Friday, January 29, 2010

Ulrich Gebert, This Much Is Certain @Winkleman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 works, both color and black and white, hung in the reception and main gallery spaces. 3 of the works are from the Typus series and consist of groups of c-prints (either 5, 6, or 7 individual prints) framed in brown and not matted, and hung in tight groups that each measure 67x59. Each group of prints is also accompanied by a printed list of scientific names. These works are made in editions of 3+1, and were taken in 2005. 3 additional works come from the Life among beasts series and consist of gelatin silver prints mounted to aluminum (2, 3, or 4 prints) hung together without frames. The works vary in size from 36x40 to 58x65, are made in editions of 3+1, and were taken in 2009. The final 3 images are all single gelatin silver prints mounted to aluminum and not framed, ranging in size from 13x12 to 24x17. These prints are made in editions of 5+1, and were taken in 2009. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: When the title "conceptual photographer" is overtly bestowed upon someone, as a collector, I read this as secret code for "in this case, the actual pictures don't matter at all; it is the ideas that underlie them that I should be concerned with". While one might conclude that all conceptual photography will therefore be cerebral, intellectual, and oftentimes indecipherable, in my experience, conceptual photography can also be quite witty and subversive, assuming you get the inside jokes. But when the word "German" is added in front of the term "conceptual photographer", it's hard not to think of the serious deadpan objectivity of the Bechers.
It is with these biases that I visited this show by the German conceptual photographer Ulrich Gebert. Both of the bodies of work on display are generally concerned with idea of man's desire to control nature. In the Typus series, Gebert has gone to botanical gardens and made straightforward color images of a wide variety of coniferous trees and shrubs (the pictures themselves are reminiscent of a natural history field guide). The conceptual twist is that all of these species have disputed scientific names: over time, they all have been "discovered" or named by more than one person, with one Latin name eventually becoming the dominant or "right" name. A printed sheet that accompanies the images (the "List of Invalid Names") details the "before" and "after" names of these plants. While the press release text ties these images to racism and the "totalitarian categorizations of humans", I have to admit I didn't really see that connection. What I saw was the obsessive human instinct toward control and order, the self-centered taxonimization of the environment around us, in the face of the mute indifference of the natural world (which really doesn't care what we call things).

The Life among beasts series is altogether more unsettling. In these images, Gebert has taken appropriated photos of humans interacting with domesticated animals (many of them dated veterinary shots I would guess), cropped them down to fragments, and blown them up to a size that exposes the halftone printing dots. Animals of various kinds (horses, pigs, even a possum) are poked, prodded, groped, fondled and handled in a weirdly disturbing way. Hung in combinations and groups, the concept of man doing what he wants with the natural world comes through powerfully, and is more than a little ridiculous and creepy.

All in, the show delivers what was promised: a thought-provoking and sometimes quirky use of photography to explore deeper ideas and hidden truths.

Collector's POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The Typus groups are 6500€ each, regardless of the number of prints included. The Life among beasts groups are 3200€, 4800€, and 5500€, based on overall size. The smaller single image prints are 400€, 500€, and 850€ . Gebert's work does not seem to have found its way to the secondary markets yet, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Review: Village Voice (here)
  • Article: Foam (here)
Through February 13th

621 West 27th Street
New York, NY 10001

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reinterpreting Alec Soth's Cadillac Motel

I've come to think that one of the most fascinating things about photography (and art more generally) is how each viewer brings his or her own history and perspective to the process of seeing a work. Regardless of what the artist may have originally intended, we each see through our own specific set of eyes, and given our own history, biases, and memories of works we have seen before, we often walk away with completely different reactions from those who stood right next to us. If we are not provided with some kind of overt back story up front, we unknowingly (and routinely) invent one of our own.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when we purchased a copy of Alec Soth's NIAGARA, a book that certainly should have been in our library years earlier, but somehow didn't actually find its way to our shelves until just recently. In this book, there is an image of the doorway to a motel room (I believe the actual title of the work is No. 48, Cadillac Motel, 2005). I've reproduced the picture below (via the Christie's website).

Prior to seeing this image in the context of the book (which I'll talk about in a second), I had only seen it separated out as a single picture; most recently I saw it both in the catalogue and in person at the preview for the Berman sale at Christie's last October. It's actually printed bigger than you might imagine (40x32), giving it some heft on the wall.

Given our particular interest in city/industrial images, and more generally in the photography of built structures, this work caught my eye immediately, even though I remember thinking at the time that it wasn't exactly representative of what I thought Alec Soth's work was all about. In any case, what I saw then (from my vantage point) was a combination of Lewis Baltz and William Eggleston: pure deadpan geometries (the rectangles of the door and window frames, the repetition of the brickwork, the parallel lines of the roof, the vertical lines of the drapes), accented by a keen eye for color (the call and response of the maroon and yellow across the composition; and the thin line of the fluorescent yellow light tube on the ceiling actually makes the whole picture for me). Given all of this analysis, it seems like a dead ringer for the kind of work we normally like.

Now fast forward to a recent evening in our living room, when I actually spent the time to look over NIAGARA closely, reading the essays, looking at the images, and thinking about the sequencing and overall feel of the book. For those of you who are not intimately familiar with this book, the project tells the story of Niagara Falls, via a carefully sequenced set of architectural shots of tourist motels, images of the misty falls themselves, portraits and nudes of couples/lovers, reproduced hand written love letters, and various still life fragments. Without going through a full analysis of this terrific book, let it suffice to say that it is a melancholy narrative about the search for love (embodied by the mythical honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls) and its ultimate elusiveness.

