 years after Deal plodded the subdivisions around Los Angeles, the political contexts of the work of Sophie Ristelhueber and Guy Tillim are considerably different, but they also make use of the iconic status of Fenton’s photograph in order to buttress their own notions of landscape and war.

Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #48, 2005; Courtesy Blancpain Art Contemporain, Geneva

Sophie Ristelhueber, WB #48, 2005; Courtesy Blancpain Art Contemporain, Geneva

Ristelhueber’s series WB depicts roadblocks in the West Bank. A number of photographs in the series resemble Valley of the Shadow of Death, but WB #48, 2005 most explicitly echoes the composition of Fenton’s picture. Like Deal’s photograph, cannonballs have been replaced by earthen matter, here rocks and boulders lining the road and finally piled into a barrier. If Deal’s image depicted a landscape disrupted by human development, here human action has folded the landscape back upon itself, negating the earlier action that created the road. But if it is a return it is hardly an innocent one. One hardly needs the presence of cannonballs to understand (again aided by the knowledge that this is the West Bank) that this is a contested landscape. In this sense we can also consider Ristelhueber’s well-known photographs of scarred human flesh to be landscape pictures.

Guy Tillim, Game of petanque, Porto Novo, Benin, 2007; Courtesy Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town

Guy Tillim, Game of petanque, Porto Novo, Benin, 2007; Courtesy Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town

Guy Tillim’s photograph Game of petanque, Porto Novo, Benin, 2007 comes from the series Avenue Patrice Lumumba. With this body of work Tillim photographed across Sub-Saharan Africa, where many avenues, streets and city squares are named after the assassinated leader who remains an icon of post-colonial nationalism. In many ways the citation and relationship of this image is an inversion of the negative connotations at play in the previous photographs. It shares many of the pictorial conventions again, but with significant reversals. Notably the landscape is urban, rather than suburban or rural, and depicts a person, barely encroaching on the edge of the frame to let us know this is a scene that is unquestionably populated and existing in a specific moment. Also of note is the motion blur of one of the petanque balls; whereas the photographs by Fenton and Ristelhueber suggest stasis, crucially this is a landscape as yet in motion, dynamic and unfolding in its potential. (Deal’s landscape seems a fresh wound, not entirely realized, and speaking of further disruptions to come.) While the cannons, dirt clods and roadblocks are explicit in their forms of violence, the petanque balls are much more ambiguous. On the one hand they evoke play and forms of conviviality and leisure. But also lurking is the subtext of colonialism, the game itself a legacy of French rule in Benin. For all of the promise and subsequent strife of post-colonial African politcs, this is a landscape still very much open to determination.

Each of the photographs by Deal, Ristelhueber and Tillim builds upon the citational politics of Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death. But taken as a whole, they each propose politicized views of landscape through their pictorial means. At the heart of these images is the road, a social space constituted by bodies in transit. Formally it introduces depth, and according to a classical pictorial conception of landscape allows the viewer to follow a path into the picture, and ultimately into the world created by the camera. In Fenton’s version (and according to his narration of the day) the road was too dangerous to admit passage. Deal’s subdivision speaks of the inevitability of more roads, more houses, and more development, and eventually those families who will make their homes there. Ristelhueber’s landscape has already foreclosed admission; it denies movement to marked bodies. Finally, Tillim shows a public space still carrying the legacy of its past, but with a potential for advancement into the future, a battlefield morphed into a public space of convergence. Each picture is therefore a question of passage and the politics of movement within a landscape: at the most basic, who can go where? It is a small leap to then consider border disputes as well as notions of property and sovereignty, urban planning and ecology, as being related to notions of landscape. In introducing questions of violence and access into the discussion of landscape, we can begin to examine the political potential of the genre.

Neo Topographics

June 8, 2009
Lewis Baltz, "Tract House #6, 1971"

Lewis Baltz, "Tract House #6, 1971"

Those who spend their caffeine-fueled dawns and beer-thirsting dusks swaying along the New York MTA subway organs are no doubt familiar with the quote, “History is like that, very chancy,” from the intrepid Samuel Eliot Morison, he of the Trains of Thought ad series lining train interiors. Which is a roundabout way to introduce that unlikely touchstone in the history of photography, the now seminal (gender appropriate) exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man Altered Landscape that opened in 1975 at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Featuring Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel, the exhibition became the brand name for a full-blown genre of photographic investigation.

