“A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial”

EVRON_A_Free_Moment

Nir Evron, still from A Free Moment, 2011.

The first three ICP triennials were given titles that imparted their organizing themes: “Strangers,” in 2003, considered street photography and images of people unknown to us; “Ecotopia,” in 2007, was about environmental change; and “Dress Codes,” in 2010, examined fashion’s role in our lives. The title of this triennial, “A Different Kind of Order,” which includes 28 international artists (only eight of whom are women), brings to the fore the wholesale shifts that have upended photography during the ten-year span since the 2003 exhibition. What had been subtext is now the central focus, and there are nearly as many moving-image works as still photographs. The primary medium of several artists is not even lens-based.

No single theme emerges, despite the curators’ insistence that the apparent chaos of our moment is the titular “new kind of order.” What patterns the four curators discern feel kaleidoscopic, liable to sudden shifts, rather than stable and self-evident. Keywords defined in the catalogue’s introduction—“Analog,” “Collage,” “Community,” “Self-Publishing”—are hashtags as much as principles, and suitable for our transitional moment.

Viewers could trace their own through lines; I was repeatedly struck by the sense of accumulation translated by the artworks, and by the ways lenses are being used to capture and represent bodies under duress. The acquisitive impulse was manifested simply, as in Roy Arden’s rather dull Quicktime slideshow of thousands of images he has gathered from the Internet, and in the selection of photographs from Michael Schmelling’s project The Plan (2009), which documents the efforts of Disaster Masters, a New York company that counsels hoarders. The emphasis on bodies in particular places at particular times is expressed with haunting clarity in London-based South African photographer Gideon Mendel’s photographs and video from his project Drowning World (2007–). What would have been full-length frontal portraits of flood victims in such places as Nigeria and Thailand are, sadly, converted into three-quarter or half-length portraits by the brackish waters that have risen up to their subjects’ knees, waist, or chest. The seven-minute video of people trying to go about their daily lives in these conditions is particularly poignant.

Jim Goldberg, Proof, 2011 (detail).

Jim Goldberg, Proof, 2011 (detail).

These two themes converge in some of the strongest contributions to the exhibition: Jim Goldberg’s Proof (2011), an affecting wall-length installation of contact prints depicting undocumented immigrants, and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Touching Reality (2012), a wall-size projected video of a woman’s hand swiping an iPad to scroll through images of bodies torn asunder by violence. The intimacy of the hand’s gesture is contradicted by the distancing effect of the screen (and that of the projection). It offers unvarnished proof of just how vulnerable our bodies are, while also reminding viewers that privilege—and our mass media—largely spare us the evidence of bodily harm.

If the exhibition felt like a grab bag, it nonetheless was stuffed with engaging works. Every inclusion that seemed weak or out of place—Huma Bhabha, Mishka Henner, Sohei Nishino, Elliott Hundley—was offset by revelations. The Israeli artist Nir Evron’s film A Free Moment (2011), presented here as a wall-size high-definition video projection, is at once rigorously structured and disorientingly unstable. Evron installed a dolly track inside the unfinished summer palace in Jerusalem begun in the 1960s by King Hussein of Jordan. The film begins with a commanding view over the city; the camera then pulls back along the track into the concrete shell of the building and begins rotating and panning in a 360-degree circle. Ground and sky are confused; detailed views of the concrete ceiling look like the surface of the moon; the film’s apparatus—the track, the camera—at times edge into the frame. Reminiscent of work by the Canadian artist Mark Lewis, A Free Moment is compulsively watchable. In its balance between order and disorder, Evron’s film is an elegant microcosm of the exhibition’s concerns.

Published in Art in America, September 2013. “A Different Kind of Order: The ICP Triennial” was on view from May 17–September 22, 2013.

“Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop”

Published in Frieze 154 (April 2013). To learn more about the exhibition, click here.

Unknown French Artist, Scene of Murder and Decapitation, ca. 1870.

We all admit that taking a picture is a subjective act; where to point the lens is a personal decision, and each step in the development of a print requires a photographer to make choices about how to proceed. Yet until recently, the general public has maintained faith in the objectivity and truthfulness of images: events were assumed to have happened as the camera recorded them. It is only with the widespread use of image-editing tools that scepticism toward toward photographs has permeated mainstream consciousness. We needed to be able to remake images ourselves before we assumed others had the same intentions and skills. One strength of curator Mia Fineman’s exhibition ‘Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop’ was the way it built upon this development by bringing before a large museum audience, for the first time, examples of photographic manipulation that span the entire history of the medium. Separated by a hallway from the concurrent exhibition ‘After Photoshop: Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age’, ‘Faking It’ was instructive, and its chief lesson, repeatedly taught, was: ‘Don’t always believe what you see’.

For experts, this is not novel territory. Each generation’s photographic thinkers have acknowledged the history of photographic manipulation as they consider new developments in the medium. A few recent examples will suffice. In the 1960s, artist Robert Heinecken dubbed the art with which he sympathized ‘manipulative photography’, and noted, ‘various manipulative methods have been in existence and described in detail ever since the first photographic images were made’. In an article published in 1976, critic A.D. Coleman identified ‘an extensive tradition of directorial photography’ that encompasses nearly everything—‘studio work, still lifes and posed nudes, as well as formal portraiture—and stretches back to 1850. A decade later, curator Anne H. Hoy organized for New York’s International Center of Photography the exhibition ‘Fabrications: Staged, Altered, and Appropriated Photographs’, which surveyed art from the 1970s and 1980s but acknowledged earlier precedents in the accompanying catalogue.

Fineman’s achievement, however, extends beyond giving material form to various writers’ theses. In tracing the prehistory of Adobe Photoshop, she brought together photographs from fine art, advertising, politics, news and other realms to challenge the dominant view of photography held by many Modernists: that the greatest photograph is the truest photograph. Just over a century ago, Alfred Stieglitz repudiated the ‘artfully’ altered pictures he had championed in his magazines and at his New York gallery. In his own work, and in the rising generation of photographers he promoted, such as Paul Strand, he set forth a new emphasis on ‘straight’ photography that was influential for the remainder of the century. From Group f/64 out west to street photographers prowling big-city avenues, a belief in directness, clarity and spontaneity held sway over artists and public alike.

George B. Cornish, A Car Load of Texas Corn, ca. 1910

George B. Cornish, A Car Load of Texas Corn, ca. 1910

In presenting works in which ‘the final image is not identical to what the camera “saw”’, Fineman strung together a shadow history of the medium. In its early decades, photographers like Gustave Le Gray and Carleton Watkins attempted to overcome the limitations of their cameras, and ambitious men like Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson sought to replicate the narrative potential of allegorical paintings. The striving of artists was quickly accompanied by baser pursuits, as photographers repurposed techniques of manipulation to entertaining ends. The show includes generous selections of pictures of people who have apparently been decapitated; of figures who appear multiple times in the same frame; and of impossibly bounteous agricultural harvests. The persuasiveness of photographs was also embraced by those on both sides of political conflicts. Here we saw how those in power used images to shore up their regimes, and how those in opposition—from Ernest Eugène Appert, during the Paris Commune; to John Heartfield, during the 1930s; to Weegee, during the 1960s—crafted their visual rejoinders. A separate thread, centred on Surrealism, included artists who used the camera as a tool for realizing visionary inner worlds. Herbert Bayer, Dora Maar, Grete Stern and Jerry Uelsmann used collage techniques to create transporting scenes.

Many of these photographers and the movements forged by their efforts have been part of the medium’s canon for some time. But Fineman has done invaluable curatorial and scholarly spadework to bring them together and craft an encompassing frame for understanding their relatedness. This was that rare thing: an exhibition, at once useful and consistently entertaining, that deftly responded to contemporary concerns by weaving together strands of the past.

Barb Choit

Published in Artforum, February 2013. For more information about and images of this exhibition, click here.

Installation view

Memories fade, so we invented a chemical process by which we can affix images of our world to paper. Yet photographs also fade, so we place them behind protective glass or store them away from the very light that brings them into being. By making fading the theme of her second solo exhibition at this gallery, New York– and Vancouver-based artist Barb Choit devised a novel way to frame the impulses behind, as well as the fundamental facts of, the medium. (In doing so, she acknowledges but adroitly sidesteps the pervasive arguments about photography and death.) The twelve pictures she exhibited are rich with associations, encompassing broad swaths of photography’s history while also offering sharp commentary on economic change, standards of beauty, and other facts of contemporary life. Though in line with the works exhibited in “Nagel Fades,” her 2009 show at Rachel Uffner Gallery, “Fade Diary” marked a significant step forward for the artist. This was a conceptually taut and strikingly elegant show.

These photographs are, simply put, views of storefronts. Each one focuses on a poster or a group of objects that has been in a window for an extended period; sunlight has diminished the bright colors of the items’ industrially printed surfaces. The large expanses of plate glass also function as mirrors, layering over the ostensible subject of each photograph a thin veneer of reflected imagery. Countless artists have taken storefronts as their subject matter, from Eugene Atget to Lee Friedlander, who se exhibition depicting mannequins in shop windows was on view in New York at the same time as this show. Choit brings to her project not only an awareness of this history, but also, at times, a wry sense of humor.

Five photos title Barbershop Fade (all works 2012) demonstrate this well. Each depicts a poster showing the hairstyles available within—including, of course, fades. The gridded images bring to mind everything from Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies to Arnaud Maggs’s serial portraits to Walker Evans’s 1936 photograph Penny Picture Display, Savannah. That the posters’ saturated colors have dimmed can be understood as a metaphor for the fate of such mom-and-pop businesses in the increasingly gentrified areas of Brooklyn where most of these pictures were taken. Kings County, which is coterminous with the New York City borough, was recently revealed to possess the third-greatest income inequality of any county in the state of New York. The solidly working- and middle-class communities that patronize such businesses are themselves quickly fading.

The other images on view are taken from the sidewalks in front of beauty parlors, corner stores, and travel agencies. In the salon windows hang posters of women sporting hairstyles evocative of an earlier era. Here, too, Choit plays on words, by titling these images Faded Beauty; in doing so, she reminds viewers that while our fashions change, our underlying standards of beauty—thinness, unblemished skin—are remarkably consistent. We see these women as being out of time, yet can understand how they were deemed beautiful at the moment each poster was made.