So let's go back to the Cadillac Motel above. Given this back story, the image of the front of room 17 is, I think, entirely different. I am now completely haunted by the trail of lonely footsteps in the snow leading to the door, now drifted over and forgotten, footsteps that I had hardly even noticed (or generally disregarded) before. While the architectural geometries and patterns are still there of course, the whole image is now infused with a heavy pathos, a gloomy mood that I can't shake. The image has been transformed by the context.

The point of this little mind bending exercise is not to prove that I now "know the answer" and can see the image "correctly". My takeaway is that our brains are programmed to pattern match, to seek comparisons and relationships to things we already know; as such, absent some outside direction, we often see what we want to see or what we already know. Collectors are constantly being exposed to work that is taken out of its original context (at least as intended by the maker); our reaction is to look closely for connections to work we do understand and remember, and to ask about historical precedents, influences, or images that are "like" the work at hand.

I haven't come across a work that has such a strong duality in quite a while, but the truth is, it happens all the time, given the imperfect knowledge of all kinds of viewers. Even when we have all of the important ("right") information that would directly lead us to the conclusion intended by the artist, we're still all connecting to work in unimaginable ways, finding links to ourselves that lie far beyond the most obvious reading of the work. So the next time you ask a fellow gallery-goer or collector the simple question of "what do you see in this work?", the answer may be altogether more complex and unexpected than you might have anticipated.

Speed & Chaos: Into the Future of Asian Art @Wolkowitz

JTF (just the facts): A group show of a total of 18 works from 7 different artists, in a variety of mediums, hung in the entry, hallway, and back gallery spaces. (Installation shots at right.)

The following artists are included in the show, with details of the works on display to follow:
  • Hu Jieming: 1 c-print, 50x84, in an edition of 5, from 2007/2009
  • Hsin-Chien Huang: 3 lightboxes filled with printed acetates, in editions of 5, from 2007, and 1 interactive computer simulation, in an edition of 5, from 2009
  • Miao Xiaochun: 1 3D computer animation, in an edition of 5, from 2007
  • Noh, Sang-Kyoon: 1 large sculpture, from 2008, and 6 sequin covered records with original jackets in glass cases, from 2009
  • Junebum Park: 2 color videos (silent), in editions of 5, from 2008
  • Wang Qingsong: 1 DVD, in an edition of 8, from 2008
  • Xu Changchang: 2 c-prints mounted to aluminum; 1 is 59x44 in an edition of 10, the other is 96x40 in an edition of 5; both are from 2008
Comments/Context: As a general rule, I think that non-Japanese Asian photography (particularly work from China, Taiwan, Korea and India) is consistently underrepresented in the swirl of art in New York, so I'm always on the look out for shows that include exciting examples of contemporary imagery from these locales. This group show gathers works from a variety of media, with several video and computer generated displays and a few digital photographs. While the technologies may be cutting edge, the underlying ideas and themes being explored will be familiar: the impacts and effects of rapid expansion, globalization, and consumerism, and the clash of old and new ways (including the place of religion).

I have run across the photography of Xu Changchang previously, but the works in this show have a new twist. In earlier works, Xu took a physical photograph (often of an appropriated artwork), crumpled it up and rephotographed the result, complete with all the detailed wrinkles and tiny points of glare from the flash. The works on display in this exhibit start with the same type of image (in this case, pictures of an island sunset and the aftermath of a tsunami), but they are now punctured by bullet holes and rephotographed; the holes are therefore not actual holes but a photograph of a photograph full of holes. I found this layering of appropriation and the multiple levels of physicality in the works conceptually intriguing.

Hu Jieming's moonscape image, complete with a tiny latticework of futuristic settlements, is like something from the cover of a science fiction novel. From afar, it looks like 1960s era NASA footage; up close, the geometric roadways and buildings blanket the crater pocked rock; the effect is unsettling, with a heavy dose of impending doom. As such, it does a successful job of asking questions about the perils of never-ending expansion, without grounding them in the now obvious specifics of contemporary China.

Two artists perhaps best known to collectors for their photography have contributed videos to this exhibit:
  • Wang Qingsong's photographs have often considered the effects of consumerism on traditional Chinese culture. In this video work, Wang has taken hundreds of still frames of the construction of a yet another skyscraper in suburban Beijing and tied them together, into a fast forward, flip book style view of the building growing into the sky. As the days pass, the scaffolding rises, becoming the tallest structure for miles around; the completion of the tower is celebrated by nighttime fireworks, a thoroughly hollow and ironic endpoint.

  • Miao Xiaochun's photographs have often been built from appropriations of famous paintings. In this video, Miao reimagines Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling (including the creation of Man) using clusters of computer generated mannequins floating in space, surrounded by bubbles or transformed into drifting bones.
And while it isn't exactly photography, take a moment to stand in front of Hsin-Chien Huang's interactive display: as you move your arms and body around, large buildings made up of tiny image fragments are quickly built up and taken down, the transience of the region's construction boom effectively skewered.

All in, the title of this show is surprisingly apt: things are changing fast in this slice of the art world, new technologies and ideas are rapidly being incorporated and exploited, and the overall effect is one of cacophony and chaos; I for one could use an updated photography roadmap for the region. While some of the underlying themes are consistent, it's clear that we need to see this art/photography in New York much more often if we ever hope to make sense of it all.

