Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Is Florian Maier-Aichen Overrated?

The world of contemporary photography is filled with exciting artists pursuing a wide variety of picture making strategies and approaches. But once in a while a photographer comes along whose meteoric rise takes your breath away. Florian Maier-Aichen was a complete unknown to us until his work started to appear in the Contemporary Art auctions a year or so ago. With no auction history prior to 2008, his work was suddenly and routinely fetching six figures, a feat that rarely occurs in contemporary photography, much less with fresh names. Diving back into his bio, his work was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, and he is now represented by 303 Gallery in New York (here) and Blum & Poe in Los Angeles (here), with a recent show at Gagosian Gallery in London (here).

Maier-Aichen had a show at 303 last spring (review here), which was our first in-person experience of his work, and I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed; the images didn’t seem to match the hype created by the PR machine. But we are always willing to admit our own ignorance, so I chalked it up to just not understanding the work well enough and somehow missing the artist’s hidden (at least to us) genius. So it was with some anticipation that I sat down recently to watch the segment on Maier-Aichen in the Art 21 series on PBS (here).

In the short documentary piece, Maier-Aichen talks through a few images that he has been working on, as well as his overall approach to picture making. As a refresher for those less familiar with his work, Maier-Aichen takes large format color images (many of them post card-like landscapes) and then does a significant amount of digital post processing on the computer to create his works: negatives are sandwiched to create color irregularities, new elements are drawn in by hand using a digital stylus, and other details are eliminated or made less distinct/realistic. All of this rework has the effect of making parts of the images look remarkably painterly and hand crafted, while others retain some of the documentary preciseness of the original photograph; the representational and the abstract have been mixed.

In the past decade or so, we have certainly seen a faction of photographers react against the cool and rigorous conceptual detachment of the Becher school and move back toward a more painterly style of photography using digital tools (or via a return to older techniques and processes), some overtly embracing a Neo-Pictorialist sensibility. Lynn Geesaman’s images of elaborate European gardens would be one accomplished example of this line of thinking.

Given what I saw in the Art 21 segment, Maier-Aichen doesn’t really fit into this category of artists and work, even though there are certainly some commonalities of thinking. He doesn’t appear to be trying to make his photographs look like paintings (or more “beautiful” in some traditional sense), but to be making his photographs look less like photographs, via introducing areas of hand crafted artistry (this may be splitting hairs I realize, but I think the distinction is real). His central idea seems to be the undermining of the precision of the photograph for a more open ended, less predetermined state, where realism (especially in the case of iconic views such as Half Dome in Yosemite or various night views of waterfront cities) has been transformed into something more fictional and unknown. For me, this feels like an elaborate conceptual construct – perhaps Maier-Aichen is the first of the Conceptual Pictorialists.

Intellectually, having seen this video, I think I can now resonate a bit more with what Maier-Aichen is aiming to do, and I will happily grant that he is both out there trying something that no one else is really doing (especially in the realm of the landscape as a subject) and likely building a bridge to a new kind of working style for hand edited digital photography that others may value and follow in time. I also think I can follow the story line of the German photographer going to UCLA, reconsidering the idea of the American frontier and bringing a less deterministic approach to views we have all seen before.

But I’m afraid I have to admit that these works still don’t do much for me – while they might make me think a bit about what he is doing and saying (especially the idea of incorporating “drawing” in the digital sense), they don’t excite me or generate much emotion. As a collector, I continually come back to the opportunity cost of capital, and I can’t really understand the calculus of how I would come to the conclusion that spending $100K on a Maier-Aichen would make sense in the context of all that is available at that price point across the history of the medium. Which brings me back to the question in the title: is Maier-Aichen overrated? Has the buzz gotten ahead of the substance?

And so I open the floor to the rest of you, either to shout me down or voice your agreement. My goal here is not to drag Maier-Aichen down with zingers from the cheap seats; I'd like to have a thoughtful discussion of the merits of his work, which is what I have tried to provide above. What I would like most is to have someone out there deliver an impassioned, concise, and rational argument defending Maier-Aichen’s place in the contemporary photography hierarchy, as evidenced by his prices. Walk me through the logic of how you write the big check: I am eager to be educated.


Anonymous said...

Conceptual rigor does not equal emotional payoff. If I want conceptual rigor, I'll open a book. Give me something to see and feel.

BC said...

I don't know that he is overrated as much as he is over priced. Much of the same criticism that applies to this artist was in the past applied to Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Ed Ruscha, and others who have are now well established. I think these would be images I would consider collecting if they were $1-5K. The type of people who are buying these (and some other art in this price range) are not so much collectors as they are speculators and investors. Perhaps they are fools for paying this much, but my guess is in a few years they will find a greater fool to pay more.

Carefully Aimed Darts said...

In response to the previous comments: I'd concur that he is overpriced. By scale and materials alone, along with exhibition history, I'd say these might be $20-35K works. Some of the Southern California landscapes with their alien, infrared-style coloring, are quite effectively unsettling. But I find too many of the images trite or facile.

I think it is worthwhile to differentiate Maier-Aichen from the category of Wall, Sherman, Ruscha types suggested by the previous commenter. One big difference with those now-acknowledged-masters was that they always had substantial critical and institutional support--a process of vetting independent of the market more or less--and were working on theoretical and stylistic levels that are now recognized as being paradigmatic in some way. While the jury is still out on FMA for the later part, I have to say I have never read a review or press release of his work that didn't leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth: characterized by some facile, neo-Romanitic fallbacks and painterly touches. He had a small show at MOCA in LA a few years ago; intrigued by the aforementioned landscapes I bought the catalogue--as I recall the essay it contained was the worst piece of institutional writing I have ever seen in print. Maybe it is the writers he attracts, or maybe it is just the work itself...