Untitled Faded Beauty (Asian Cinema), 2012

Choit’s color palette is necessarily subdued—cyans softened to a baby blue, magentas with their forcefulness drained away, blacks that are no longer truly black. This delicateness gives the photographs a nostalgic quality that never lapses into sentimentality. Perhaps the most mysterious image in the show is Untitled Faded Beauty (Asian Cinema), of a movie poster depicting a woman holding a phone to her ear. The image has been not only effaced by the cumulative effects of the sun but also obscured by the reflection of trees and an overcast sky. The viewer knows precisely what she is looking at; yet, as do many of the works in this show, the picture also affords the chance to ask why we try to capture our experiences and why, in the end, those efforts will necessarily fail.

Joel Meyerowitz

Published in Artforum, January 2013. The second part of this exhibition is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery until January 5.

Joel Meyerowitz, New York City, Times Square, 1963

Joel Meyerowitz, New York City, Times Square, 1963

The first of a two-part survey of Joel Meyerowitz’s fifty-year career as a photographer, this exhibition presented nearly four dozen color and black-and-white prints of varying sizes. Today, Meyerowitz is known for large-format landscape images in often saturated, emotionally resonant colors, a vein of his work that had its spectacular debut with the 1977 exhibition of his “Cape Light” photographs at Witkin Gallery in New York; the book of that series is a milestone in the history of color art photography. By including no photographs shot later than 1976, this exhibition offered viewers a chance to reacquaint themselves with the Meyerowitz images largely eclipsed by his later renown. The first and most obvious lesson is that Meyerowitz was actively using color film not only well before the large-format pictures that made his reputation, but also before color prints were widely accepted by galleries and museums.

The second is that, from the early 1960s, when he had a formative encounter with Robert Frank, through the mid-’70s, Meyerowitz was a street photographer, capturing intimate, humorous, and poignant moments with a handheld camera. He worked mainly in New York, where he lived, but ventured to other parts of the country and to Mexico, Spain, and France, among other international destinations. The earliest photographs presented here suggest the artist’s impish side and demonstrate his eye for incongruities, though his humor cuts several ways. The black-and-white photograph New York City, Times Square, 1963, offers an immediate laugh: The face of a theater-box-office worker, centered in the frame, is completely obscured by the small porthole through which one would talk with her. Two color images spark more complicated reactions. New York City, 1963, taken from the driver’s door of a curbside convertible, depicts a man holding a woman aloft, about to place her in the backseat. Yet his mouth doesn’t match the grin of the man enjoying the unfolding scene; it reads as a grimace, and the placement of his hand underneath—and around—the woman’s neck seems menacing, almost violent. Mexico, 1963, taken at what appears to be an amusement park, likewise provokes a double take. One’s eyes quickly register the strange sight of a swaddled baby resting, seemingly unattended, in a blue-painted wooden box. Then one notices the air rifles lined up on a nearby counter. Sure, they’re for a shoot-the-duck game, but the sense of foreboding is enhanced by a second wooden box, its coffinlike lid closed.

Joel Meyerowitz, Fallen Man, Paris, 1967

Joel Meyerowitz, Fallen Man, Paris, 1967

The tension between obvious punch lines and ambiguity continues in photographs made throughout the decade. The latter is epitomized by Fallen Man, Paris, 1967, which offers no explanation for the subject sprawled on the pavement; a seemingly nonplussed passerby in the foreground glances over his shoulder, as if unsure whether to help. On the other hand, Miami Beach, Florida, 1968, in which a rotund man in a swimsuit stands in profile beneath a passing Goodyear blimp, is evidence of Meyerowitz’s quick wit. But the image raises other questions. It is one of three black-and-white prints paired with nearly identical images taken in color, indicating that Meyerowitz was working in both modes simultaneously. In a new essay, the artist has claimed that color presents this photograph’s joke “more fully.” He continues, “I need to see the color of his shorts, that belly, the silver of the blimp . . . .” Yet what is to be made of the fact that the color image, which was snapped first, was not printed until many years later, while the black-and-white version was printed (and presumably exhibited) at the time it was taken? The lag time between the act of photographing and the act of printing these images suggests the third lesson of this show: Instead of printing what he felt, and what side-by-side comparison reveals, to be the superior image, he printed the one that had a better chance of being shown. Despite his early and consistent advocacy of color film, even Meyerowitz might have felt constrained by the art world’s condescension to his preferred medium. 

Yasuhiro Ishimoto

Published in Artforum, December 2012.

Chicago, 1948–62

Chicago, 1948–62

Yasuhiro Ishimoto died this past February at the age of ninety. This exhibition functioned as a small homage to the artist, who, over the course of nearly six decades, worked in a wide range of styles. Although he was born in San Francisco, Ishimoto was raised in Japan and returned to the United States in 1939, when he planned to study agriculture in California. He was rounded up by American authorities during World War II and held in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. It was there, surprisingly enough, that he developed his passion for photography, which was to occupy him for the rest of his long life.

While at the Institute of Design in Chicago, he studied under Harry Callahan, whose influence can be seen in the street photographs, displayed in a small side gallery, that were taken during Ishimoto’s school years and on a return visit to the city a decade later. Whereas Callahan was at that moment looking down Chicago’s long, straight streets, occasionally catching pedestrians in the middle distance, Ishimoto shot from a perpendicular position: His subjects are at times pressed against buildings’ facades, made to look like figures on display in a diorama. Several photographs taken at Halloween, in which children out trick-or-treating pause briefly to pose for the photographer, heighten this impression of the stage. The most impressive such composition, Chicago, 1948–52, features a child dressed as a witch in the foreground, contorting her body over a stick and staring intently into the lens. Her pose seems spontaneous, yet the overall balance is remarkable: A second child, who is dressed as a ghost, hovers a few feet back, framed by a stoop’s stairway, down which a third descends.

Most of the photographs presented here were made in Japan during later decades; the eight-by-ten-inch prints were in recent years sent as gifts to a friend in New York. They showcase Ishimoto’s penchant for formal experimentation, and are quite different from the images with which he had secured his reputation, a series of architectural photographs taken in Japan that appeared in the 1960 book Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture. Here one encountered mostly studio investigations, several of which brought to mind the work of Western photographers. In the absence of contextualizing information, the connections one made tended to be formal. For example, Ishimoto’s exacting studies of flowers made in the 1980s stand toe-to-to, in terms of detail and print quality, with similar images Robert Mapplethorpe made during the same years, though they seem not to possess the sexual undertones of Mapplethorpe’s orchids and lilies. Ishimoto’s semiabstract photographs of light emanating from rolled sheets of paper, made in the 1980s and ’90s, prefigure Wolfgang Tillmans’s 2001– “Paper Drop” photographs. And the show’s only color images, three prints in which bands of green, blue, and other colors float like a psychedelic fog over the silhouettes of trees, call to mind James Welling’s “Hexachromes,” 2007. In their works, Welling and Tillmans were explicitly engaged with the material properties of the medium; it will take a further accounting of Ishimoto’s practice to know whether his intent was equally self-reflexive.

Minor White observed a dialogue between East and West in Ishimoto’s photographs, calling him a “visual bilinguist.” In this small, idiosyncratic survey, one could sense Ishimoto’s American forebears and colleagues more than the influence of his Japanese upbringing. The show did, however, hint at the richness and incredible variety of Ishimoto’s body of work, and whetted one’s appetite for more.

Untitled, 1973–93

Untitled, 1973–93

James Welling

Published in Artforum, November 2012. For more information about and images from the exhibition, click here.

James Welling, Installation view at David Zwirner, 2012

James Welling, Installation view at David Zwirner, 2012

There are two dominant ways in which photographers have envisioned the landscape of the American West. One, glorying in the land and emphasizing descriptive specificity, is rooted in government-survey pictures of the 1870s; the other, wry and admonishing, arrived a century later under the banner of New Topographics. But outside its well-documented urban areas, how have American photographers framed the country’s eastern half? Eliot Porter rendered Maine foliage in Technicolor, Paul Strand spent time in New England, and Joel Meyerowitz caught seaside towns based in rosy Cape light, but prevailing themes can be difficult to discern. In these parts, painters have had the upper hand, from bucolic Hudson River School scenes to Winslow Homer’s churning waves to the bonhomie captured by Porter’s brother Fairfield. It makes sense, then, that James Welling, a photographer born in Connecticut but long identified with the Los Angeles he calls home, has used a painter as a route back to the landscape of his childhood.

As do many exhibitions of Welling’s photos, this show blithely intermixed visually dissimilar works, and here there were two abstract series—one of ink-jet prints, one of gelatin silver prints derived from photograms—that evoker painterliness in a general way. The stronger works, which comprised the majority of the show, were exceedingly specific and representational, engaging directly with the life and legacy of Andrew Wyeth. Several years ago, Welling began visiting Wyeth’s homes and studios in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Cushing, Maine. One of his aims was to re-create some of Wyeth’s most well-known canvases, including the iconic Christina’s World, 1948, The Revenant, 1949, and End of Olsons, made in 1969, just after Christina’s death. Varying in their fidelity to the original paintings, the resultant images show the ways in which the landscape has changed since Wyeth painted it and depict these places in different seasons, encouraging viewers to meditate on the passage of time. So, too, does Welling’s use of a mechanical eye highlight the imaginativeness of Wyeth’s “conservative” realism; the painter rendered domestic details in his own idiosyncratic way.

In addition to his photographic reconstructions of Wyeth’s famous vistas, Welling attempts to show what Wyeth saw from day to day. Many of these photographs offer close-up views of the buildings’ interiors: a weathered door at the Olson house; a dark-painted cabinet hanging high on a wall; Wyeth’s easel, studio mirror, and collection of dry pigments. Desiccated northern light, somehow at once pale and bright, is a leitmotif, and is what makes Glass House, 2010, my favorite photograph in the show. Interior and exterior merge: Three windows spanning the corner of an upper story are caked with a thin layer of frost that matches the whitewashed walls and window frames. Yet for all its confusion of space, Glass House also offers comforting protection from the elements. Perhaps such shelter defines one iconic vision of the New England landscape.

James Welling, Glass House, 2010

James Welling, Glass House, 2010

Those familiar with Welling’s work will recognize the title of this photograph as the site of another recent series: the iconic modernist retreat designed by Philip Johnson as his own Connecticut home and completed, a year after Christina’s World, 1949. In Johnson’s building, too, windows both admit nature (visually) and keep it at bay. For his “Glass House” works, 2006–2009, exhibited at this gallery in 2010, Welling used filters to metaphorically transform the expansive plate glass into a prism throwing psychedelic colors onto Johnson’s immaculate gardens.

Barney Kulok

Published on Artforum.com on October 5, 2012. The exhibition remains on view at Nicole Klagsbrun until October 27.