Twenty-four years later, the exhibition is being recreated, and curators Britt Salvesen of the Center for Creative Photography and Alison Nordstrom of George Eastman House clearly have an art historical ax to grind. The press release is full of lofty prose and direct rhetoric. A selection of excerpts:

Arguably the last traditionally photographic style, New Topographics was also the first photoconceptual style…

As evidence of its influence, it is considered the second most-cited photography exhibition in the history of the medium… (Aside: What’s the first? Family of Man? Update: Upon further consideration, probably New Documents.)

The influence of New Topographics can be traced by looking again at the original pictures and at the circumstances in which the 10 artists were brought together. At the core of this re-examination will be the works from the 1975 show, which was curated by William Jenkins in collaboration with the artists. Jenkins’s concept achieved currency primarily through the exhibition catalogue (which today is being sold at rare-book sales for upwards of $1,000, far beyond its original $6.95 price tag). “By revisiting the photographs, we can assess their cumulative effect and consider their impact as objects,” Salvesen said. “This reprise also provides a unique opportunity to assess the original exhibition’s aims, consider its influence on young photographers today, and examine the international implications of an American impulse in photography.”

This presentation of New Topographics will also include prints and books by other relevant artists to provide additional historical and contemporary context. Timothy O’Sullivan appears in his role as a 19th-century precursor cited by both Adams and Baltz, while Walker Evans illustrates the idea of “documentary style” that he introduced to American photography in the 1930s. The conceptual aspect of New Topographics is illuminated by the photo-based books of Ed Ruscha, a key figure in Jenkins’s catalogue essay; Robert Smithson’s Instamatic snapshots of defiantly anti-monumental sites; and Dan Graham’s magazine layout/slide show Homes for America; and the groundbreaking 1972 study Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour.

In the coming weeks and months I hope to examine many of the topics and concerns that the exhibition raises, including the following:

  • What is at stake in “re-creating” an exhibition? How might this be compared to the revival of the theatrical play or dance? In other words what are the temporal dimensions proposed by an exhibition as a specific time and place, and what does the contemporary viewer then bring to the re-creation?
  • What relationship can we decipher between the “style” of the New Topographics and the “artists using photography” of Conceptualism? Text to revisit: Jeff Wall’s “Marks of Indifference.”
  • Was New Topographics truly a paradigm shift, a full aesthetic break, or rather a form of atavism to the land surveys of a century before? in which case, what are the power dynamics implicit in the photographic “critiques” and strategies of refusal employed by the Topographic photographers? In other words, what are the politics of style at work? In this regard I will consider Jenkins’s original catalogue essay as well as the writings of artists included in the exhibition.
  • What might is the influence of New Topographics today? How might we identify another generation of artists expanding upon the legacy of that exhibition. In particular can we expand the horizons to include greater diversity in gender and topography? How might globalization be considered to affect this aesthetic condition? What is a “Man-Altered Landscape” in the 21st Century?
Frank Gohlke, "Grain elevators, Minneapolis, 1974"

Frank Gohlke, "Grain elevators, Minneapolis, 1974"

My interest in New Topographics is largely personal. Raised in the West, I was imbued with a certain reverence for the natural world, but a Romanticism leavened by pragmatism and eventually cynicism. My own journey through photography retraced the steps of many of the Topographic photographers, rejecting the sublime landscapes that came before me, the equivalences and transcendentalisms that defined American photography for at least half a century. Even as I no longer make pictures of my own, I certainly see photographs as codifications of social values. No image is innocent or blank: they each belie a world of biases and valuations. In framing the world they saw developing before them, the Topographic photographers gave form to ideas they had about the landscapes they lived in. Landscape, as a physical thing in a world, but more particularly through their aesthetic representation, tell us a great deal about who we are.

In the interests of full disclosure, outside of this blog I have professional relationships with several of the photographers in the exhibition; I hope that if anything this will clarify and illuminate certain ideas rather than cloud them–my intentions certainly aren’t promotional in this setting.

I’ve laid the groundwork with a lot of questions that have been stirring in my head over the past months since I learned about the forthcoming exhibition. New Topographics will be touring for the next three years, so this may be a discussion that comes and goes. The publication is slated to arrive in September.