Collector's POV: The prices for the works in this show are as follows:
  • Hu Jieming: The photograph is $9000.
  • Hsin-Chien Huang: The 3 lightboxes are $15000 each; the interactive display is $18000.
  • Miao Xiaochun: The video is $20000.
  • Noh, Sang-Kyoon: The large blue Buddha sculpture is price on request. The sequined records are $5000 each.
  • Junebum Park: The two videos are $7750 and $12400.
  • Wang Qingsong: The video is $15000.
  • Xu Changchang: The 2 photographs are $8000 and $10000, based on size.
There is little or no auction history in the photography market for most of these artists, so discerning any kind of real price pattern is tricky. While several photographs by Wang Qingsong and Miao Xiaochun have come up for sale in recent years, their works on display here are both videos, and therefore may not be meaningfully representative of or related to their overall bodies of photographic work.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Miao Xiaochun interviews/press (here)
Speed & Chaos: Into the Future of Asian Art
Through February 17th

Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery
505 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10001

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Auctions: Contemporary Art Evening and Day Sales, February 12 and 13, 2010 @Phillips London

The early London season ends with Phillips De Pury and its Contemporary Art Evening and Day sales in February. Unlike Sotheby's and Christie's, who have both seen increases in photography consignment activity over the same sales last year, Phillips has seen a drop in both total photo lots for sale and in total estimated value on the block. There are 27 photography lots on offer across the two auctions, with a Total High Estimate of £1097000. The Cindy Sherman history portrait in the Evening sale is the standout photo lot. (Catalog covers at right, via Phillips.)

Here's the breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate up to and including £5000): 5
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): £12000

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between £5000 and £25000): 10
Total Mid Estimate: £100000

Total High Lots (high estimate above £25000): 12
Total High Estimate: £985000

The top lot by High estimate is lot 6, John Baldessari, Puzzle (Two Views), 1989, at £200000-300000.

Here is the very short list of photographers who are represented by more than one lot in the sale (with the number of lots in parentheses):

Bernd and Hilla Becher (2)
Thomas Struth (2)

The complete lot by lot catalogs can be found here (Evening) and here (Day).
February 12th
February 13th

Howick Place
London SW1P 1BB

Timothy Briner, Boonville @Cooney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 black and white images, framed in black and not matted, and hung in the single room gallery space and entry hall. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, taken in 2007 or 2008. The prints come in two sizes: 20x15 or reverse (in editions of 7) and 29x23 or reverse (in editions of 5). The show includes 12 pictures in the smaller size and 7 in the larger size. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: The solitary road trip is a romantic fixture of human cultural history, its roots in the itinerant wanderings of Odysseus and its recent manifestations transformed by the automobile and our vast network of highways into something uniquely American. Often this journey is a search: a search for adventure and challenge, or home, or self, or just something authentic and new to experience. Artistic documents of legendary road trips, like those of Kerouac and Frank, have become touchstones for how we see ourselves.

Timothy Briner's photographic project Boonville isn't a road trip of world hot spots; there are no scenes of Shanghai, or Baghdad, or Bangalore, or wherever you might think the "action" is going on or history is in the making. Instead, Briner traveled to six small towns across America, all called Boonville; his unusual itinerary took him to New York, North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Texas, and California. Most importantly, Briner did his best not to be an anonymous traveler just passing through, inspecting these towns with the critical eye of an outsider. On the contrary, he grounded himself in the communities for weeks or months at a time, becoming familiar with the locals in a non-threatening way and getting to know the rhythms of everyday life in each place. When the images from the far flung Boonvilles are brought together and juxtaposed, they form a unique portrait of the commonalities of small towns in contemporary America, as seen from the inside. Regardless of the specific zip code, the emotional terrain seems remarkably similar.

Like many emerging photographers of this generation, Briner's artistic approach seems descended from the school of Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and more recently Alec Soth, where environmental portraits, still lifes, architectural views, and documentary scenes are combined into more nuanced and personal narratives. These images also show fleeting glimpses of Walker Evans, Robert Adams, and George Tice, all of whom were/are interested in the routines of daily life in American towns and cities.

What I like about this body of work is that Briner has captured the slow pace and sense of restless ennui that pervades many shrinking small towns; there just isn't a lot to do. The high school wrestlers and cheerleaders are earnest but bored, hunting is a prime hobby, and abandoned houses/cars, dreary roadside bars, and lingering teenagers tell the story of squelched optimism. We've landed in present day Anytown, USA, and the reality isn't very promising; folks are gritting their teeth and scraping out a life, but on the whole, it's a pretty gloomy scene.

My favorite image in the show is of a front yard in Boonville, MO, where two deer skins are slung across the hood of a dated car, with a second vehicle with huge sport tires up on blocks in the background; it's a classic scene of rural America. While there are other memorable images in this small show, I think the work will be more powerful and effective in book form, where a larger number of pictures can be carefully sequenced to get at the subtleties of the overall small town story. All in, this is a solid show, and a good reminder that a road trip back into the real world can be just the thing for an emerging artist looking for his or her entry point into photography; it's a move away from self-conscious art for art's sake and a step back into the realm of the genuine.

