Friday, August 20, 2010
Consider becoming a subscriber to the feed, so you don't miss us when we return. We'll see you again after Labor Day, when the photographic art world reawakens.
The following photographers are included in the exhibit, with the number of images on view in parentheses:
Michele Abeles (7)
Deville Cohen (3, 1 video)
LaToya Ruby Frazier (12, 1 video)
Zipora Fried (3)
Daniel Gordon (5)
K8 Hardy (18)
Alisha Kerlin (8)
Deana Lawson (6, 1 large installation)
Leigh Ledare (22, 1 stack of images, 3 videos)
Alice O'Malley (12)
Lucy Raven (1 photo animation, 1 video, 1 case of ephemera)
Mariah Robertson (8)
David Benjamin Sherry (19)
Erin Shirref (28)
Xaviera Simmons (1 grid of 42, 2 others)
A.L. Steiner (1 three wall installation)
Elisabeth Subrin (4)
Hank Willis Thomas (1 set of 82)
Pinar Yolacan (8)
Comments/Context: Given our passionate interest in photography, sprawling group shows like Greater New York always feel like a bit like a treasure hunt; we wander through the galleries in search of the photography, never knowing what might be beyond the next white wall. With this show's thematic focus on brand new work from emerging contemporary artists from the New York area, we expected to be surprised and challenged by some work and to be bored by much of the rest, and hoped to be introduced to some new names worth keeping an eye on. I think our expectations were realistically low, and I think the show delivers the ungainly mixed bag that we expected.
Trying to discern themes or patterns in such a diverse body of photography is a tricky prospect, but given the high highs and the low lows we have experienced in the past five tumultuous years, the fact that so much of the photographic work on display is inward looking and self reflective, with a heavy dose of performance, was a surprise. Perhaps this is a result of early career artists still looking to refine their voices and seeking that clarity by peering inward, but I came away a bit troubled by the tin ear the New York artists seem to be showing toward the important issues of the day. I'm a sucker for big meaty new ideas that make my eyes bug out, but most of the photography I found here was both preoccupied with personal nuances and lacking in radical innovation.
That isn't to say that there wasn't plenty of work to enjoy on display. I've detailed a handful of favorites and special attractions below:
- I stood in front of Xaviera Simmons' large array of appropriated images of boat people and refugees hung in the entry of the show for quite a long time, feeling the combination of isolation, desperation and wild hope of being packed in like sardines on a makeshift raft or rusting barge, heading for the unknown. This was one of the only pieces in the exhibit that I thought tried to get at the uncertain spirit of the times, that sense of unease and lack of control that has been so common of late.
- Deville Cohen's sparse constructed scenes, made up of ladders, step stools and shredded paper, and pictures of ladders and step stools, have intriguing layers in their simple conceptual inversions. The video of the fake car wash (once again made from these primary materials) mixes humor and creative inventiveness to successfully evoke an everyday object. These works seem like a promising set of ideas worth further exploration.
- Pinar Yolacan's Mother Goddess series also uses a relatively simple construct to generate something more powerful. In these works, Yolacan completely covers her models from head to toe, wrapping them like mummies in skin tight cocoons of denim, black latex, or patterned fabric. They are then posed against monochrome colored backgrounds, lounging like odalisques. The resulting images are weirdly mute, like ancient fertility figurines or fetish objects.
- LaToya Ruby Frazier is clearly another emerging photographer with some momentum behind her. Her formally crisp and sinuously elegant black and white studies of falling down houses, piles of trees, bedside tables and a burger on a countertop are entirely evocative of a certain set of personal life circumstances. In this case, a look inward has produced something that isn't overly self-conscious, but is rather abstracted just enough to be universal, both unflinching and quietly beautiful at the same time.
- The work of Mariah Robertson, Hank Willis Thomas, and Daniel Gordon on view is generally a repeat or a refinement of work we have seen recently at other NY venues. Robertson's 88 is different than her single, ragged edged works in that it is a long ribbon of overlapping imagery, billowing across the ceiling and piling up on the floor, mixing checkerboards, piles of books, petrified wood, and chemical drips in her signature darkroom style; her aesthetic is growing on me over time. It was also terrific to see Thomas' full Unbranded series (82 images), where appropriated advertisements have been stripped of their logos, leaving behind a distorted history of black culture since 1968; while the pictures stand on their own as individual artworks, seeing the series together adds a layer of elapsed time and a view into the evolution of cultural stereotypes.