Barney Kulok, Untitled (Cobble Constellation), 2011

The austere geometry and muscular presence of architect Louis Kahn’s late designs infuses the photographs Barney Kulok has taken of the Four Freedoms Park. In this exhibition, however, one won’t find conventional documentation of the park’s allée of linden trees, its open granite “room” at Roosevelt Island’s southern tip, or its bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt created by Jo Davidson. Kulok, who was granted access last year to the construction site, has instead brought back chiaroscuro fragments—moody gelatin silver prints that demonstrate remarkable tonal range and control but explain little about the late master’s final design. As often as not, Kulok seems simply to be photographing whatever was resting at his feet. The results, however, are quietly thrilling.

In addition to distilling something of Kahn’s design principles, these twenty-three images also demonstrate that Kulok has deeply internalized the legacy of Minimalist and post-Minimalist sculpture. One can walk through the gallery’s two rooms assigning to individual photographs entries from Richard Serra’s 1967–68 Verb List. “To scatter”: Untitled (Cobble Constellation) (all works cited, 2011) depicts a chance array of loose granite paving blocks resting atop those already laid in neat rows. “To suspend”: Untitled (Improvised Plumb Line), an image of a dangling brick, isolated against a dark, pockmarked wall. “To heap”: Untitled (Joint Filler), a pile of the eponymous material that exhibits such sharp contrasts between light and dark as to seem unreal, like a Photoshop tweak or a darkroom mistake. Others, with their bent wires and bits of stone and wood and earth, call to mind Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, or Carl Andre. The photographs’ charcoal-rubbed wooden frames give them a solidity, an objectness, that further aligns them with this sculptural precedent—and with Kahn’s resolutely tactile architecture. Visitors’ experiences of the park will undoubtedly range widely. For viewers of these images, Kulok has expanded that range still further, and tapped into something elemental that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Jan Groover

Published in Artforum, May 2012. For more information, visit the website of Janet Borden, Inc.

This long-planned exhibition, titled “Formalism Is Everything,” became a memorial to Jan Groover after she died on New Year’s weekend, at the age of sixty-eight. Trained as a painter, Groover turned to photography in the early 1970s and created an engrossing body of street scenes, portraits, landscape views, and, above all, still lifes. This last genre rightfully predominated in this career-spanning survey, which encompassed more than three dozen small and medium-size images. Groover has consistently been described as a postmodern photography, but her pictures have never derived their value from illustrating au courant intellectual theories, as the application of the term can sometimes suggest. Instead, on the evidence of this show, John Szarkowski was correct in his 1993 declaration: Groover’s “pictures [are] good to think about because they [are] first good to look at.”

“Changing space,” in her phrasing, is what Groover thought about most. Her signal achievement was to compose scenes in the ground glass—the sheet of glass used for focusing images in large-format cameras without a viewfinder—and thereby undermine the camera’s mechanical vision. In the best of these photographs, what the lens captures doesn’t always match what one sees. Take, for example, her tightly cropped still lifes of kitchen utensils arranged in a stainless-steel sink. Her lens passively records the quotidian scene in front if it, but the resultant images are estranging: Light is rendered palpable, reflections seem as solid as the objects reflected, and it’s difficult to determine how deep the space is that you’re looking into. These images seesaw between legibility and illegibility.

Groover explored in the studio for the remainder of her career, with regular detours out into the landscape. By the late 1980s, she had crafted a thoroughly unique visual language whose component parts were, first, everyday objects spray-painted in monochrome colors and, second, the sheets of paper against which she had sprayed them. Two untitled color images from 1988, hung on opposite walls in the gallery, use the same serrated column as a pedestal for painted jugs and vases. Other objects are scattered behind the column. The jagged edges of the haphazardly painted backgrounds create optical confusion that prefigures the work of such contemporary “abstract” photographers as Eileen Quinlan. The works likewise evoke the painters Groover studied and admired, from modernists like Paul Cézanne to early Renaissance masters who pioneered the compositional use of perspectival depth. The most recent works included here, ink-jet prints from 2003, reduce the visual complexity to offer what seems like a direct homage to her guiding spirit, Giorgio Morandi. In these photographs, chalkily painted vessels repose elegantly in front of depthless black backgrounds. This visual austerity, however, also erases temporal anchors: For all their simplicity, these photographs are radically indistinguishable. They could be from any moment in the era of color photography, and their subjects from nearly any moment in human history.

Forethought characterizes even the earliest, and seemingly most casual, photographs in the show. These two- and three-panel works, which first gained her art-world notoriety in the late 1970s, depict bland roadside environments, and appear at first glance related to the street photography of Conceptual artists like Babette Mangolte or the vernacular-landscape explorations of Robert Smithson. That may be. Yet a closer look reveals the care with which Groover crafted these compositions, despite taking them on the fly as trucks and cars passed in front of her lens. Streetlamp poles divide the pictures vertically like Barnett Newman’s zips, and activate as well the thin slices of negative space between the prints. Passing vehicles function as abstract blocks of color that lend the works a beguiling syncopated rhythm. In these photographs, as throughout her body of work, Groover forges what is at hand into deeply satisfying aesthetic experiences.

“Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography, 1950s–Present”

Published in Artforum, April 2012. The exhibition remains on view at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College until April 28. For more information, click here.

Mimmo Jodice, Church of San Marcellino, Naples, ca. 1977

In the half-century after World War II, cities across the United States and Europe underwent structural transformations. In America, middle-class whites fled downtowns for the safety and amenities of suburbs, leaving behind a minority “underclass” to struggle through the shift to a post-industrial economy. In Europe, it was the poor who were pushed to urban fringes (think Parisian banlieues) while central districts became jewel boxes cosseting the wealthy. On both sides of the Atlantic, cities themselves sprawled outward, yoking an increasing number of once-independent suburbs to the larger metropolitan framework. “Peripheral Visions” gathers photographers who have examined the liminal zones these developments created in Italy—places neither wealthy nor extremely poor, not quite suburban yet with enough wildness to offset their urban density.

This concise, well-edited show, curated by Hunter College faculty member Maria Antonella Pelizzari, moves quickly through the decades, encompassing Mario Carrieri’s grainy late-1950s pictures of Milan’s edges and, just a few feet away, Vincenzo Castella’s ambiguous 2009 photograph of that city’s Pirelli tower, into which a small plane crashed in 2002. Pelizzari identifies Luigi Ghirri as the show’s presiding spirit, whose own work and 1984 curatorial effort, “Viaggo in Italia,” translated the postwar work of Carrieri, Paolo Monti, and filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio De Sica into a more playful, witty, conceptualist language that later practitioners would mimic. The absurdity that characterizes many of Ghirri’s pictures reaches its apotheosis here in Olivo Barbieri’s site specific_CATANIA 09, 2009, in which an enormous matte black orb rests incongruously amid brick industrial exhaust towers. The menacing egg is symbolic of very recent attempts to rehabilitate these peripheral spaces: it is a performing arts center located at the site of a defunct sulfur mine.

In contrast to the strange iconicity of Barbieri’s image, smaller gestures, unadorned observations of everyday life, predominate. Mimmo Jodice captures the dented corrugated sheet metal imperfectly covering a stone column in Church of San Marcellino, Naples, 1977. Mario Cresci, who envisions southern Italy as a “foreign” space within the country’s borders, transforms wires snaking along walls into poetic abstractions in Martina Franca, 1979. Guido Guidi, working a decade later, positioned himself directly at the leading edge of human incursion into the natural environment, his pictures juxtaposing messy construction sites and, in the distance, unpopulated mountain ranges. Other inclusions suggest one need not even travel to find incidents worth recording. Franco Vaccari simply shifted perspective for his 1971 film I cani lenti (The Slow Dogs), for which he crouched down and tried to see what the animals saw. Likewise, Marina Ballo Charmet’s digital slide show Con la coda dell’ occhio (With the Corner of the Eye), 1993-94, finds a stoic beauty in the weeds and debris that accumulate on dozens of street corners, turning curbs into walls against which her quarry is positioned.

Few of these images are populated, yet the insistent focus on textures seems like an attempt to reveal what such neglected spaces feel like to their inhabitants. Here are the loose, ragged edges of the urban fabric, the places that have suffered for decades the indifference of authority that in today’s economic climate, with its calls for austerity, seems our common fate. “Peripheral Visions” offers knowledge of a subject that increasingly occupies the minds of scholars and policymakers. The lessons to be drawn from such work remain unclear, but the sense of urgency is palpable.

Robert Bourdeau

Published in Artforum, March 2012. To learn more about the exhibition, click here to visit the Edwynn Houk Gallery website.

Ontario, Canada, 1981

Robert Bourdeau trained and worked as an architectural technologist before an influential encounter with Aperture magazine and its editor, Minor White. A ten-year friendship with that elder statesman of photography encouraged Bourdeau to pursue the medium and embrace the emotional expressiveness on which White placed so much importance. Now in his eighties, Bourdeau is best known for landscape photographs in which the subject fills the entire frame, a compositional choice that emphasizes texture and occasionally creates odd spatial effects. Two pictures in this exhibition, his second at the gallery, exemplify this style. Yorkshire, England, 1985 is a straightforward depiction of scruffy northern fields, yet a low stone wall that divides the image horizontally adds a sense of strangeness. The wall masks a slope so that the land behind it appears as if a giant hand is pulling it upward, drawing it parallel to Bourdeau’s lens. Ontario, Canada, 1981 guilelessly portrays logs floating in a placid river. Yet the graphic contrast between the lightly colored bark and the water’s dark surface creates a pattern that Bourdeau must have known would recall Jasper Johns’s then-new crosshatch paintings.

The majority of the two dozen photographs in this show, however, depict industrial sites in varying states of disuse and decay. Despite the modest size of his prints—none exceed fourteen inches on their longest side—Bourdeau’s large-format camera allows him to describe these scenes with remarkable detail. Pennsylvania, USA, 1995 is a frontal view of a cylindrical tank. A stairway that cuts diagonally across the composition is the only straight line amid swirls of corrosion marking the tank’s surface, which bring to mind Gustave Moreau’s fanciful Symbolist backgrounds. Elsewhere, Bourdeau seems attracted to pairs, as evident in the twin silos and boulders in Virginia, USA, 1993, the double tuba-shaped metal piping in Lorraine, France, 1999, and the nearly symmetrical balance of Saarland, Germany, 1999. The most dramatic image is Pennsylvania, USA, 1997, in which an X-shaped metal brace stands before another cylindrical storage tank. The brace crosses in front of cascading rust and piles of debris, as if Bourdeau wanted to negate the scene—an X, after all, is what you might draw on a contact sheet to mark the photograph you don’t want to print. That some of the background detail is reflected in a pool of water at the bottom of the image is a virtuosic touch.