Collector's POV: The images in this exhibit are reasonably priced at $1000 or $1500 each, depending on size. Since Briner's work has effectively no secondary market history, gallery retail is really the only option for interested collectors at this point.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Interviews: Too Much Chocolate (here), We Can't Paint (here), Exposure Compensation (here)
Timothy Briner, Boonville
Through February 27th

Daniel Cooney Fine Art
511 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Auctions: Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening and Day Sales, February 11 and 12, 2010 @Christie's King Street

Christie's is up second in the early London season, with its Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening and Day sales at King Street in February. On the whole, the photography on offer isn't particularly important or memorable, but consignors seem to be getting more comfortable. There are 22 photography lots on offer across the two sales (up from 10 lots last year), with a Total High Estimate of £1143000 (up more than 75% year over year). (Catalog covers at right, via Christie's.)

Here's the breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate up to and including £5000): 0
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): NA

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between £5000 and £25000): 12
Total Mid Estimate: £193000

Total High Lots (high estimate above £25000): 10
Total High Estimate: £950000

The top lot by High estimate is lot 50, John Baldessari, Former Site of Duck Pond Bar, 3003 National City Blvd, National City, Calif, 1996, at £300000-400000.

Here is the very short list of photographers who are represented by more than one lot in the sale (with the number of lots in parentheses):

Gregory Crewdson (3)
Louise Lawler (3)
There were three new names that surfaced for the first time, at least as far as I can remember:
Matthew Day Jackson
Sigalit Landau
Anri Sala

The complete lot by lot catalogs can be found here (Evening) and here (Day).
8 King Street, St. James's
London SW1Y 6QT

William Eggleston, 21st Century @Cheim & Read

JTF (just the facts): A total of 24 color images, framed in white and matted, and hung in two skylit gallery spaces divided by a wall partition. All of the works are pigment prints, printed in editions of 7, and sized 28x22 or reverse. The images were taken between 1999 and 2007. A similar exhibition is running concurrently at Victoria Miro in London (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: While the pairing of Diane Arbus and William Eggleston has some obvious rock star marketing appeal, I'd like to think that of all the works that could have been chosen to juxtapose with new pictures by Eggleston, the selection of Arbus' images without people (review here) is a thoughtful reminder of one of things that has been happening in Eggleston's work in recent years - the people have been disappearing.

I think there are several important trends to be discovered in Eggleston's work of the past decade, all on display in this fine exhibit:
  • Across the board, there is less story and/or narrative to be discerned; with one exception (a frontal head shot), there are virtually no portraits or interactive human scenes in this show. There are no back stories or tall tales to be imagined or puzzled out, and the environment is no longer completely rooted in the American South.
  • The compositions are becoming altogether more fragmented and painterly. While the images are still representational (with recognizable objects as subjects), the works oscillate back and forth between simple documentation of "things" and purer aesthetic relationships of form and color. These visual interconnections of space, texture and pigment occur in ways that are wholly unrelated to the content or context of the subject matter. I hesitate to take the easy way out and call the works "abstract", as I think that misses the intensity of the back and forth movement between simple recognition and more complex color theory.
  • The prints are now digital, and are getting bigger. This is exposing some minor flaws in the technical aspects of Eggleston's focus and printing; the icebox image is particularly grainy and digitally pixelated.
Walking around the exhibit, my brain followed a familiar pattern in front of each picture: an initial period of recognition (what exactly is this?), followed quickly by a more protracted look at the two dimensional space of the photograph, and how Eggleston had used the colors and shapes to create pattern and composition:
  • Soapy water on a car windshield becomes a cosmic brew of blue, green, and purple.
  • A red dumpster sits in the alley behind an orange building with a red door; the content dissolves and the image becomes a study in angles and hues.
  • A table with a chaotic jumble of kitchy dated lamps is further complicated by the arcs of orange and blue hula hoops stored underneath and a dark black shadow that carves its way across the upper left corner.
My two favorite pictures in the show were the image of a pink tiled bathroom in Cuba, with veiled light shining in through the pale orange and pink billows of a linen curtain, and the image of a silver spoon left on a rough hewn windowsill in Kentucky, flanked by yellow painted clapboard and shards of broken glass splattered on the deck below; the composition is a master class in slashing lines and diagonals.

While each image in this show can hold your interest intellectually, not every one is equally moving or memorable; there is a hit or miss quality to the work that left me repeatedly circling back to the those successful pictures that vibrated with more lyrical power. But even with a little unevenness, there are plenty of examples of Eggleston at his best on view here, taking seeming casual glances at the mundane and turning them into something spectacular.
Collector's POV: The works in this exhibit are being sold in price escalating editions of 7; the prints begin at $7500, move to $10000, and end at $12000 - several of the images I inquired about (including the pink curtain) were already sold out. Eggleston prints are now routinely available in the secondary markets, where recent prices have ranged from approximately $5000 all the way up to $250000 for his most iconic vintage dye transfers. The 2008 auction of the Berman collection of Eggleston images at Christie's is a good source for current market conditions for his work (preview post here, results post here).
Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)
Transit Hub:
  • Eggleston Trust (here)
  • Review: Guardian (here)
  • Democratic Camera @Whitney, 2008, DLK COLLECTION review (here)
  • Paris, 2009, DLK COLLECTION review (here)
Through February 13th
547 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

Monday, January 25, 2010

Book: Steven B. Smith, The Weather and a Place to Live

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2005 by Duke University Press (here) in conjunction with the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography (here). 122 pages, with 80 black and white images. Includes an introduction by Maria Morris Hambourg. (Cover shot at right, via Amazon.)