- K8 Hardy's self portraits have a playfulness that is infectious. Across the wall, she shape shifts, alternately posing with purple hair, puckered lips, orange sunglasses, wearing a wrestling belt, or standing with lawn mowers, often adding in a seemingly random photogram for effect. It sounds overly staged I know, but somehow it all works, successfully mixing eccentric personal style and play acting.
- I can't really say that I liked Leigh Ledare's erotic images of his mother's sex life, but they certainly push on cultural taboos and get your attention. They combine a sense of tragedy with creepy repulsiveness; they're explicit, confrontational, disturbing, and sad all at the same time. My guess is most people will truly hate these pictures, but like them or not, they're challenging and weirdly memorable.
Overall, I think there are a few nuggets of photographic promise to be found amidst the slurry here if you are willing to invest the time in exploring the endless jumble of rooms filled with art. While I was pleased to see how much photography has become intertwined with the general practice of contemporary art making, particularly in the NY scene, I have to say I was a bit disappointed that so few in this emerging bunch seem to have found a singular voice of durable originality.Collector's POV: Since most of these artists are early in their careers and the work is generally fresh out of the studio, none of it has yet migrated to the secondary markets. So the only real option for interested collectors is to follow up with gallery representatives or directly with the artists themselves. Below is a first pass list of easily identifiable gallery relationships and artist websites; if I've missed (or misidentified) important relationships or sites, please add them in the comments for the benefit of all:
Michele Abeles: artist site (here)
Deville Cohen: Nowhere Gallery (here)
LaToya Ruby Frazier: Higher Pictures (here), artist site (here)
Zipora Fried: On Stellar Rays (here)
Daniel Gordon: Zach Feuer Gallery (here), artist site (here)
K8 Hardy: Reena Spaulings Fine Art (here)
Alisha Kerlin: artist site (here)
Deana Lawson: artist site (here)
Leigh Ledare: was Rivington Arms (here); not sure now
Alice O'Malley: Isis Gallery (here), artist site (here)
Lucy Raven: artist site (here)
Mariah Robertson: Marvelli Gallery (here), artist site (here)
David Benjamin Sherry: artist site (here)
Erin Shirref: Lisa Cooley Fine Art (here), artist site (here)
Xaviera Simmons: unknown
A.L. Steiner: unknown
Elisabeth Subrin: Sue Scott Gallery (here)
Hank Willis Thomas: Charles Guice Contemporary (here), artist site (here)
Pinar Yolacan: was Rivington Arms (here), not sure now; artist site (here)
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
- Reviews: NY Times (here), Village Voice (here), WNYC Gallerina (here), L Magazine (here), Huffington Post (here)
Through October 18th
22-25 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY 11101
Thursday, August 19, 2010
The following photographers are included in the exhibit, with the number of images on view in parentheses:
Lola Alvarez Bravo (2)
Manuel Alvarez Bravo (8)
Hugo Brehme (1)
Anton Bruehl (4)
Hector Garcia (2)
Fritz Henle (2)
Leo Matiz (4)
Tina Modotti (6)
Edward Weston (4)
Comments/Context: Mexican modernism from the first half of the 20th century really has a special flavor all its own, meaningfully different from the photographic "modernisms" of Europe or America from the same time period. It combines the political fervor of the post-revolutionary period, a renewed attention to the symbols of traditional Mexican life, the historical mind set of the Mexican muralist painters, and the radical ideas of a number of influential artistic transplants into a potent stew of ideas, tinged with a bit of romance and bathed in the harsh, pure light of Mexico's geography.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
Through September 11th
New York, NY 10022
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
The following photographers are included in the main exhibit, with the number of photographs or other works on view in parentheses:
Harry Callahan (12)
William Christenberry (15)
John Divola (10)
William Eggleston (17)
Mitch Epstein (10)
Jan Groover (8)
Robert Heinecken (18 lithographs on magazine pages, 1 video, 1 case containing 5 reconfigured magazine spreads)
Barbara Kasten (8, 2 cyanotypes)
Les Krims (9)
Helen Levitt (40 color slides, projected onto gallery wall)
Joel Meyerowitz (14 photographs from two different projects)
Richard Misrach (12)
John Pfahl (9)
Leo Rubinfien (12)
Stephen Shore (312 images from American Surfaces in lobby, 10 commercial post cards, 10 photographs)
Neal Slavin (6)
Eve Sonneman (6 diptychs)
Joel Sternfeld (16 photographs from two different projects)
plus a glass case containing press releases, invitation cards, news articles and related ephemera
Two additional sections bracket the main body of the exhibit, and are not included in the catalogue; most if not all of the images seem to be drawn from the permanent collection of the PUAM. The photographers with work on view in these sections are listed below (John Divola, Zuma #21, 1977, at right):