George Eastman House (June 13–Oct. 4,2009); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Oct. 25, 2009–Jan. 3, 2010); Center for Creative Photography (Feb. 19–May 16, 2010); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (July 17–Oct. 3, 2010); Landesgalerie Linz, Austria (Nov. 10, 2010–Jan. 9, 2011), Photographische Sammlung Stiftung Kultur, Cologne (Jan. 27–April 3, 2011); Jeu de Paume, Paris (April 11–June 12, 2011); and the Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam, the Netherlands (July 2–Sept. 11, 2011); and Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, Bilbao (November 2011–January 2012).

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.

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)

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

Steven Meisel and Kohei Yoshiyuki

February 28, 2009
Steven Meisel, from Dogging, V56

Steven Meisel, from Dogging, V56

This came out a while ago and has been posted about elsewhere, but Steven Meisel’s shoot “Dogging” in V56 is a boldfaced ripoff of Kohei Yoshiyuki’s seminal series, The Park. Yoshiyuki received a lot of press and attention over the past year and a half, with The Park exhibited at Yossi Milo Gallery and included in the Berlin Biennial and Gwangju Biennale in 2008.

Kohei Yoshiyuki, Untitled, 1971 from The Park

Kohei Yoshiyuki, Untitled, 1971 from The Park

There is a precarious line between drawing inspiration from another artist and simply copying their work. The Park was highly stylized to begin with, and Meisel turns it up another notch by infusing fantastic colors. It’s odd however that the editors (or Meisel) decided to cloak the series as an “original” commentary on current sexual mores among British youth, called “Dogging,” when in fact the source material was clandestine trysts — homo- and heterosexual — in 1970s Japan. Is this a process of Westernizing the content? It’s not exactly news that advertising and editorial content lift strategies from the “avant-garde” arts, but I wonder what was gained by Meisel’s shoot rather than running the original images. The shoot certainly doesn’t highlight the clothes, so what it is presenting is an lifestyle oriented. I’d be better convinced of the validity of the concept, except it doesn’t appear that Meisel has added anything, merely transporting Yoshiyuki’s form and edginess into a new context.

Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire

February 28, 2009
Mark Ruwedel: Picacho and Colorado River #3, 2000

Mark Ruwedel: Picacho and Colorado River #3, 2000

Yossi Milo Gallery

Feburary 5 – March 14, 2009

Karen Rosenberg has a nice review of Mark Ruwedel’s exhibition Westward the Course of Empire, and successfully covers the historical and aesthetic context, but the exhibition raises a number of additional questions. Ruwedel re-traces railroad lines across the American West, photographing the deteriorating infrastructure. In many instances the lines are completely abandoned, recognizable only by the scars left by their grading or the splinters of the ties and trestles. Beautifully printed, Ruwedel (I believe) shoots 8×10” black and white film and contact prints, dry-mounting on 16×20″ mat board. The artist titles each work in pencil directly on the mount, describing the name of the railroad line, for example Canadian Pacific #3. Rosenberg makes all of the right references to the New Topographics (in particular Robert Adams) and Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson.

The press release says Ruwedel “acts as an archivist,” but this is not the most accurate term. “Archivist” usually describes someone who organizes an existing collection of materials, whereas Ruwedel is himself creating material—to use the term is to de-emphasize his authorial role. Partially this misuse of terminology may arise due to fashion, witness the outstanding exhibition last year at ICP, Archive Fever, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Rosenberg perpetuates this idea, writing, “The presentation tends toward the archival.” But the photographs are framed and hung on the walls, in a typological style, and the pencil titling is an affected throw-back rather than an earnest attempt at filing and labelling. I’ve read somewhere that the artist considers the landscape as a repository of histories. Is the landscape an archive, or do landscapes simply bare the traces of prior events? Ruwedel is in a sense a person who creates an archive; he is documenting a set of sites that highlight technologic and historic entropy. Is to document the same as to archive?