Comments/Context: One afternoon back in late December, I selected a handful of photo shows to see and headed off into the very brisk (some might say arctic) weather to gather some information for a group of reviews. One of the shows on my list that day was a selection of Steven Smith's photographs of the suburban West, which were on view at Sasha Wolf. After making my way down to TriBeCa, I came to the door of the gallery, only to find the lights out and a paper sign taped to the window: "Gallery Closed: No Heat!". While I was thwarted that day, and didn't get a chance to get back to the gallery before the show closed, I am happy to say that I prevailed in the end, by getting my hands on a copy of this excellent monograph.

Purely from the point of view of a collector, I think the cult of the New Topographics is a fascinating study in the slow but relentless growth of an artistic movement. While it is certainly getting harder and harder each year, it is still possible to gather a representative sample of images from this landmark phase of photography: a few images by Robert Adams from The New West or Denver, a selection of works by Lewis Baltz from NIP and Park City, plus grain elevators by Frank Gohlke, suburban backyards by Joe Deal, and maybe even some color work from Stephen Shore. What I find particularly interesting in all of this is that in a span of two decades (the 1970s and 1980s), these photographers (and a few others) actively grappled with the suburbanization in the western US, effectively wrestling many if not most of the thorny conceptual issues of the times to the ground, leaving the topic effectively "done" for the many artists that were to follow along later. While in recent years, we have seen Japanese, Chinese and European photographers take up some of these same issues and threads from their own national perspectives, the suburbanization (and commercialization) story is of course far from complete here in the United States (especially in a world of renewed interest in the environment and climate change), and yet, few American photographers have revisited and reconsidered these issues in an updated and contemporary way in the past decade or two, without seeming too derivative or stuck in the 1970s. Most of the original photographers moved on to other related or tangential subjects, and very few new artists have stepped into the void to successfully carry the flag onward.

It is the synthesis of the old and new, and most importantly, the bringing in of updated perspectives and vantage points from our current world that make Steven Smith's topographic works so compelling. While the setting of the subdivision, the prefabbed tract house, and the gated development community will certainly feel familiar, the underlying issues have clearly continued to evolve and change. With most of the prime real estate in the West long ago carpeted with houses, builders are now encroaching further onto marginal desert lands, especially those that need an abundance of alterations: bulldozing, flattening, grading, retaining, and terracing, with special attention being paid to the increasingly scarce resource of water, via elaborate culverts, spillways, runoffs, and drainage ditches. Smith's images of these wide open construction sites find eye catching patterns and geometries in the altered landscape, while also asking pointed questions about the real sustainability of such approaches and about the scale of the arrogance and hubris that makes us think we can so readily transform an indifferent land in our own image.

Smith then moves in for a closer look at the unfinished houses themselves, mostly captured in the midst of construction, with piles of raw boulders, plastic drainage tubing and sprinkler systems, driveway heating coils, and cement lawn edging still in the process of installation, with new sod freshly laid out in perfect rows near thick cinder block privacy walls. Plenty of new homes sit precariously under massive rock formations or at the bottom of obvious desert washes and hillsides, mudslide disasters waiting to happen. The scenes have a puzzling sense of absurdity and head scratching, laughable idiocy. The only trees that are found in the blinding sun of these developments are the spindly, newly planted kind (sure to die almost immediately without constant watering); otherwise, garden decoration is dominated by large desert rocks settled in curved beds of dusty gravel, oddly spotlit by nighttime lighting.

As I flipped through these images, I was astonished to find that we haven't gotten much smarter about how we build our suburban communities; in recent decades, the whole enterprise has apparently been super-sized and we've been extending into more and more challenging terrain to meet the ever increasing demands of a growing population. This body of work will I think be looked back on as an important bridge piece to recent projects that have chronicled the violent bursting of the American housing bubble; it effectively shows the mood of the run up and the boom times, before the bottom began to fall out. As such, Smith's images now have an unexpected sense of impending doom; since we already know the ending of the story, the pictures are surprisingly similar to the morbid fascination of watching a car crash in slow motion.

Collector’s POV: As I mentioned above, an exhibit of Smith's work was recently held at Sasha Wolf Gallery in New York (here); Smith also has prints with Gallery Luisotti in Santa Monica (here). All of the images in the book were shot on film and have been printed in digital inkjet on baryta based paper. Each image comes in three sizes (12x15, 20x24, and 30x40), with a total of 20 images in the entire edition, spread across the three sizes (9 small, 7 medium, and 4 large). Prices for the prints are $1200, $2000, and $4000 respectively.

For those collectors who have immersed themselves in the conceptual framework of the New Topographics or for those who simply have an affinity for the built structure as subject matter (like ourselves), Smith's work will be an excellent extension into the contemporary domain. The images are also a terrific example of how black and white can still be relevant, even in the color dominated digital age.

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Reviews: Robert Pinsky at Slate (here, scroll down), Eyecurious (here)

Diane Arbus, In the Absence of Others @Cheim & Read

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 black and white images, framed in white and matted, and hung against grey walls in a single room gallery space. Only 1 print in the show is a vintage gelatin silver print; the rest of the prints are posthumous gelatin silver prints made by Neil Selkirk. The negative dates range from 1961 to 1971. All of the images were printed 20x16 or reverse, most ending up square; the later prints were made in editions of 50, or more often 75. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: The legend of Diane Arbus has been told so many times and in such depth in recent years that it seems hard to believe that there might be anything more to uncover in her story. This small show doesn't try to compete with the major Arbus retrospectives that still linger in our memories, but takes a tightly edited, lesser known slice of her work (the kind of images one might blow by in a larger exhibit of her more famous works) and gives it some spotlight attention. While Arbus' intimate portrait work is easily her most recognizable, these images give quirky man-made spaces and offbeat interiors the same sensitive treatment that is her hallmark.
While Arbus often pointed her camera at some of the more marginal and eccentric members of human society, it is clear that she also found the oddities of our constructed environments (unoccupied by people of any kind) equally worth close investigation. Painted murals in hotel lobbies, deserted amusement parks and movie theaters, and empty living rooms are found to be unsettling and surprisingly abnormal, the peculiar details becoming more weird and absurd under more intense scrutiny.