Diane Arbus (1)
Harry Callahan (1)
Harold Edgerton (1)
Robert Frank (1)
Ernst Haas (1)
Dorothea Lange (1)
Eliot Porter (1)
Aaron Siskind (1)
Edward Weston (1)
Minor White (1)
Garry Winogrand (1)
Tina Barney (1)
Uta Barth (1)
Philip-Lorca DiCorcia (1)
Rineke Dijkstra (1)
Nan Goldin (1)
Candida Höfer (1)
Thomas Ruff (1)
Cindy Sherman (1)
Comments/Context: The well-known story of American color photography is often spun as a simplified tale of three misunderstood protagonists (Eggleston, Shore, and Sternfeld), fighting the black and white establishment and paving the way for an entire generation of colorists. Simple is easy to remember, so many of us mindlessly spit out these three names whenever the color conversation comes around. The fact is, while these three were undeniably important and massively influential, the actual history is much more complicated, with many more meaningful figures participating in the 1970s melting pot of photographic ideas. (Jan Groover, Untitled, 1978, at right.)
This excellent show does several smart things. First, it limits the playing field to a manageable size: we're only discussing Americans (no one else), color photography (not anything concurrently happening in the world of black and white), and the fixed decade of 1970-1980 (nothing before or after). These boundaries force us to focus on those artists who were really part of the active dialogue around the growth of color photography, without getting distracted and sidetracked by tangentially related themes and activities. Second, it grounds the imagery in the social and political history of the time and the current events of the 1970s, including Vietnam, Nixon, economic crisis, and the general mood of confusion and indifference. And third, it broadens the discussion far beyond the best known names to consider the contributions of many who didn't achieve a permanently meteoric rise.
The result of this set of curatorial framing decisions is an exhibit that isn't a linear, "this came first" kind of argument about the mainstream emergence of color in American photography, but more a snapshot of the diversity of color approaches that were being explored during those specific years, with plenty of opportunities to see connections and exchanges between different modes of experimentation. The story is much less straight and obvious than we have been led to believe - while Eggleston's show at MoMA in 1976 was clearly a watershed, his work didn't just arrive from an alien spacecraft to enlighten the world; many related ideas were percolating around in the artistic community (and in society at large), manifesting themselves in differing forms.
The exciting opportunity this exhibit provides is the ability to compare the work of a variety of contemporaneous artists and to stand in front of each display and ask two critical questions: how did this particular photographer use the newness of color, and most importantly, why?
The answers to these two questions are tremendously varied and utterly fascinating:
- Callahan and Levitt add color like a top layer over an existing black and white aesthetic. Callahan's approach created planes of color from the volumes and voids of Providence houses. Levitt's color allowed her to explore pattern and contrast (in fabrics, clothing, and street architecture), giving her another tool around which to coalesce a composition. Both of their color work can be seen as an extension of their earlier imagery, with color creating new opportunities within the existing framework.
- Christenberry matches his use of color with the sense of Southern vernacular history he is trying to document. His color is derived from a specific, drugstore print patina, layering a sense of everyday faded memory across the locations he has visited repeatedly over time.
- Epstein, Shore, Meyerowitz, Sternfeld, and Rubinfein all use color as a way to get at new kinds of relevant subject matter. Whether employing a snapshot aesthetic or a more formal view camera sense of control, these photographers were closely looking at the world of the 1970s, with its mass culture, its suburbia, its new ironies and unexpected vibrant garishness. Epstein uncovers a riot of patterned dresses, a woman with a snake, and a man sleeping on a cot near the West Side Highway. Shore documents hotel rooms, weird roadside interiors, and a parade of top down still life meals, and later turns his camera toward parking lots, piles of oranges, and empty streets. Meyerowitz grabs shots from passing cars, and captures the colored lights of gas stations, fast food joints, and Cape Cod cottages. Sternfeld finds blurred heads flashing by, and more formal views of beached whales, aquatic theme parks, and a basketball hoop in the desert. And Rubinfein sees the beginnings of empty globalization found in airports, taxicabs, ferries, and trains. In each case, color is an enabler, a method for making a new kind of picture that touched on the realities of 1970s life, without seeming stuck in the purity of black and white.