The attention granted these hulking machines and metal surfaces may bring to mind 1920s-era photographic celebrations of the power of industrial machinery, such as those by Albert Renger-Patzsch. But Bourdeau’s series, made in the 1990s across northwestern Europe and the United States, is opposite in feeling: With Romantic melancholy, he documents the demise of the era that Renger-Patzsch’s New Objectivist images heralded, offering evidence of globalization’s effects on first-world manufacturing economies. Perniciously high unemployment has once again brought the erosion of traditional manufacturing centers to the forefront of international consciousness. Such dilemmas make Bourdeau’s depiction of the material ruins of these changes all the more relevant.

Pennsylvania, USA, 1997

“The Life and Death of Buildings”

Published in Aperture 206, Spring 2012.

Danny Lyon, View South from 100 Gold Street, from Destruction of Lower Manhattan, 1967

Danny Lyon, View South from 100 Gold Street, from Destruction of Lower Manhattan, 1967

During the mid- to late 1960s, photographer Danny Lyon chronicled the “slum clearance” required by two enormous infrastructure projects in New York City: a new ramp for the Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center. The results were solemn portraits of Manhattan’s stout brick and cast-iron buildings, the men responsible for bringing those structures down, and, in interior scenes, the accretion of human history and labor those buildings preserved. After the violent obliteration of the Twin Towers in 2001, renewed attention to Lyon’s project, evocatively titled The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, was perhaps inevitable; indeed, it has enjoyed quite a renaissance. In 2005 PowerHouse republished to wide acclaim Lyon’s original book of the photographs. The series was also the primary inspiration for the 2010 Mixed Use, Manhattan exhibition at the Reina Sofía in Madrid, which surveyed artists’ interactions with postindustrial New York’s buildings and spaces. Finally, last summer and fall, the Princeton University Art Museum presented The Life and Death of Buildings, which curator Joel Smith was motivated to organize after a collector donated to the museum a complete set of Lyon’s pictures.

Smith’s curatorial effort, drawn largely from his museum’s collection, was a meditation on the role photographs play in granting us access to pasts no longer extant. Buildings and photographs are both artifacts that can be located in history, Smith notes, but each embodies a different sense of time. Buildings accumulate pasts, which shadow every encounter one has with them in the present. (Certain examples even make explicit their history, like the Bundestag in Berlin, the redesign of which deliberately left its walls pockmarked with World War II–era bullet holes and covered in the graffiti of Russian soldiers.) Photographs freeze a specific moment, excise it from its context, and make aspects of that moment accessible at a later date. To analyze these differences, and to focus viewers’ minds on the concept of time, Smith deployed his copious material, which ranged across the entire history of photography and several continents, in a somewhat unusual manner. He intentionally disavowed the divergent aims of the photographers included in the show—amateur and professional alike. Everything, then, became more or less “documentary.” Similarly, because no building appeared repeatedly, and we were thus denied a full understanding of its “life,” each skyscraper or cathedral represented the category “building” as much as or more than it represented itself.

John Szarkowski, Corner Pier, The Prudential Building, Buffalo, New York, 1951

Though at first I chafed at this selective curatorial framing, Smith’s criteria gave coherence to his expansive selection. Under such constraints, formal connections suggest themselves immediately, as between a detail of thirteenth-century brass work on a door of Notre Dame cathedral, captured by the Bisson Frères circa 1854, and the foliate handiwork in John Szarkowski’s Corner Pier, The Prudential Building, Buffalo, New York (1951). But unexpected links revealed themselves as well. The surface of walls was given close scrutiny in a section labeled “The Sentient Wall,” which featured midcentury abstractions depicting buildings ravaged by time. In these works, by Aaron Siskind, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Robert Doisneau, and others, the “sentience” accumulates after the building is erected. Yet this arrangement prompted in me a reconsideration of the decorative patterning in the Bisson and Szarkowski photographs as a kind of sentience of its own. (Think of John Ruskin’s description of Gothic builders as free to creatively employ their talents; the resultant walls literally embody their craftsmen’s knowledge.) If, as this thought suggests, the lives of buildings begin before they are completed, evidence abounded in this exhibition that it likewise extends beyond their deaths. Richard Misrach’s White Man Contemplating Pyramids (1989) and Philip Henry Delamotte’s 1856 picture of the dilapidated cloister at Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey both remind us that a structure’s affective potential can far outlast its original uses. So, too, does Tim Davis’s witty photograph of nearly two dozen tourists’ cameras resting on the pavement, their viewfinders displaying just-snapped shots of the Colosseum in Rome.

What did this collection of pictures suggest about time? A basic lesson came insistently to mind: time exposes the frailty inherent in all human endeavors—even the grandest and most secure-seeming ones. In some instances that frailty was evident in the images themselves. The first gallery included century-old photo-postcards depicting homesteaders posing with their ramshackle homes. “BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE…” reads the ironic handwritten inscription on one, its sender surely aware of the insecurity of his perch on the plains. In most cases, however, the recognition that what is depicted no longer exists imparted the same message. Though both life and death appear in its title, the general drift of this exhibition was toward ends, toward ruins.

Many of photography’s earliest practitioners, such as Delamotte, had a Romantic predilection for photographing ruins; it’s as if the awareness of death upon which Smith focuses is encoded in the medium. But this is perhaps fitting, as an additional level of melancholy inheres in the recognition that photographs themselves are extremely fragile. Those early photo-postcards are rare survivors from an era that saw the creation and delivery of millions just like them. Photographs possess a rare power, granting us something akin to the capacity to time-travel, but that power lasts only as long as does the ability to read their surfaces. Thomas Ruff’s jpeg co01 (2004), in the show’s final gallery, draws together these themes. The wall-size print depicts the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, the iconic structures enveloped in a haze of smoke, ash, and dust. Yet because Ruff made the photograph by scaling up a compressed JPEG file, pixelization further obscures its ostensible subject. The momentous event, the erasure of the towers that had replaced what Danny Lyon so carefully captured on film, recedes from us ever further.

Tim Davis, Colosseum Pictures (The New Antiquity), 2009

“Weegee: Murder Is My Business”

Weegee, Line-Up for Night Court, ca. 1941.

I reviewed the exhibition “Weegee: Murder Is My Business,” on view at the International Center of Photography until September 2, for Capital New York. An excerpt:

The Weegee that’s surveyed in this entertaining exhibition is not only the man, an immigrant born Usher Fellig in Austria, but also the myth, who described himself as both “Weegee the Famous” and the “official photographer of Murder Inc.”

Curator Brian Wallis has crafted a show that demonstrates how and why Weegee became one of the best-known photojournalists in New York City from the mid-’30s through the ’40s. Operating out of a sparse room across the street from police headquarters, he made nightly forays into the streets in search of breaking news. He nearly always found it, returning with pictures of lifeless bodies sprawled out on sidewalks and the inquisitive bystanders and pained relatives who had witnessed the crimes.

To read the rest, click here.

Simon Norfolk

Published in Artforum, January 2012. An interview with the artist and images of several dozen works from the series are available here.

Homeless Family from Hazarajat, Camped in the Grounds of the Old Presidential Palace, 2010.

Simon Norfolk might be called a war-landscape photographer. He focuses on not only battles and resultant refugee crises but also the technological infrastructure that underpins conflict and the arenas in which those conflicts play out. Among his many subjects are the beaches where Allied soldiers landed on D-day in 1944; the electronic-spying equipment on Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic; Beirut during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah; and the material detritus produced during the early years of the current war in Iraq. This exhibition, his third at Bonni Benrubi Gallery, included medium-scale images from his latest body of work made in Afghanistan, “Burke + Norfolk,” 2010–11.

The majority of Norfolk’s audience, myself included, knows his work primarily through reproductions presented in some of the world’s leading news publications, from the New York Times Magazine to the Guardian Weekend to La Repubblica. Norfolk is a canny visual essayist, and his collaborations with the photo editors of those magazines have led to richly informative portraits of myriad locales. As gratifying as those stories can be, it was rewarding to see these photographs with the clarity afforded by a larger scale and lack of journalistic context. The exhibition consisted of seven color prints, each forty by fifty inches, depicting various sites in and around Kabul, and seven smaller, black-and-white group portraits.

Though unaccompanied by written reportage, the series, as its title indicates, is a kind of collaboration: Norfolk returned to Afghanistan under the influence of John Burke, a photographer who traveled with British troops during the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878–80. In an attempt to draw out the continuities between the earlier conflict and the current occupation, which Norfolk suggests should be called the Fourth Anglo-Afghan War, he has both retraced Burke’s steps and created pictures he imagined Burke would take today.

Among the color landscape images, such connections were difficult to discern; one imagines that the recent exhibition at Tate Modern of pictures by both photographers made the more explicit. (The publisher Dewi Lewis has released a lavish book that also juxtaposes their work.) We see a homeless father and daughter camped out on the grounds of the president’s former palace, now reduced to six broken brick columns; a deserted pizza shop adjacent to the piled bus carcasses in a Kabul depot; a lumpy pyramid of bags of apples for sale in a roadside market; and the garish decorative lights in the courtyard of the Sham-E-Paris wedding hall. Each of these smartly composed scenes is cast in the smoky-blue light of dawn or dusk. Norfolk, in an interview, has suggested this light is meant to convey his disillusionment with the situation in Afghanistan. But the lights transitional nature can also be read as optimistic, as can the effortful “normalcy” some of these images depict. Disdain for the occupation need not preclude admiration for the resilience of its victims.

The poise of Norfolk’s group portrait subjects suggests that despite his dismay, he understands this. Shooting in black-and-white, Norfolk deploys the somewhat stilted-looking portrait conventions of Burke’s day—frontal views, no interaction among the subjects—to depict both the military and civilian sides of contemporary Afghan life. There are police being trained by marines, pro-Taliban refugees, and a minesweeping team, but there are also boys learning traditional instruments at a music school, the crew and ground staff of a new airline, and girls who use an indoor skate park set up by American NGO volunteers. In both his landscapes and his portraits, Norfolk refuses to look away from the dispiriting aspects of this damaged place, while suggesting, perhaps against his own emotional response to what he encountered, that the situation there may yet change for the better.

