Posts Tagged ‘Walead Beshty’

W. Beshty: Trapped in the (Crystal) Palace

April 27, 2009


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.

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:

A Twilight Art

February 12, 2009
Liz Deschenes, Left/Right, 2008; Courtesy Harris Lieberman, New York

Liz Deschenes, Left/Right, 2008; Courtesy Harris Lieberman, New York

Harris Lieberman

January 17 – February 28, 2009

Kodak and Fuji are shuttering plants. Ilford is discontinuing favorite paper stocks. And Polaroid film has gone the way of the dodo. So it is only inevitable that contemporary artists—not exclusively “photographers,” that second-class breed—have taken up these expiring media. Whether motivated by a sense of urgency, nostalgia, or some misplaced desire for purity in the face of an exclusively digital age, this is ostensibly the jumping off point for the exhibition A Twilight Art. But rather than this technological dialectic, the more satisfying critical lens may be the final two essays in LACMA’s Words Without Pictures project, organized by photography curator Charlotte Cotton. The essays by artist Walead Beshty and art historian George Baker (titled “Abstracting Photography” and “Photography and Abstraction,” respectively) are too much to go into here, but each is concerned with questions of photographic abstraction (more semiotic than formal) and social process. (The essays are archived as pdfs at Words Without Pictures)

Most notably the selection of artists and works marks a stark turn away from the cinematic, narrative photography of the past decade. Still, the curators seem inclined to avoid these linear developments, and the press release suggests a desire to look “across generations.” But other than the inclusion of early works by Allan McCollum and Barbara Kasten, it’s hard to find supporting evidence of this claim, as the show has three 25 year old works along with 30 other pieces made in the last five years. While the desire to curate an exhibitions exploring both synchronic and diachronic relations is a noble one, the idea could have been developed further. As it stands the exhibition seems poised between comparing contemporaneous works by artists of different generations and relating past and present modes of production. Wolfgang Tillmans is a worthy stand-in as leader of the pack, but the omission of James Welling is glaring. Kasten could easily have been substituted by Eileen Quinlian’s ubiquitous Smoke and Mirrors. Sigmar Polke may have a place here too.

Still, there is no shortage of opportunities on hand to consider the history of photographic production. A number of works transparently belie their debt to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray. The inclusion of Amy Granat might have transcended such a comparison, as her recent photograms of quotidian objects were violently torn at the edges, forgoing any reference to the rectangular photographic frame and suggesting a limitless field of such exposures, from which the displayed object was arbitrarily chosen. On hand here, Matt Saunders’s silver gelatin print from a hand drawn negative starts with Gerhard Richter and goes in reverse. Like a sudsy windowpane awaiting the squeegy, it suggest early experiments with photography by Mel Bochner; the vertical band bisecting the canvas is a Barnett Newman-like zip, but also evokes the unexposed frame between individual negatives.

McCollum and Tauba Auerbach each made photographs enlarged off television screens, installed adjacent to one another here. While McCollum’s Perpetual Photo still carries a modicum of information that can suggest at form, Auerbach’s is pure surface static, something that will soon disappear from our airwaves when broadcast television goes completely digital. Ultimately the concerns of these two works are different, and any contiguity rises from their formal qualities. Conceptually McCollum’s contribution has more in common with Carter Mull’s work, presented immediately to the left of Auerbach’s. Both use processes of repeated re-photographing to the point of subsuming the original indexical function of the camera, creating images that are worn to illegibility.

Deschenes, Charlesworth, Charlesworth, Dybbroe Moeller, Pearson

Installation View; Left to right: Deschenes, Charlesworth, Charlesworth, Dybbroe Moeller, Pearson

Elsewhere nice curatorial sequences emerge, employing comparisons that are variously formal, material, structural, conceptual and content-driven. A row of works by Walead Beshty and Marcus Amm play off similar textures and surfaces as traces of chemical processes. Visual puns function almost syntactically as a stunning Liz Deschenes builds sound wave-like peaks from Left/Right, leading to a Sarah Charlesworth composition of colorful dishes (alluding to chemical processes in photographic developing) in the shape of an arrow, which points to another of her images of a cube in perspective; lastly, this resonates with four small folded photogram abstractions by Simon Dybbroe Møller that also hint at perspectival space in their square forms. Anthony Pearson’s contribution is a large vertical c-print showing striations of lens flare, enlarged to exclude all other content, and is placed on an otherwise awkward column dividing the large storefront windows at the front of the gallery. Though this viewer only saw the exhibition in the evening, one imagine it plays well when the south facing gallery is overtaken by bright winter sunshine.

A Twilight Art takes up a worthy mantle. Something is clearly beginning to coalesce in contemporary photographic practice and theory that might be better served by the additional research and resources available to a larger institutional. Some of the issues facing curators Lisa Oppenheim and Jessie Washburne-Harris may have to do with the limitations of working with consignments from other commercial galleries and the availability of work. The artists’s galleries may be less inclined to mete out superior works by their artists that they might (at least until recently) have been able to sell easily. Eponyanymous rightly brings up the point that for all the talk of renewed materiality, almost all the work on hand fits nicely into a frame. In other exhibitions a number of these artists use sculptures (Beshty, Pearson, Laura MacIntyre, Mull) or painting (Amm, Auerbach, Saunders) or video (Erika Vogt, Dybbroe Møller) as integrally related to their photographs, complimenting the materiality or production process of each format. This exhibition seems to lack the energy that such an expanded field could offer, as it never quite sates the desire for more impassioned discourse between works. Nonetheless, the artists are effectively united by their self-reflexive approach to the medium and concern for way in which photographic meaning is produced. With A Twilight Art, To Be Determined up now at Andrew Kreps, and previously Untitled (Vicarious) at Gagosian last fall, there is clearly ambivalence about the critical language of contemporary photography. With outlets like Words Without Pictures leading the way and promising exhibitions like A Twilight Art, expect good things to come.