- Heinecken and Slavin are particularly interested in the colors of rampant commercialism. Heinecken boldly juxtaposes a Vietnamese soldier holding two severed heads with women's fashion ads, and collages provocative nudes into otherwise normal magazine spreads. Slavin uses the vocabulary of commercial portraiture to get at the wackiness of our subculutres, from Star Trek fans to rod and gun club members. Both are leveraging the ideas of advertising, of serial imagery, and of biting cultural commentary.
- Kasten, Groover, Krims, Pfahl, Divola and Sonneman are all using color in much more conceptual ways, getting beyond the found documentary moment to constructions, performances, and new ways of seeing. Kasten builds intricate sculptures made to be photographed, where color combines with geometric lines and forms to create complex abstractions. Groover makes elegant still lifes of fragmented kitchen utensils, carefully arranging forks, egg slicers and pie tins into controlled, formal compositions. Krims experiments with colorful staged sexuality, adorned with goldfish, pickles and balloons. Pfahl disrupts landscapes with tin foil, colored string, and oranges, playing with our sense of visual perception. Divola combines staged destruction with natural perfection, juxtaposing a destroyed beach house interior (complete with broken windows and spray painted decorations) and the the lilting colors of pink sunsets. And Sonneman plays with the idea of cinematic vision, making diptychs of action taken seconds apart, using color to highlight the changes from moment to moment. In all these cases, color is a subtext to a larger set of ideas, a tool for enhancing the conceptual pay-off. (Barbara Kasten, Construct II-B, 1979, at right.)
- I think Eggleston and Misrach are the most radical in their use of color, and this may explain both the initial negative reaction to Eggleston's work and its ultimate rise to stardom. Misrach tries something entirely unexpected - he creates blasting, glare-filled pictures of lush green Hawaiian jungles. The images take the normal landscape and turn it on its head, entirely via a change in the approach to color. Eggleston goes one step further - he takes ordinary fragments of life and pares them down to studies of color. While we've seen many of the images on display here before, the context of the other color photographers exposes just how extreme and unconventional Eggleston was. The stove interior, the red ceiling, the peaches sign are experiments in making the known unknown, in seeing the colors of the world as something wholly divorced from subject matter, even when there is an undercurrent of narrative. This was what upset people the most, and what liberated so many later on.
In the end, the reason to get in your car and make a special drive down to Princeton is that this show doesn't offer any easy answers or a pat summary for cocktail parties. The story of 1970s American color is a mixed bag of experimentation, with artists and photographers going in all kinds of different directions, looking for new doors to open based on their own ideas of what was important in photography. So it isn't just Eggleston, although the show certainly helps clarify why he was ultimately so influential. And it wasn't a "school" so much as a group of artists loosely linked by a confluence of ideas, some inextricably tied to existing approaches to photography and others off on new tangents. The show reminds us that the common thread in this confused insider narrative is the richness of seeing the world in vibrant, chaotic, living color, and in adapting our collective art making to capture the broad diversity of that magnificence.
