The exhibition is divided into ten (10) discrete sections; sometimes a theme fills an entire room, in other cases, an idea takes up an adjacent wall or two. The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view in parentheses:
I. Sculpture in the Age of Photography
André Kertész (4, 1 magazine)
Stephen Thompson (1)
II. Eugène Atget: The Marvelous in the Everyday
Edward Steichen (4)
IV. Constantin Brancusi: The Studio as Groupe Mobile
X. The Performing Body as Sculptural Object
Roxana Marcoci's smart show on the intersections of photography and sculpture digs into a seemingly obvious theme (artists making pictures of sculpture) and unearths a rich vein of interaction and cross pollination, going all the way back to the invention of photography. It seems these two art forms have been having a complicated, evolving conversation for many decades now, but perhaps we just weren't paying close enough attention to see how the many ideas were flowing back and forth. This exhibit attempts to set the record straight, to follow the connections back to their sources, and to provide a conceptual construct to tease out the underlying influences and important conclusions. While such a task is inherently messy, this show does a generally fine job of giving us new ways to understand the powerful links between these two artistic mediums.
The exhibit gets off to a stumbling start with an introductory room that tries to be too clever. In what should have been a tightly edited group of 19th century works used to set the foundation for how photography and sculpture began their relationship, we instead get a puzzling juxtaposition of 19th century and contemporary works that fails to clarify the thesis to be explored. To my eye, and with the benefit of knowing what comes later in the show, the contemporary works which are interleaved with the 19th century images are those that don't easily match any of the later themes; they are a gathering of one-offs that didn't fit more naturally somewhere else, but were relevant or exciting enough to want to be jammed in. But put these distractions aside for a moment and focus on the 19th century works in this first room. While you might expect that the earliest photographs of sculpture would be straightforward documents, think again. From the very beginning, photographers used effects of light, scale, and composition to subtly alter the way we experience marble statues and stone busts; some grouped collections of antiquities into dense still lifes, others found drama in broken fragments or narrative in studio views.
Marcel Duchamp provides the next big conceptual breakthroughs, with his readymade sculptures and assemblages of random objects. While the photographs on display in the Duchamp section aren't particularly inspiring, the ideas of making sculpture out of found objects, or of creating impermanent installations of things that then function as sculpture were groundbreaking. Suddenly, a photograph of almost anyhting could be a sculpture, and fleeting events, performances and happenings could be documented by the camera and preserved as a kind of ephemeral sculpture. These fundamental ideas would provide fodder for artists for the next few decades, and are elaborated on in several additional sections of the exhibit.
The other two sections in the show seem like tangential but relevant bolt-ons to the main line of reasoning. One centers on a specific type of sculpture, the public monument, and chronicles how artists have evolved their approaches to photographing it. The mini-thesis here is that from the very beginning photographers have been commenting on monuments via their images. The section starts with a few 19th century images, but quickly transitions to 20th century works that apply increasing levels of irreverence and irony, providing alternate contexts for what were supposed to be heroic or ideal symbols. Igor Mouhkin finds a Russian worker statue in an overgrown alley, Robert Frank silhouettes St. Francis in front of a gas station, Henri Cartier-Bresson captures tourists pulling on Abraham Lincoln's nose, and a series of Lee Friedlanders juxtapose monuments and memorials with beer cars, a lost dog sign, and the chaos of Times Square. David Goldblatt and Guy Tillim provide a more caustic edge, with Nelson Mandela dwarfed by construction scaffolding, and Henry Stanley toppled over and broken off at the feet. In the end, Ai Weiwei gives San Marco square in Venice the finger. (David Goldblatt, Monument Honouring the Contribution of the Horse to South African History, 2005, at right.) The other section loosely connected to the main line of thinking covers a grab bag of mannequins, dolls, figurines and puppets, mixed together with collage and photomontage effects. These pictures draw on themes from other sections: found objects as sculpture, the staging of imagery just for the camera, and the mixing of photography and sculpture to create alternate artistic options.
Overall, I found Marcoci's conceptual argument well-reasoned and thoughtful, with illuminating examples to be found in nearly every section. While I might quibble with a few of the choices here or there, in general, this exhibit successfully delivers a new perspective on the role of photography in the larger artistic discussion and convincingly proves that sculpture and photography have had a long history of co-dependence. It's a challenging, intellectual approach that expects some active engagement by the viewer and rewards this time spent with some simple, but powerful ideas. So in the dog days of summer, go and engage your brain, and whatever you do, don't miss the Brancusis.
Rating: *** (three stars) EXCELLENT (rating system described here)
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