This small show is proof that Arbus applied the same talent for getting underneath the surface of her portrait subjects to the overlooked strangeness of our own places, discovering the unexpected that is often left hidden in our peripheral vision. While this show won't move the needle on Arbus scholarship or change the trajectory of the overall Arbus narrative, it is at least a welcome reprieve from the now-hackneyed display of her best known works.
Collector's POV: The prints in this show are priced between $16000 and $65000. Given the popularity of Arbus for both photography and contemporary art collectors, her work swirls through he secondary markets with significant regularity. Prices range anywhere from perhaps $5000 on the low end to nearly $500000 on the high end. Both vintage and later prints are almost always available, with the posthumous prints gaining in popularity to such a degree that they too often reach into six figures. While none of these works is a particular fit for our collection, I enjoyed digging into the gloomy House of Horrors (an image I don't remember looking closely at before), silently empty of squealing visitors.
Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Revelations @SFMOMA, 2003 (here); @Met, 2005 (here)
  • NY Times reviews, 2005 (here) and (here)
Diane Arbus, In the Absence of Others
Through February 13th

Cheim & Read
547 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001

Friday, January 22, 2010

William Christenberry, House and Car and @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 artworks, including black and white and color photographs, sculpture, encaustic paintings, ink drawings, and found objects, variously framed and matted, and hung in the two room gallery space against light green and grey walls. 14 of the works on display are photographs of various sizes and formats. 9 of the photographs are color Brownie prints (a mix of Ektacolor, Evercolor, and Fujicolor), all approximately 4x5, in editions of 25, framed in white and matted. Negative dates for these images range from 1964 to 1999. 3 of the photographs are black and white Brownie Holiday prints (framed in black and matted), all vintage from 1962, again approximately 4x5. There is one larger color print (framed in white with no mat), 40x50, a digital pigment print mounted to Plexiglas, from 1981, in an edition of 9. Finally, there is one array of 20 4x5 digital pigment prints (each framed in white and matted), as a group in an edition of 9, from 1978-2005. Wall texts by Christenberry and Susanne Lange accompany the works. (There is no photography allowed in the gallery, so the installation shots at right are via the Pace/MacGill website.)

Comments/Context: In a recent review of Paolo Ventura's Winter Stories, we considered the idea of photography being the end point in a long line of preliminary steps in the artistic process, with drawing, painting, and sculpture as intermediate stages, eventually culminating in the photograph which documented the final product. In this show of William Christenberry's varied art, we see photography used in an entirely different and opposite manner, as a starting point and foundation for deeper, ongoing excursions into sculpture, painting, and drawing.

The customary show of "new work" seems an entirely inappropriate concept when applied to Christenberry's art. While there are a few brand new pieces on display here, they inextricably tie back to images made decades ago, riffing on motifs, memories and recreations, evolving them in new directions. On the surface, it looks like the same work we've seen for years; a little deeper, it's clear that we've gone down the rabbit hole of the vernacular South even further.

While much has been made of the influence of Walker Evans on Christenberry, and their shared love of vernacular architecture and found objects (signs, shopfront paintings etc.), this show brought me to the conclusion that while that may certainly have been the case in the earlier part of Christenberry's career, he has synthesized those fundamental ideas with some influences of Abstract Expressionism and found his way to an approach that has gone somewhere new. Fundamentally, these works seem to be digging further into the concept of time: how the effects of time are seen on buildings and natural landscapes, how people see and internalize those changes, and how they ultimately reconcile those changes with their memories and the importance in preserving a sense of place in our lives. The photographs provide the raw material, the actual documents of the details and of the ongoing decay and deterioration. But they are really only a jumping off point for everything else: the intricate models, the abstracted drawings, and the expressionistic paintings (even the found signs painted on slabs of kitchen countertop are pure de Kooning). Documentary truth has been transformed into evocation and symbolic representation.

So while the works in this show will seem entirely familiar to those who have followed Christenberry over the past decades, perhaps a better way to think of this exhibit is as a 2010 snapshot of the artist's ongoing flow of study and exploration of place, examples of his continuing efforts to come to grips with the simple idea of memory.

Collector's POV: The works in this show have the following prices:

  • the 40x50 print in the entry is $13500
  • the 20 image array is $27500
  • the house sculpture is already sold
  • the 3 vintage black and white images are $6000 each (one is from a private collection and not for sale)
  • the 3 encaustic paintings are together $25000
  • the 3 found signs are together $12000
  • the 3 ink drawings are $3000 each
  • the 9 4x5 color images are $3000 or $3500 each
Christenberry's photographs do not have a broad price history in the secondary markets, as only a few lots seem to come up for sale in any one year. In general, what has mostly sold are his smaller color prints, generally in a range of $1000 to $6000 each; the larger arrays that have been sold can be thought of as using this same individual print price range, only multiplied out by the number of prints in the particular group.