Collector's POV: Given the popularity of many of the photographers included in this show, collectors can easily find representative samples of their work in the secondary markets. In the event a more specific search is required, I've listed the gallery representatives and artist sites below (Richard Misrach, Hawaii V, 1978, at right):
- Harry Callahan: Pace/MacGill Gallery (here), Stephen Daiter Gallery (here), Fraenkel Gallery (here)
- William Christenberry: Pace/MacGill Gallery (here)
- John Divola: Gallery Luisotti (here), artist site (here)
- William Eggleston: Cheim & Read (here), artist site (here)
- Mitch Epstein: Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (here), artist site (here)
- Jan Groover: Janet Borden Inc. (here)
- Robert Heinecken: Pace/MacGill Gallery (here)
- Barbara Kasten: Yancey Richardson Gallery (here), Stephen Daiter Gallery (here), artist site (here)
- Les Krims: artist site (here)
- Helen Levitt: Laurence Miller Gallery (here)
- Joel Meyerowitz: Edwynn Houk Gallery (here)
- Richard Misrach: Pace/MacGill Gallery (here), Fraenkel Gallery (here)
- John Pfahl: Janet Borden Inc. (here), artist site (here)
- Leo Rubinfien: Robert Mann Gallery (here)
- Stephen Shore: 303 Gallery (here)
- Neal Slavin: artist site (here)
- Eve Sonneman: Nohra Haime Gallery (here), artist site (here)
- Joel Sternfeld: Luhring Augustine (here)
- Reviews: Wall Street Journal (here), NY Times (here), Daily Beast (here), CityBeat Cincinnati (here)
Through September 26th
Princeton University Art Museum
Princeton, NJ 08544
Monday, August 16, 2010
- a group of "Magnum Classics" displayed over a series of walls near the stairs; all the prints are framed in silver and matted
- a section of African images by George Rodger, including 7 prints, 3 type-written story texts, and 3 glass cases holding binders of contact sheets, notes, and magazine spreads
- a group of print maps, each series showing a "before" print, prints with markings, and an "after" print, pinned directly to the wall under glass
- a set of images framed so that both sides of the print are visible, to enable the viewer to see the many stamps and markings on the back
- a series of 10 video screens along one wall, showing photographic stills in rotation
- a projection showing a montage of images, alternating with profiles on specific photographers
- an assortment of Magnum books/monographs on the reading desks
Eve Arnold (1)
Rene Burri (1)
Bruce Davidson (1)
Elliott Erwitt (2)
Stuart Franklin (1)
Philippe Halsman (2)
Josef Koudelka (1)
Steve McCurry (1)
Inge Morath (1)
Marc Riboud (2)
Burt Glinn (4)
Susan Meiselas (3)
Inge Morath (3)
David Seymour (4)
Dennis Stock (3)
Double Sided Images (framed to see both front and back)
Eve Arnold (2)
Burt Glinn (1)
Hiroshi Kubota (1)
Guy Le Querrec (1)
Constantine Manos (1)
Comments/Context: Earlier this year, Michael Dell's MSD Capital purchased a massive archive of press prints from Magnum Photos (those prints used up through 2003) and announced that the collection would ultimately be housed at the Harry Ransom Center at U Texas Austin. The FLAG Art Foundation (founded several years ago in Chelsea by collector Glenn Fuhrman, one of the managing partners of MSD Capital) is now showing a small sampler of these prints, giving us a taste for the many educational and art historical opportunities that lie within the archive.
While there are plenty of well-known, "classic" Magnum images on display, the real interest in this show lies beyond the obvious greatest hits. One large wall contains sets of images printed by Pablo Inirio, Magnum's in-house printer. They show his working process, from the initial prints from the negative, to detailed maps of dodging and burning regions and elapsed time periods, to the final images; it's a fascinating study of the intricacies of great old-school analog printing, as applied to James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and Susan Meiselas' carnival strippers.
A bank of video screens and a changing overhead projection offer a stark contrast to the details of the physical prints; the images swim by endlessly, creating a sense of visual overload, where it becomes nearly impossible to single out just one image for patient looking. Digital display technologies are clearly offering new ways to see photographs, and these media pose complicated questions about how a physical archive like Magnum's should be managed most successfully in a 21st century world.
Overall, this show has a solid mix of old favorites and arcane details and will appeal most to those who want to dig a bit deeper into the minutiae of Magnum's long success.
Collector's POV: While this is not a selling show, most of the images in the Magnum Classics section of the exhibit, along with a few other images from other sections, are available from time to time in the secondary markets, and many of the best known Magnum photographers have gallery representation outside the photo agency, so interested collectors have plenty of options for following up. UPDATE: the folks in Magnum's print sales department have reminded me that prints of most of the images on view in the exhibit are available directly from Magnum, and that there are Magnum fine art advisors available to work with collectors in New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)
- Magnum Photos website (here)
Through September 10th
FLAG Art Foundation
New York, NY 10001
Friday, August 13, 2010
Comments/Context: German photographer Matthias Hoch takes a meticulous and disciplined approach to building facades and patterned interior details, finding sculptural qualities in the rhythms of structural functionality.