A De-mining Team trom the Mine Detection Centre In Kabul, 2010.

“The Greatest Grid”

Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.” The show is on view until April 15, an appropriate enough date given the prevalence in the galleries of tax assessments, land-sale auction handbills, and other ephemera related to the transfer of Manhattan real estate. The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated and informative catalogue, published by Columbia University Press (Amazon, Columbia).

Map of Property Belonging to C.C. Moore of Chelsea, 1835. Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

An excerpt:

The plan’s Cartesian rigor made it a machine for such frenzied growth, and the exhibition contains hundreds of artifacts that chart the city’s scramble uptown. There are surveyors’ maps and tools, land-sale auctioneers’ handbills, and ledgers documenting tax assessments. Numerous photographs reveal just how much labor went in to unifying the landscape: giant boulders had to be broken up and carted away; rolling hills had to be leveled; houses perched in the middle of planned roadways had to be torn down or carted to a new location.

At the exhibit’s center is one of the three original copies of the nearly nine-foot-long map of the Commissioners’ Plan, its size and detail a measure of the ambition it represented. Generations of canny politicians, imperious real-estate developers, and visionary architects have tried to implement changes or carve out exceptions to its rule, yet the Manhattan this map depicts is recognizable to us today: a somewhat claustrophobic, undifferentiated mass of right angles that cedes almost nothing to topography or the human need for variety.

To read the rest, click here.

Richard Benson

Published in Artforum, December 2011. For more information about the exhibition, click here.

Richard Benson, California, 2009

Puerto Rico, 2007, despite being one of only two photographs in this large exhibition to have been made outside the continental United States, is emblematic of photographer Richard Benson’s series “North South East West.” The image’s subject, an isolated fan palm tree at the edge of a parking lot, is representative in its humbleness and outdoor, out-of-the-way location. The sky behind it, as in many of the show’s photographs, is a rich cerulean, the clouds near the horizon puffy and white; shadows are nonexistent. And the palm’s visual similarity to a peacock’s tail feathers metaphorically represents a central element of Benson’s achievement: the rich and varied colors he creates with his “multiple impression pigment prints.” The slash of orange wending across the bottom of the frame is a bit unsettling in its brightness and purity. It must be seen in person to be believed—more so than usual, JPEGs on the gallery website do this work no justice.

We regularly encounter such saturation out in the world, yet when captured by a lens it has a tinge of surrealism, as if through digital manipulation the photographer is trying to trick us. Instead, Benson has devised a novel printing technique by which he isolates the image’s constituent parts into different layers, printing each separately after making minute color adjustments. (Benson even adapted his process for the related book, running each page through the press twice.) Traveling the country in an RV, Benson regularly stops to photograph what catches his eye—and sometimes, one suspects, what he thinks might make good use of his printing technique. There is a picturesque village of clapboard houses surrounding a village green clothed in snow. There are disused railroad cars and signage, as well as an image of tracks receding towards a far-off horizon. There is a mid-century commercial truck, parked alongside the highway to advertise Butch’s Place, and a row of roadside mailboxes, both with mountains in the distance. And a pile of hay bales is surmounted by an American flag. Each is rendered with precision, often from an oblique angle that invites the eye into the photograph.

The quality of light necessary to best achieve Benson’s chromatic splendor means that photographs taken in different parts of the country, or at different times of year, begin to look the same. Rhode Island, 2010, echoes New Mexico, 2006, which in turn echoes Nebraska, 2011. Because of this, our preconceived notions become what orient us in space: clapboard houses signify “New England,” while a lone utility pole in a vast, flat expanse of land signifies “The Great Plains.” Benson’s images rarely challenge our assumptions. And as the above list of his subjects indicates, Benson offers a vision of America that verges on kitschy Americana. There’s a glittering blue Ford Mustang on a lift at a mechanic’s shop in Virginia, a sailboat resting in a Rhode Island boatyard, and three small cabins abutting a Vermont lake. The colors in the latter photo are almost hallucinatory. Benson captures the precise moment when the setting sun turns both the sky and the lake’s surface cotton-candy pink, and at the same time describes accurately how the green of the grass differs from that of the painted cabins. The photograph is a compositional and technical achievement of the first order. It’s a disappointment that, cumulatively, this selection of Benson’s lovely travel images comes across like an antiques roadshow.

Richard Benson, Vermont, 2007

Daido Moriyama

Published in Artforum, November 2011.

Daido Moriyama, Stray Dog, 1971

Daido Moriyama, Stray Dog, 1971

Spanning more than half a century, “Daido Moriyama: On the Road” confirmed the artist’s importance to the story of Japanese photography. The quintessential street photographer, Moriyama has, since 1965, prowled avenues and alleys in Japanese cities and across the globe. His quarry is not only the unguarded human subject, often seen from the side or behind, but also our idealized, artificial replicas of ourselves, from store mannequins to movie-poster idols. Moriyama’s art, despite his penchant for surface and artifice, is anything but celebratory. If his touchstone is Warhol, whose art he seems to mimic in a 1974 silkscreen Harley-Davidson and who appears on a TV screen in Tokyo, 2011, it’s the Warhol of the 1962-63 “Death and Disaster” series. For Moriyama, despite his disavowal in a recent interview of any social or documentary mission, urban life is tragic theater.

The exhibition opened with two rooms encompassing the artist’s recent output. His newest photographs of Tokyo, in the first gallery, struck an anomalous note: Hung in three rows that encircled the room, the prints were both large and vibrantly colored. Though familiar themes recurred—a family of Western mannequins in a shop window counterbalanced a homeless man slumped on a narrow ledge—the saturated reds and blues made a bright contrast to the small-scale, grainy black-and-white images that predominated elsewhere. I couldn’t help but imagine them as an acrid response to Nobuyoshi Araki’s intimate studies of flowers. The second gallery sampled images taken around the world, from Taipei to Buenos Aires, Antwerp to New York. In this last city, Moriyama’s lens transforms a dented trash can found moldering in half-melted snow into a gorgeous play of surfaces. Though the can is perfectly legible as an object, the photograph epitomizes another aspect of Moriyama’s art: his almost hallucinatory focus upon texture. Urban grit is equated almost literally with the grain of the photograph, as if dirt had been rubbed into each print.

Moriyama achieves this effect, in part, by increasing the contrast in his images, a technique that in its consistency also serves to unite a disparate array of subject matter. A male actor wearing papier-mâché breasts in one early photograph can be compared to the mangy animal in the iconic 1971 image Stray Dog. Neither an automobile on fire nor the collision of two others in a pair of 1969 images is discordant with a frankly erotic 1976 study of a cabbage head. Moriyama’s interest in light and shadow is made explicit in a series of that title, made in 1981-82, which features, among other subjects, denim jeans, the vinyl top of a Jeep Wrangler, and the rusting hull of a Russian cargo ship. With so many coarse, dark pictures, a room of color prints, much smaller than those in the first gallery, offered a pleasing contrast. Ishinomaki, 1969, features multicolor lightbulbs strung along two delicate curves that arc away from Moriyama’s lens; they hang in the twilit sky like reddish-orange plants. Captured by any other photographer, the image of camellia petals on the pavement in Izu, 1982, would likely have a certain delicacy; with Moriyama, however, the petals seem to have fallen like hammer blows.

The bulk of the survey proceeded chronologically, and one could witness Moriyama’s subjects becoming more pedestrian—in both senses of the world—without his images losing their oddity or compositional acuity. At the outset of his career, Moriyama claims, he was “deliberately seeking a strange image.” These days, though, “everything looks strange.” We profit from this alienated vision.

Daido Moriyama, Records no. 15, 2010

Daido Moriyama, Records no. 15, 2010

“Jill Freedman: Street Cops, 1978-81″

Published on Artforum.com on October 13, 2011. The exhibition is on view at Higher Pictures, New York, from September 15 to October 29, 2011.

George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981

George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981

When photographer Jill Freedman embedded with the New York City Police Department’s Ninth and Midtown South Precincts in 1978, the city was just past its postwar nadir. Three years earlier, in the eyes of Daily News editors, President Gerald Ford had told the struggling metropolis to “drop dead.” The summer of 1977 had been marked by the tragic denouement of the Son of Sam killing spree, as well as rioting and looting under cover of the July blackout. In a city troubled by crimes both petty and spectacular, Freedman sought to counter the largely negative opinion of cops on the beat, to humanize the men and women behind the badge.

The officers with whom she cruised for three years were certainly busy: The Ninth Precinct covers the East Village, where junkies lay strung out in buildings burned for the insurance money and then abandoned, while Midtown South incorporated the hustling and vice of Times Square. There is a man Stabbed Twice in the Guts, 1980, and one Caught in the Act, 1978, while trying to boost a turntable, and one who tried to score a Free Lunch, 1979, by skipping out on his restaurant bill. Through it all, Freedman’s blue-shirts handle their duties with a sense of humor. They know that George Likes to Sit in Garbage Cans, 1981, and that this little boy in the cruiser is Always Running Away, 1979. Several of Freedman’s images match this humor with visual wit, as with the Partners, 1978, who are hopping a cinder-block wall with symmetrically outstretched legs, or the Street Cops, 1978, belly to belly in a cramped hallway, one holding his pistol while the other clasps a stogie.

Viewed today, after more than two decades of zero-tolerance “broken windows” policing and in the midst of overreaction to #OccupyWallStreet protesters, the humanity and self-awareness Freedman identifies in her subjects is all the more remarkable. She deftly captured a moment unlike our own in several ways. While I wouldn’t trade the safety of today’s city for its late-1970s incarnation, I do wish today’s officers, many of whom are high-strung and alienated from the communities they patrol, would learn from their predecessors’ relative good will.

Small Change, 1979

Small Change, 1979

“The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75″

Published on Artforum.com on October 4, 2011. The exhibition was on view at Third Streaming, New York, from September 8 to October 15, 2011.

Angela Davis, still from The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75

Angela Davis, still from The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-75

During the past fifteen years, scholars have dramatically revised our understanding of the American civil rights and Black Power movements, proposing answers to questions such as: When did each begin and end? What traits, if any, do they share? What is the relative importance of acknowledged leaders and lesser-known participants? Historians including Charles Payne, Martha Biondi, Thomas Sugrue, and Peniel Joseph have crafted nuanced portraits of both movements’ protest dynamics and the merits of the gains each made. The visual record of the era, however, has not been given an equivalent boost, which makes the recent discovery of hours of documentary footage captured by Swedish television journalists all the more special. That material has been transformed into The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011), the feature-length documentary on which this exhibition of film stills, related footage, and ephemera is based.