Christenberry's images of vernacular architecture would fit best into our city/industrial genre, particularly his pared down, straightforward views of the green warehouse or the red building in the forest.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Features: Guardian (here), NY Times (here)
  • Artist talk/Review: Lens Culture (here)
  • Site/Possession @Asheville Art Museum, 2008 (here)
William Christenberry, House and Car and
Through February 6th

Pace/MacGill Gallery
32 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Auctions: Contemporary Art Evening and Day Sales, February 10 and 11, 2010 @Sotheby's London

Sotheby's opens the 2010 Contemporary Art auction season with a pair of sales in London in early February. A renewed sense of optimism must be in the air, as photography consignors have brought nearly 40% more high estimate dollars to the table this season over the sales a year ago. There are a total of 33 photography lots on offer across the two sales, with a Total High Estimate of £2680000, driven significantly by a single Gursky depicting Madonna in concert (the only photograph in the Evening session); otherwise, the material is predominantly a gathering of the usual contemporary photography suspects. (Catalog covers at right, via Sotheby's.)

Here's the breakdown:

Total Low Lots (high estimate up to and including £5000): 1
Total Low Estimate (sum of high estimates of Low lots): £3000

Total Mid Lots (high estimate between £5000 and £25000): 17
Total Mid Estimate: £247000

Total High Lots (high estimate above £25000): 15
Total High Estimate: £2430000

The top lot by High estimate is lot 72, Andreas Gursky, Madonna I, 2001, at £900000-1300000. Since there were no lots that topped $1 million dollars in 2009, if this lot sells, it will easily be the most expensive photograph to sell at auction in over a year.
Here is a short list of the photographers who are represented by more than one lot in the sale (with the number of lots in parentheses):

Hiroshi Sugimoto (5)
Douglas Gordon (3)
Florian Maier-Aichen (3)
John Baldessari (2)
Candida Höfer (2)
Sarah Lucas (2)
Richard Prince (2)
Thomas Struth (2)

The complete lot by lot catalogs can be found here (Evening) and here (Day).

February 10th

February 11th

34-35 New Bond Street
London W1A 2AA

Tina Modotti: Under the Mexican Sky @Throckmorton

JTF (just the facts): A total of 45 black and white images, framed in black with white mats, and hung in the main gallery space (divided by a several interior partitions) and the elevator lobby. All of the works were taken between 1923 and 1930, and most of the prints on display are vintage gelatin silver or platinum prints. A selection of posthumous platinum prints by Manuel Alvarez Bravo (late 1970s) and Ava Vargas (1990s, a portfolio of 15 images, printed in editions 20) are also on view. All of the prints range in size from 4x3 to 13x10 or reverse. There is also one image by Edward Weston included in the exhibit (a portrait of Tina from 1924). (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: In the history of photography, Tina Modotti is one of the standout personalities, whose romantic and exciting life story often overshadows her work as photographer. She was a well known communist activist, entrenched in the revolutionary politics of Mexico and mixing with the larger than life figures of the day (Diego Rivera et al), while also being the muse/lover of Edward Weston during his years there.

This excellent show is as close as to a museum retrospective of her photography as one is likely to encounter in a gallery setting. It brings together iconic still lifes (complete with sickle, bandoliers, corn cobs, guitars and the like), images of painted murals, head shot portraits and close-ups of hands, florals, cultural and religious artifacts, and a wide variety of heroic views of the everyday lives of Mexican workers and peasants. Taken together, the show gives a comprehensive view of her aesthetic approach, highlighting her combination of a Modernist sensibility and a deep and genuine interest in and respect for the cultural heritage and people of Mexico.

While many of the images/genres on display will be familiar to most collectors, it was the strength of some of Modotti's lesser known portraits in this exhibit that was most surprising to me. Their pared down simplicity gives the works a combination of power and warmth that now seems emblematic of the struggles of the period. Certainly her still life compositions of communist symbols or workers/mothers in the streets are her most recognizable images, but I came away from this show with a renewed respect for her ability to capture the bold confidence and unwavering commitment that seemed to flow from the people around her.

According to the gallery, it took nearly 20 years of sustained effort to gather all of these images together. Don't miss your chance to see them all in one place, before they are scattered to the winds once more.

Collector's POV: The prints in this exhibit range in price from $4500 to $75000, with 5 additional works price on request; several of the images were already marked SOLD. Given the relatively small amount of her work that is not already held in museums, Modotti's prints come up for auction fairly consistently, with a handful of works coming to market seemingly every year. Recent prices have ranged between $5000 and $215000, with forgettable images of mural details on the low end and rare vintage prints of her best known images at the top. For our collection, one of Modotti's floral still lifes would be the best match; vintage prints of these images fetch well into six figures, so our only real option would be to go after one of the later platinum prints.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Mexico as Muse @SFMOMA, 2006 (here)
  • Tina Modotti: Between Art and Revolution (here)

Tina Modotti: Under the Mexican Sky
Through March 6th

Throckmorton Fine Art
145 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Barbara Crane: Repeats @Higher Pictures

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 black and white images, framed in white and matted, and hung in the small single room gallery space. All of the works in the show are vintage gelatin silver prints, in editions of 3 to 5, taken between 1969 and 1975. The images are generally elongated horizontal rectangles, ranging in size from 1 to 9 inches in height and 10 to 22 inches in length. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: At first glance, Barbara Crane's Repeats look like regular film strips or contact sheets, multiple similar images one after another. But upon closer inspection, something altogether different and more complicated is revealed, taking the resulting works much deeper into the realm of abstraction. In each image, small pictures have been meticulously selected and laid out, often in exact copies or subtle variants/series, and printed in strips that are arranged in several layers (on top of each other, upside down, mirrored etc.).
The effect is that the shapes and forms found in each small image are transformed into intimate patterns and delicate repetitions. Tar spills on a roadway become paper dolls with linked hands, swooping highway flyovers become a swirling psychedelic optical wiggle, and straight tree trunks in the snow become a zipper. Metal rowboats, laundry on a clothesline, shadows of leaves and branches, and even a traditional mountain vista are all painstakingly transformed into contrasty fugues of theme and variation.