Rows of windows, layers of ceiling lights, angles of empty concrete fountains, and repetitions of balconies become exercises in shape and form, where ordered design and simple symmetry are transformed into abstractions of motif and systems of mathematics. His locations are everywhere and nowhere (parking garages, apartment buildings, roadways), anonymous mundane places found in any modern city, stripped of human inhabitants and filled with futuristic absence. His pictures are austere and logical, cool and controlled, taken in neutral light with an emphasis on clarity.
Thematically and stylistically, I think this work could easily be tied to that of Ola Kolehmainen or Julian Faulhaber. If you like your architectural photography to be formally precise and rigorously geometric, then Matthias Hoch will be a photographer worth discovering.
Collector’s POV: Matthias Hoch is represented by Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco (here). Hoch's work has begun to become available in the secondary markets in recent years. Prices have ranged between $4000 and $7000, with most works printed in editions of 5.
- Exhibition: Ludwig Forum, 2006 (here, in German)
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
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)
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Comments/Context: If you take a step back and look at Joel Sternfeld's photography over the past decade or so, human sustainability, in the form of how we live our lives, comes back again and again as an undercurrent of exploration. He has documented utopian communities, delegates at climate change conferences, and the subtle nuances of his local Massachusetts landscape (review here). His newest collection of work, found in the book iDubai, takes these ideas even further, via the ubiquity of his mobile phone camera. It is a sustained indictment of consumption as a way of life, a penetrating critique of the excesses and rootless materialism of modern living.
Virtually all the images in this book were taken inside one of Dubai's many over the top shopping malls, where marble floors and glass elevators connect an endless stream of affluent shops, food courts, and indoor entertainments. Basking in the glow of gaudy fluorescent lights, his subjects wander around in a trance, alternating between boredom and apathy, slumping listlessly in pre-arranged seating areas or emotionlessly pushing strollers and shopping carts from one artificial diversion to the next. His pictures document the apex (or ultimate limits) of globalization, where men in robes and headscarves can go bowling, shop at IKEA, get a sandwich from Subway, and take their kids to the Elmo show. After we get past the initial surprise of seeing Middle Eastern families juxtaposed with Western commerce, the pictures take us back to a relentless sameness, the stale, ordinary, mindless repetition of teen fashions, luxury jewelry, and high-end coffee that has blanketed the world.
When the first handheld cameras were introduced many decades ago, many ridiculed them as toys, but some artists found freedom in the movement they allowed and discovered new and exciting pictures that were enabled by the small form factor. We are now in the midst of a new revolution, where the mobile phone camera has empowered an entirely new generation of people to make pictures, and once again, the establishment has scoffed at what a "citizen journalist" might accomplish with such a dumbed down tool. Armed with his iPhone, Sternfeld has made his photographs with the ultimate consumer device, making himself part of the culture of aspirational consumption he is trying to document. He has clearly captured the feeling of his subject, leveling his criticism with sharp effectiveness. The question remains, however: are these great photographs?
In general, it would be hard not to characterize these images as snapshots, and given the sheer number of pictures included in the book, it seems the camera phone encourages a prolific approach to image making. More than any one particular image, iDubai is about the piling up of imagery into a larger whole, of catching hundreds of snippets of the story and weaving them together, of everything adding up to rich portrait of mall life. When Walker Evans made pictures with a Polaroid SX-70, even though the technology was wholly different than what he had used previously, the pictures he made still bore the hallmark of his eye. When Sternfeld uses an iPhone, the formal clarity that I associate with his view camera pictures is gone, replaced by a more fleeting attempt to resolve his compositions; his originality as a photographer seems to have been diluted by these "always on" tools - I can't discern a signature Sternfeld look, even though the narrative as a whole coalesces strongly.
Overall, I think this is the kind of project that is most successful in book form, or when displayed as a dense, atmospheric installation of many images, where the whole is far more interesting and memorable than any one picture on its own. What I take away is Sternfeld's view of how depressing, homogenized mall culture has permeated every corner of the globe, and how it creates a collective unreality where we lose sight of our connections to our communities. While this book is shiny and luxurious on the outside, it delivers a scathing censure of the global culture we are so actively building.
Collector’s POV: Joel Sternfeld is represented by Luhring Augustine in New York (here). At this point, Sternfeld's work is readily available in the secondary markets, especially his most famous images (which have been printed in editions of 50 or even 100). In recent years, prices have ranged between $2000 and $100000, with a sweet spot for the greatest hits between $10000 and $30000.