The images selected for stills focus primarily on Black Power leaders. We see Angela Davis as a glamorous antihero, two dour officers at her elbows; Bobby Seale and Stokely Carmichael coolly addressing unseen gatherings; and Kathleen Cleaver next to a typewriter, taking a break from crafting revolution’s message to pensively drag on a cigarette. A small monitor displaying unused film footage contrasts this hero worship with images of children carousing in unkempt streets, cops cruising down sweltering avenues, and little boys in suits marching out of a school building.

There is, perhaps surprisingly, a precedent for the Swedish investigation of American social problems. Economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study of American race relations, An American Dilemma, permanently inflected the conversation on civil rights and was even cited by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. While The Black Power Mixtape doesn’t aspire to the same influence, it is nonetheless a welcome addition to the body of evidence documenting a turbulent period in our recent past, one whose meaning is still up for revaluation.

“Our Magic Hour”

Review of the 2011 Yokohama Triennale published online at Art Agenda on September 13, 2011. The exhibition remains on view until November 6, 2011.

Henrik Hakansson, Fallen Forest, 2006

Henrik Hakansson, Fallen Forest, 2006.

Organizing an international biennial or triennial exhibition is, in principle, a thankless task. Your two main audiences, locals unfamiliar with recent artistic developments and globe-hopping art citizens eager for new discoveries, have opposing needs and desires. Apportioning artworks among multiple venues, securing the funding to meet an outsized budget, and coordinating the corporate, political, and cultural bodies with a vested interest in your efforts all present significant challenges. Add to this, however, the widespread devastation of a three-fold tragedy—earthquake, tsunami, nuclear power plant crisis—and one would have forgiven Yokohama Triennale 2011 artistic director Akiko Miki for walking away from her project. That she and her colleagues not only persevered but also managed to coordinate an impressive display of art spanning several centuries is, irrespective of one’s opinion of the show, worth commending.

This is the fourth edition of the triennale, and the first to make the Yokohama Museum of Art its primary venue. Titled “Our Magic Hour,” the show focused upon an ability to see the wonderful in the everyday that has long been popularly ascribed to artists. The magic invoked is not one of mysticism, but rather of the temporary suspension of disbelief: artists see things differently than you and me and can show us what that seeing feels like. Such a broad theme can encompass a wide variety of art, and, indeed, the show ranged from conceptually inflected video installations to ukiyo-e woodblock prints to ghost-themed movie posters.

The opening galleries engage a notion of wonder in a literal manner. The first artwork one encounters beyond the museum lobby is Aurélien Froment’s video Théâtre de poche (Pocket Theater) (2007), which depicts the artist performing a series of sleight-of-hand tricks against a black background. To either side of this gallery are minimal installations by James Lee Byars, Wilfredo Prieto, and Motohiro Tomii that invoke, with varying success, the viewer’s astonishment at the properties inherent in simple materials. Byars’s juxtaposition of five crystals and a silent performer conjures an atmosphere at once somber and strangely weightless. The works by Prieto and Tomii play with our notions of value by arranging humble materials—cubic zirconia, thumbtacks—such that they appear cherishable. However, the “trick” in Prieto’s circular floor arrangement, that one of the thousands of shiny objects really is a diamond, almost spoils the effect. Nonetheless, these rooms are a useful primer in seeing the way Miki and her artists would want us to, and the attentive viewer is rewarded in other galleries with hard-to-find surprises, such as Still White, Corridor (2011), an installation between two galleries for which Atsushi Saga has polished a wall to a subtle sheen.

In other rooms, however, these small didactic tricks seem overly simple or even somewhat manipulative. Take, for example, a number of mid-twentieth-century Surrealist paintings from the museum collection hung side-by-side early in the show. All of them depict stairways, and once one discovers this formal alliteration, the paintings’ other qualities recede into the background. (These canvases, like other works from the museum’s collection, are laboriously integrated into the Triennale. They would have been better served by being presented as a separate-but-related exhibition.) Elsewhere, a large room is given over to Massimo Bartolini’s whimsical sculpture Organi (2008), in which a series of pipes, arranged like scaffolding, have been transformed into musical pipes, with a small music box placed on the floor pushing its notes through them and out into the room. It is a remarkable feat of hare-brained ingenuity, and its placement in a roughly circular, high-ceiling room makes one think of chapels. But, just in case you hadn’t made the connection on your own, several large-scale collages of multicolored butterfly wings by Damien Hirst, shaped like stained-glass windows, line the wall on either side. Perhaps complaints about the literalism of these installations sound like the carping of a professional who believes in his own sophistication. On the other hand, one also hopes that curators can trust non-specialist viewers to appreciate such details without having them communicated so directly.

At the outset, however, I suggested that art-world insiders are forever in search of the new, and this edition of the Yokohama Triennale presented to me several revelations. Whether the decision to include a greater proportion of local (i.e., Japanese) artists than is typical for such exhibitions was conceptual or logistical, I was particularly happy to encounter work by Keiichi Tanaami, Ryosuke Imamura, and Taro Izumi, as well as from the Koichi Yumoto Collection. Tanaami’s contribution is a series of short nonnarrative animated videos created in the 1970s. Their bright colors, collaged aesthetic, and surrealistic content call to mind Western counterparts such as Terry Gilliam, creator of animated Monty Python sketches. Small details such as an envelope bearing a Soho address testify to Tanaami’s familiarity with the psychedelic art then popular in the United States (and elsewhere). Imamura’s ingenious sound-art hybrid installations are in the tradition of cross-disciplinary elder statesmen like Christian Marclay. And Izumi’s accumulation of everyday objects, placed on pedestals of varying heights that crowd several rooms in the BankART Studio NYK, a second venue, were delightfully strange and evocative. So, too, is the Yumoto Collection, of which only a small portion is on view. It focuses on yokai, or ghosts, and includes movie posters, toys, traditional paintings and prints, and other ephemera, offering a welcome peek into vernacular Japanese culture.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Breathing is Free: JAPAN, Hopes & Recovery, 2011.

Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Breathing is Free: JAPAN, Hopes & Recovery, 2011.

The three-level BankART Studio, a nearby waterfront building, housed large-scale works by a range of well-known international artists. Here the theme of wonderment was somewhat harder to discern, but a handful of works stood out. Foremost among them was Peter Coffin’s utterly strange and spellbinding untitled computer animation, which I now think of as “3F,” for “Fruit: The Final Frontier.” The video, which presents an endless, never-repeating pattern, depicts eighteen semitransparent images of fruit accelerating towards the viewer at a leisurely version of warp speed. The images, succulent and oddly haloed, were created with the help of a specialist in 3-D medical scanning. At the other end of the technical spectrum is Henrik Hakansson’s Fallen Forest (2006), a DIY version of the “living walls” of foliage currently in vogue with certain interior designers and architects. Hakansson’s vertical surface of greenery, however, comes from simply turning large-scale potted trees on their side and inserting them into industrial metal shelving. Spotlights give the object an additional charm.

It’s worth noting that the disastrous events of March 11 not only affected the show’s production—making certain works logistically infeasible, say, or causing insurance rates to skyrocket. It also inspired some of the participating artists to devise new proposals as a direct response to the tragedy. The smartest of these is also one of the last visitors come across (if following the proscribed route through the venues). Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, known in the West for his haunting videos of men struggling to pull submerged rickshaws along the seabed, has here created a memorial video installation that also serves as a participatory public art project. Using GPS technology, Nguyen-Hatsushiba has plotted paths through Ho Chi Minh City, his current home, and Yokohama that, when drawn on a map, resemble cherry blossoms. Members of the public are invited to jog along the routes to metaphorically trace onto the surface of the earth these symbols of transience and renewal. The runs are themselves ephemeral and bring to mind the concept of mono no aware, an awareness of the pathos and impermanence of things. The artwork is moving but not maudlin, and at a moment when the labor of recovery means that permanent memorials are still far off on the horizon, it seems thoughtful and noninvasive. And, by virtue of the idiosyncratic paths that cut through the city like Situationist dérives, it also defamiliarizes Yokohama for its resident joggers, thereby involuntarily slotting them into the exhibition’s theme. One can imagine such a run, though tinged as it must be by the awareness of pain and suffering in the northeastern part of the country, as a magic hour indeed.

Max Kozloff

Published in the Summer 2011 issue of Artforum. To see additional images from the exhibition, click here.

Max Kozloff, Antique Store with Engraved Mirrors, 1978.

Max Kozloff, once the executive editor of this magazine, is best known for his writings on modern art. Much of this work has explicitly focused on photography, a subject upon which he has trained his formidable intellect almost exclusively since the mid-1970s, publishing three collections of essays, organizing museum exhibitions, and contributing to numerous artists’ monographs. In that time, he has also been an active photographer, using the camera to capture first the environment and then the citizens of his adopted hometown. This show, wryly titled “New York Means Business,” collected twenty-five images taken between 1977 and 1984, nearly all depicting storefront window displays.

As Kozloff readily admits, he was working at the time under the influence of Eugène Atget, whose efforts were ostensibly documentary in nature and have been interpreted as recording the final remnants of “Old Paris.” During the last three decades, finance capital has rewritten the built environment in New York as radically as the abstract forces labeled “modernity” upended nineteenth-century Paris. Seeing Kozloff’s pictures now, one appreciates their documentary value: “Old New York,” once visible to anyone walking in the streets who cared to notice, is now mostly gone. As Kozloff had already presciently noted in 1986, a “familiar corporate sterility” in New York would replace the zipper and twine shops, the pawned-watch purveyors, and the other idiosyncratic and independent enterprises he diligently captured with a lens.

Kozloff is interested not only in his subjects’ intrinsic worth, but also in their relationship with the semitransparent reflections of urban fragments caught in the windowpanes. Befitting his long fascination with photography, such juxtapositions allow him to engage self-consciously with historical precedents and to experiment with representational possibilities. The complex interplay of reality and reflection is paramount in Antique Store with Engraved Mirrors, 1978, in which the titular items, haphazardly arranged, capture objects from all directions—a passing taxi, an upper-story apartment window, the underside of flowers in a crystal vase—but, somehow, not the photographer himself. Ne York Under Glass, 1981, is also exemplary, dizzy with referents, portraying reflected apparitions floating in a space of indeterminate depth. Near the “back” of this complex image hangs a poster of midtown Manhattan in the evening, the skyscraper windows glowing yellow like kernels on a corncob. As Kozloff surely knew, the poster is reminiscent of a 1932 photograph by Berenice Abbott taken from the Empire State Building’s then-new observation deck. But such elevated, glorifying vantage points are not for Kozloff, who celebrates the streets, so the soaring midtown high-rises are overlaid with the reflection of unfussy mid-rise apartment buildings in the immediate vicinity. The storefront glass likewise reflects pennants hanging from a street lamp, which slice dynamic lines across the composition, as does a string of lightbulbs framing the poster. In the midst of all this falls a shower of fake currency, tens and twenties and hundreds, a metaphor of the force behind the changes Kozloff was witnessing around him. Kozloff has written that Atget “dramatized a historical process” in his immense body of work, and the complex symbolism of New York Under Glass achieves something similar.