We can go all the way back to Muybridge's 19th century locomotion studies or Grand Tour multiple image panoramas of famous ports and cities to give these works some historical context; the idea of using multiple frames to construct a larger narrative goes back to the beginnings of the medium. Crane's studies at the ID in Chicago under Callahan, Siskind, and others were also clearly influential in the development of the ideas that underlie these particular works; there is marked resemblance/debt to both Siskind's abstractions and Callahan's multiple exposure images, although taken in a new direction by Crane and refined into a different mode of seeing.
What I like best is that the prints work at two different distances: from afar, they are entirely abstract exercises; up close, they resolve into specific content that is only discovered after investing effort in really looking. (This is show that works extremely well in a small space, as each work requires one-on-one, eyes to the frame inspection.) While Crane's images were made in the analog 1970s, I think the foundation concepts that form the framework for her approach here have significant relevance to the digital age, where multiple images can now be stitched together with much more ease. All in, this show is worth a visit, for both the luscious craftsmanship and conceptual ideas embedded in the artworks on display, and also as a directional signpost for areas of potential exploration in the contemporary digital world.
Collector's POV: Each of the vintage prints in the show is priced at $4000. Crane's work has not been widely available in the secondary markets in recent years; very few of her prints have come up for sale, and therefore, there is little credible price history for collectors to reference. Barbara Crane is also represented by Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago (here).

While these works aren't a direct fit for our particular collection, I certainly enjoyed Dan Ryan Expressway, Chicago, 1975, and can imagine a thought provoking pairing with a few of Catherine Opie's California freeways.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Artist site (here)
  • Review: John Haber (here)
  • Amon Carter Museum retrospective, 2009 (here)
Through January 30th
764 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10065

Photography Collecting and Twitter

I've been pondering for quite a while now the relative strengths of the blog and Twitter formats. Given that our posts try to be rich in content and analysis regardless of their underlying topic, Twitter didn't initially seem to offer much that would be relevant to our efforts to engage in useful discussions about photography collecting; there just isn't enough room in 140 characters to dive into much depth or critical thinking.

But as the posts have piled up and this site has evolved, I've come around to thinking that Twitter can play an important role in broadening the reach of fine art photography. One of the dangers of a site like ours is that it gets too insular, that we end up talking mostly to ourselves and failing to get outside the bubble of insider thinking (and linking). One of the ongoing goals of our efforts here (one might call it a mission) is to grow the number of photography collectors actually out there and buying work; we want to encourage readers to become collectors. To do this, we need to reach more people who aren't already thinking of themselves as collectors, but have an intense or growing interest in photography; maybe they are contemporary art collectors who haven't yet bridged to photography, or maybe they are folks who have always wanted to buy a photograph, but haven't yet felt comfortable enough. While Google search and user to user recommendations have been excellent methods for introducing people to our blog, I think that Twitter might also be a viable alternative for giving a wider audience a glimpse of what goes on here.

Not all of our content can be boiled down to a pithy, one sentence remark, but after considering it carefully, a surprising amount of what we write can be delivered in a useful, condensed form. Museums and gallery reviews are where we have decided to begin, since they seem to be the most popular with the largest number of readers. Starting last week, we began to post a Twitter version of our reviews after the main blog post was published. The Twitter version has the artist's name and venue, the number of stars the show received (1, 2, or 3), a short description, comment, or summary, and a link to the main blog post for those who want more. That's it. (Given our use of the @ symbol as part of the titling convention for our blog posts, the first few tweets have some inadvertent random links; we're smarter now and have eliminated the @ in the titles.) These tweets are not auto generated somehow, but hand crafted by us to try and retain the feel of our voice. Hopefully, they capture the essence of the exhibit, while enticing readers to come over for a closer examination. Perhaps some galleries and museums may also find these tweets of use in communicating with their existing clients.

When auction season kicks back into full gear, summary auction results and top lots will also fit well into the Twitter format. For the moment, we've decided against summarizing our book reviews and longer magazine style opinion pieces and essays, as we just don't think they translate particularly well. That said, there may be other topics that we haven't found a good way to cover on the blog (note taking at openings or lectures, fair booths, etc.) that might work even better as tweets, so we may do some experimenting. We will not, however, ever force you to endure the minuscule details and random thoughts of our daily lives. We will only ever tweet about topics relevant to photography, art and collectors.

You can find our Twitter feed at Please follow us and share our tweets liberally, especially with those who might not already be active collectors.

By the way, we are currently following zero other Twitter feeds, entirely due to ignorance of where the quality really lies in the cacophony of voices. Please help us to find a small but carefully edited list of relevant feeds that are focused on photography, contemporary art and collecting, by adding your recommendations in the comments.