What Ruwedel is doing may be more accurately attributed to atavism, that is, a reversion to a previous photographic form (a term taken from George Baker, again). As Rebecca Solnit’s book River of Shadows elegantly makes clear, the history of photography and the history of the railroad are inextricably bound as contemporaneous modern technologies at the height of Enlightenment aspirations. But in the American West the relationship is even more explicit, with photographic luminaries like Watkins and Jackson frequently hired by the railroad companies (as well as government land surveys) to document their industrious advances. Some of the most pristine prints from this era survive in large bound portfolios supplied by the photographers to their corporate employers. Photography and railroad were twin pillars of the Manifest Destiny propelling westward development. Ruwedel pays lip service to this spirit – albeit ironically – in the title of the exhibition, and also explicitly in compositions that echo his 19th century predecessors. The artist very deliberately adopts the formal strategies of a previous age, highlighting a genetic connection between photographs.

Baker sees contemporary photography operating between the dialectics of abstraction and atavism. Extending Baker’s argument, Ruwedel clearly operates according the Barthesian this has been. There is a timeliness to such images of collapse, but from a certain liberal or neo-Marxist position such a reading might be inevitable regardless of the S&P 500 rating. Given the formal elegance of the images and their loaded aesthetic history, in as much as they suggest an “infinite return,” they are also an ode to entropy, and therefore point to the future as well as the past.

Killed Negatives: Lisa Oppenheim and Etienne Chambaud

February 20, 2009

I am frequently drawn to occasions when artists arrive at similar results in response to very different modes of inquiry. To use a term from evolutionary science, this might be called convergence.


Etienne Chambaud: Personne, 2008

Both Etienne Chambaud and Lisa Oppenheim have recently created work using the publicly accessible Farm Security Administration archive of the Library of Congress, specifically appropriating “killed negatives” by Walker Evans. Killed negatives were those rejected by the Farm Security Administration (early on program administrator Roy Stryker was primarily responsible for editing contact sheets); often variants of other images, these negatives were punched through with a hole to destroy their reproductive capacity.

Chambaud’s recent exhibition A brief history of the twentieth century used one of these killed negatives as the turn key to the rest of the show. Titled Personne, 2008, Chambaud sees the subject as a (now) nearly 100 year old child, and says that the exhibition is made for Personne. The artist has re-presented this killed negative, but has chosen to print the negative as a lenticular print. Seen from one angle, the scar of the punched hole is black. Seen from another the hole is white, dissolving in the bleached out details of the child’s shirt. As if by magic, the photo editor’s bullet hole seems to disappear. Chambaud performs a resurrection of the image. Personne as object and as protagonist provide a framework for entering an exhibition which takes a series of fragments and interrogates their representational capacity. In the press release Chambaud writes, “the question is of the object of the objects presented here, in the way these objects unveil or hide, conceal or expose theirselves, in the way some are reflected in others, luminate or simply regard them.” (sic, translated from the French)


Lisa Oppenheim: Killed Negatives: After Walker Evans (Corn 2), 2007

Lisa Oppenheim’s series Killed Negatives: After Walker Evans similarly works from the abandoned negatives. Oppenheim re-photographs at or near the location of the original image. She then apparently re-enacts the killing of her own negatives, leaving a punched out hole. This is then printed, with the “chad” placed in the same position as its inverse in the original Walker Evans image that Oppenheim prints. This process of reconstruction creates a complex circuit of temporalities. In contrast to Chambaud she is not “resurrecting” the image; in fact she performs the same violence on the negative, but then rescues the inverse space—the excised chad. This is further complicated by a number of strategies. Oppenheim sometimes presents multiple variants of her modern exposures. Evans’s images are from black and white negatives, Oppenheim’s are color. And of course, by analogue means she could never arrive at a perfect replacement for the excised chad of the original negative. Oppenheim’s presentation acknowledges this as she does not attempt to overlay the two image fragments—rather than a purposed unity, multiple possibilities are invoked. The title of the works quotes Sherrie Levine’s now canonical series, but one senses that the “after” of the title emphasizes a temporal relation, as well as suggesting the artist “chasing after” Evans.

Both artists clearly share an interest in the archeology of visual culture and highlight the subjective processes which have left these images out of the dominant, official histories. But Chambaud is less concerned with material (or medium) specificity than in the overall theoretical underpinnings put into play by the constituent parts of an exhibition. By contrast Oppenheim’s investigations are explicitly photographic. The checklist information explicitly notes that the photographs are “hand printed,” another anachronism in comparison to the technological sophistication of Chambaud’s lenticular print.

Etienne Chambaud is currently exhibiting at the Palais de Tokyo. Lisa Oppenheim co-curated A Twilight Art at Harris Lieberman, reviewed here, up through February 28.