Max Kozloff, New York Under Glass, 1981.

Among other theses, Kozloff’s 2002 curatorial effort “New York: Capital of Photography” contended that street photography is uniquely able to capture a city that “shuffles, obliterates, and reconnects appearances” at will. With its lost world so artfully staged, this exhibition made clear that he was arguing from experience.

“Hiroshima Ground Zero”

Published at Art-Agenda on June 3, 2011. To see the review in context, click here. The exhibition remains on view until August 28, 2011. To learn more, visit the museum’s website.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Distorted Steel-frame Structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima. November 20, 1945.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Distorted Steel-frame Structure of Odamasa Store, Hiroshima. November 20, 1945.

At 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, the Japanese city of Hiroshima was momentarily “covered by a bluish-white glare.” [1] An atom bomb, the first to be dropped on a human population, had exploded 580 meters above the ground. A 4.4-square-mile section of the city center was more or less instantly flattened, and subsequent fires, which raged for more than eight hours, consumed much of what hadn’t been pulverized by the bomb’s concussive force. It is now estimated that nearly two-thirds of the approximately seventy-six thousand buildings in Hiroshima were completely destroyed or burned; approximately seventy thousand, or more than nine out of ten, were at least “half-destroyed/half-burned/slightly damaged.” Soot from the fires, along with dirt and mud, was swept up into the air by whirlwinds and returned to earth as highly toxic, sticky “black rain.” Those who happened to be within 1.2 kilometers of the detonation point (known as “air zero”) had only a fifty percent chance of surviving; any closer and the mortality rates jump to between eighty and one hundred percent. The city’s population that August is estimated to have been 340,000, and it is now believed that approximately 140,000 people died as a result of the bomb. These are the accepted facts about the devastation wrought in Hiroshima, ostensibly to bring the war with Japan, and thus World War II, to a close. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, killing an additional 80,000 people, and on August 15 Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender.

We know what such explosions look like: a tall stem of smoke and debris, often several miles high, that disperses horizontally once it reaches sufficient altitude. While natural forces such as volcanic eruptions can cause these mushroom-shaped clouds, they are most closely associated with nuclear detonations. The United States government conducted hundreds of nuclear-bomb tests between 1945 and 1962, and images of the explosions have passed from the realm of scientific and military documentation into the broader culture. The mushroom cloud is the icon of the nuclear age.

It is much harder, however, to picture what the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked like. This is not for lack of visual evidence. Japanese photographers catalogued the grim aftermath of concrete rubble and seared skin. A companion plane laden with photographic equipment, later dubbed Necessary Evil, accompanied the Enola Gay on the fateful mission that dropped the bomb. Hiroshima was targeted, at least in part, because its infrastructure presented a near-ideal environment in which to study the effects of the bomb, and after the attack President Truman duly sent members of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) to Japan. A team of photographers made over 1,100 images, two-thirds of which were included in a secret three-volume report submitted to the government in 1947. Such images, however, despite occasionally appearing in books and other public venues, have not permeated Western consciousness. The presentation at the International Center of Photography of several dozen photographs from the USSBS archive is therefore a chance to become better acquainted with the fearsome power at human disposal.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. Rooftop view of atomic destruction, looking southwest, Hiroshima. October 31, 1945.

These small, black-and-white pictures were taken with technical rather than aesthetic intent. The seven photographers were interested in the effects of the bomb on the built environment, and therefore few people appear in the images. Most of the photographs are portraits of commercial or civic buildings; so few residential structures, which were typically made of wood, survived that the photographers decided not to document them. Standing amid the rubble is the façade and dome of the city’s commercial exhibition hall. So, too, is the coal-distribution company headquarters, the front of which seems to have been punched into the ground. There are views of school buildings, banks, insurance company headquarters, and the interior of Hiroshima City Hall’s auditorium, barren save for fine layer of burned litter scattered across the main floor and balcony. Other photographs reverse the perspective, and provide dramatic context for the close-ups and interior views. To make them, the photographers ascended to upper-story windows or the roof of standing buildings and pointed the camera lens outward at the desolate landscape. Because Hiroshima lies on a large, flat plain, the photographers could see relatively far into the distance. The horizon line is the meeting point of two undifferentiated shades of gray: on the one hand, the mostly featureless sky, and on the other the uninterrupted expanse of dusty concrete and plaster that once was a great city. The “burned-over area,” as it was called, extends all the way to the horizon, and it is in these pictures that viewers can most clearly discern the scale of the devastation.

A map presented in the gallery allows viewers to reconstruct some of the scientific findings of the photographers. Reproduced from a USSBS report, it includes not only lines demarcating the physical extent of the devastation but also points indicating the location of the buildings depicted in the photographs. Those willing to correlate between the map and the photographs can discern, in an amateur fashion, some of the scientific results of the USSBS survey. For example, buildings closer to ground zero (the point directly beneath the detonation) were likely to suffer from collapsed roofs or other structural damage that indicates the downward pressure of the blast. Those farther away were subject to the horizontal force of the explosion as it spread outward: normally upright steel beams torque away from ground zero as if blown by a strong wind. Farther away still, tree trunks and telephone poles remain upright, but the former have been shorn of all their branches—testament to the fact that the irradiated earth from which they grow is itself no longer natural.

The most complex and haunting photographs in the show, however, depict “flash burns.” In one image, the shadow of a valve used to seal off a pipe is projected onto the metal surface of the container to which it is attached. Visual habit leads viewers to believe that this is the effect of a sunny day. The caption belies this commonsense response: “‘Shadow’ of a hand valve wheel on the painted wall of a gas storage tank; radiant heat instantly burned paint where the heat rays were not obstructed.” In effect, the nuclear blast—its “bluish white glare”—turned some objects in Hiroshima into light-sensitive surfaces, resulting in what might technically if uneasily be called photograms. I say uneasily because of another, altogether sadder image also included in the show. Here we see the surface of a road, on which is chalked an arrow labeled the direction of blast. Two somewhat shapeless discolorations stretch away from small points in the direction indicated. Once again the caption, its neutral language betraying the photograph’s scientific purpose, redirects our understanding of the image: “Flash-burn on asphalt on bridge 20, 3,500 feet south from [air zero]. Shadow was cast by a man.” Two small circles marked in chalk indicate the placement of the man’s feet; one is slightly in front of the other, as if he were mid-stride. The “shadow,” this photogram-within-a-photograph, is likely the only extant evidence that someone died on that spot.

United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division. "Shadow of a hand valve wheel...." October 14 - November 26, 1945.

The terrible details disclosed by these photographs give ballast to the 2005 Japan Society exhibition “Little Boy,” curated by artist Takashi Murakami, which examined some of the artistic and cultural fallout of the 1945 attacks. (Its title came from the nickname of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.) The photographs included in this exhibition were originally meant to document the bomb’s effects and were used in the service of bettering civil defense architecture in the United States, yet seeing them in a public museum, shorn of their narrowly utilitarian purpose, allows them to serve other functions. These photographs can, for example, give specificity to debates over the proliferation and potential abuse of nuclear weapons, a prospect that will haunt us until the bombs’ abolition. And their presentation affords us an arena in which to sharpen the terms of debate about the contrary claims of secrecy and transparency upon violent government actions. Ditto the conversations about the necessity of such Necessary Evils, their moral and ethical implications. More than six decades have passed since we dropped the bomb, making this a politically safer exhibition for the museum to mount than its autumn 2004 show of Iraqi prison photographs from Abu Ghraib. “Hiroshima Ground Zero” is nonetheless in line with that earlier, daring curatorial effort, and reveals that temporal distance hardly depletes the shock of the images themselves.


[1] The Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical, and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings, trans. Eisei Ishikawa and David L. Swain (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 21. Additional details about the bombing and its effects described in the text are drawn from this volume.

Victoria Sambunaris

Published in Artforum, May 2011. To see additional photographs from this series, see this post on Time‘s Lightbox blog. To learn more about the exhibition, visit the Yancey Richardson Gallery website.

Untitled (Santa Elena Canyon), 2010

The border between the United States and Mexico has been contested since 1848, when the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended war between the countries. It took survey teams six years just to draw the line, then marked with small obelisks and stone mounds. Disputes arising from population growth and other forms of development necessitated that this survey work be redone in the 1890s, when more than two hundred additional monuments were erected. During the twentieth century, as towns and cities along the border grew, five hundred more markers were dedicated; in recent decades, they have been connected by fences, owing to fears of illegal border crossings. Throughout this history , images have played an important role in the recognition and policing of this boundary, from Arthur Schott’s ink drawings, created for the initial surveys, to contemporary video surveillance footage. Victoria Sambunaris, who drove twenty thousand miles along the border to take the photographs in her new, ongoing series, “The Border,” 2009–, aims to “transcend political, ethical, or environmental ideology.” Yet political questions give these serene, large-scale, mostly uninhabited views a palpable undertow.

What one notices first are the broad swaths of blue sky; the dun-colored Rio Grande River, wending sluggishly across the diptych Untitled (Boquillas del Carmen, Big Bend National Park), 2009; and the striated rock faces of Untitled (Santa Elena Canyon), 2010. The natural environment dwarfs the eighteen-foot-high fence that cuts through several of Sambunaris’s compositions like a rusty scar, and which, contrary to expectation, rarely serves as their primary focus. Sambunaris achieves this effect in part by taking her pictures from elevated vantage points, always situating the ostensible subject of her compositions within a much broader context. Though her work employs the visual clarity of nineteenth-century survey photographers like Timothy H. O’Sullivan, such practitioners served a government that saw the American West’s natural landscape as an untouched site of expansionist fantasy. Arriving more than a century later, Sambunaris can’t help but acknowledge that “the frontier” is now “the border”: Man and machine have transformed this landscape and its meaning, of which the fence is but one manifestation. This sentiment is in line with her recent images of the Alaskan oil pipeline and of western dams and mines, and helps to situate the pictures included here that feature freight trains and industrial-scale farming.

David Taylor, whose photographic series “Working the Line,” 2007–, began with an attempt to photograph all the remaining nineteenth-century boundary-marking obelisks, has come to incorporate border patrol agents, migrants, checkpoints, drugs, and guns into his photographs. Despite the fact that such subjects do not appear in her images, and that in some pictures she downplays the fence or even leaves it out altogether, Sambunaris’s series is nonetheless conditioned by political realities. She would not doubt acknowledge this if queried, since each of the eight photographs presented in this exhibition was shot from the American side of the border. For unstated reasons, she has yet to shoot from Mexico. Though she grants viewers visual access to the “other side,” as it were, the fact of her remaining in the US is nonetheless a reminder of what’s at stake in even the most tranquil of her images. Even where there isn’t a fence, as in her magisterial 2010 view of grasslands in Hereford, Arizona, there’s a divide. After all, swim halfway across the Rio Grande River, and you’ve illegally crossed into another country.

O. Winston Link

Published in Artforum, April 2011. For more information and additional images, see Robert Mann Gallery’s website.

O. Winston Link, NW883 Gooseneck Dam and No. 2, Maury River, Buena Vista, VA, 1956

O. Winston Link’s magnificent photographs of steam-powered locomotives, taken half a century ago, appear now to prefigure artistic projects with which gallery-goers are likely more familiar. In one image, the speeding locomotive seen through a living room window calls to mind Martha Rosler’s Vietnam-era collage series “Bringing the War Home, 1967-72.” Link’s picture of a massive engine racing across a railway bridge, beneath which a boy shoos cows and a couple sits in a car, or his image of a man sitting at the window of a third-floor apartment as a train lumbers along Main Street, offer a just-plausible surrealism perfected in recent decades by Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson. The railroad’s presence, even in images seemingly focused upon other aspects of small-town life, is akin to that of the nuclear reactors that hover forebodingly in several of the photographs published in Mitch Epstein’s book American Power (2009).

Yet unlike these successors, who self-consciously tell stories that are explicitly political or charged with psychological ambiguity, Link undertook a project that was relatively straightforward. He was a commercial photographer based in New York whose early love of trains was resuscitated while he was on assignment in 1955, when he took a side trip to watch a steam engine pass through town. Fascinated by the hulking machine and realizing that the Norfolk and Western lines comprised, as the exhibition title suggests, “The Last Steam Railroad in America,” Link tried to capture the tail end of the country’s century-long devotion to steam-powered travel. It was a five-year labor of love, resulting in more than two thousand images, each accompanied by a painstakingly detailed caption describing the location, the film used, the type of engine depicted, and the names of people included in the shot.

Link’s pioneering use of multiple flashbulbs to create dramatic nighttime images of unusual clarity and focal depth remains remarkable today. So, too, does his talent for directing the station managers and local citizens who populate his scenes and who often give the staged images an improvisational air. His compositional sense was unerring, as evidenced by the dramatic image of kids splashing in a creek beneath two bridges, across one of which chugs a train. Like Charles Sheeler’s iconic 1927 photograph of crossed conveyors at Ford’s River Rouge plant, the bridges in Link’s image form a dynamic X; in addition, the train and the children, at different distances from the lens, are both in focus, and all of this activity is framed by inky black sky and water.

O. Winston Link, NW1126 Hawksbill Creek Swimming Hole, Luray, VA, August 9, 1956

But no matter the photographs’ individual merits, which are many, their value accrues when seen in aggregate. Consider that Link began his project the same year that Robert Frank began his series “The Americans.” Consider, too, the vastly different Americas the two men captured. In contrast to Frank’s astringent scenes of a diverse and increasingly fragmented population, Link hymns small communities that swap news in the country store or congregate at the drive-in theater. These Virginia towns, Link’s photographs suggest, were held together by the steel rails that carried people and mail from one place to another and that provided many citizens a means to their livelihoods. It can be argued that we still live in the world Robert Frank first revealed to us. By contrast, even in our country’s remotest corners, the life Link so painstakingly captured has perished—not least due to the centrifugal effects of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, passed while Link was working on this series. The social, spatial, and economic relationships he revealed, not to mention the omnipresent engines themselves, are an important aspect of our nation’s history. We are lucky not only that he arrived to capture them when he did, but also that he documented them with such determination and flair.

An-My Lê

Published in Artforum, December 2010.

An-My Lê, Manning the Rail, USS Tortuga, Java Sea, 2010, color photograph, 40 x 56 1/2"

For the past decade, public attention paid to the United States armed forces has understandably focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet our country currently has more than 1.4 million actively deployed troops, and an overwhelming number of enlistees are not at this moment patrolling Baghdad streets or stalking the mountains of Bamyan Province. Where are they? What do they do? An-My Lê’s new body of photographs begins to answer these questions. Set in locales ranging from Indonesia and Vietnam to Ghana and the North Arabian Gulf, the works here testify to the geographic spread of American military deployments. Lê’s human subjects, nearly all quite young, dispense medical and dental services, provide security for disaster-relief efforts, conduct military exercises, and patrol the world’s waterways. Yet these technically accomplished and formally resolved images raise other questions that are far more difficult to answer.

In the past, Lê has focused her lens on Vietnam War reenactors in North Carolina and Virginia; a marine training facility in California; and, in the series “Events Ashore,” military exercises and scientific exploration at water’s edge on several continents. In these series, she has attended to, among other themes, the living legacies of past conflicts, the cultural training of combat troops, and the interlocking interests of corporations and the American military. But she has also probed photographic and artistic conventions, and this exhibition was no different. Are these new works war photographs? Lê is no Robert Capa or Ashley Gilbertson, experiencing the heat of battle alongside those who are fighting, but for many young men and women, the prosaic activities she depicts are what military service entails. The images containing the most “action” reveal not actual battles but training exercises. Are the scenes staged? The clarity, frontality, and formal balance of Jungle Survival Training, Indonesia or Beach Landing Site, Haiti, both 2010, lend to these images a sense of the uncanny reminiscent of Jeff Wall’s photographs.

Even in the face of such sublimely beautiful images as Manning the Rail, USS Tortuga, Java Sea, 2010, which recalls a Canaletto painting of a busy Venetian lagoon, questions about framing and context direct the viewer to larger political concerns. How stage-managed is the American military presence in these far-flung corners of the globe? Portrait Studio, USS Ronald Reagan, North Arabian Gulf, 2009, is perhaps emblematic, in that it serves as an allegory for the acts of disclosure inherent in Lê’s broader project. In this image, naval studio photographer Briana Brotzman prepares Lieutenant Commander Ron Flanders for an official portrait somewhere in the bowels of a ship. We see not the final “message” but instead the act of messaging, and are reminded, too, that Lê’s access to these scenes is itself partly intertwined with that messaging effort. Two other photographs, US Naval Hospital Ship Mercy, Vietnam, 2009, and Ship Security, US Naval Hospital Ship Comfort, Haiti, 2010, are views of essentially the same subject from different vantage points. The former depicts a seemingly benign hospital ship floating in placid waters, its multiple painted red crosses broadcasting a peaceful objective; the latter, shot from the deck of a different hospital ship, shows a man in camouflage, flanked by a spotlight and a mounted machine gun. Exhibited together, these images suggest that the military’s dual aims of “capturing hearts and minds” (through, in these cases, humanitarian efforts) and projecting and maintaining military power rest uneasily together. The proliferation of amateur war imagery, often captured by military service members themselves, has complicated our understanding of what takes place on and around the battlefield; by turning her large-format camera on the many other kinds and locations of American military activity, Lê enlarges our conception of the armed services still further.

An-My Lê, US Naval Hospital Ship Mercy, Vietnam, 2009, color photograph, 40 x 56 1/2"

Nathan Carter

Published in Artforum, November 2010. For more information about and additional images of the exhibition, click here.

Nathan Carter, WILLIAMSBURG BROOKLYN PUBLIC HOUSING PROJECT CONCEALED SWINDEN CALL AND RESPONSE, 2010, steel, aluminum, acrylic and enamel paint, dimensions variable

This was a restrained exhibition. Of course, when speaking of Nathan Carter’s willfully eccentric, vibrant sculptures, restrained is a relative term. The flags, legible icons, and letterforms for which he is known, as well as the overt references he has made to maps, racetracks, soccer teams, and communications systems, have been mostly purged from his newest works. The unwieldy ham-radio-chatter titles have likewise been trimmed. In fact, having spent the past decade as a ventriloquist who made the modernist visual language of Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, and Joan Miró speak to contemporary issues—networking, long-range communication, globalization—Carter now seems content to focus on form and to experiment with new materials. And he does so with considerable success: The seven sculptures presented here evince a knack for balancing abstract shapes and bright colors in a manner that seems both spontaneous and masterfully assured.

In these works, Carter incorporates trash lifted from the streets of Brooklyn, affixing broken taillight covers, bottle caps, corks, wood, Plexiglas, and the like to steel armatures and often suspending the abstract fields of colorful shapes a few inches from the gallery walls. Sometimes these found objects are arranged loosely, as in BROOKLYN STREET TREASURES FROM NEW UTRECHT AVENUE… (all works 2010), which appears windblown, as if its pieces were scuttling from right to left. Elsewhere, they are given a tighter formation, as in two roughly six-foot-diameter “radar reflectors,” one multicolored and one painted white, that hung in front of a baby blue wall. These assemblages resolve as perfectly as composed two-dimensional images; not a Gatorade cap or a shard of Plexiglas is out of place. A freestanding work, VERONICA VEX FREE FOR ALL RADIO HOUR…, is visible in the round and not as successful. The geometric shapes painted onto and objects hanging from its two vertical supports are too small, too fussy, for its overall scale; the sculpture packs none of the iconic punch of the others arranged around the gallery walls. The largest work in the exhibition, WILLIAMSBURG BROOKLYN HOUSING PROJECT…, by contrast, is also the most promising. Here Carter’s shapes are affixed to thin steel poles, which extend from the wall at various distances, creating a shallow space not unlike a stage. The effect is heightened by several freestanding shapes, actors amid this roughly geometric stage set, and by three additional steel wires, painted black, two of which float atop the composition like a theatrical curtain. The sculpture insists, like nearly all the others presented here, on a frontal view. Yet the varied distance of each piece from the wall at least implies movement in three directions, and nominally creates a field through which one can move.

To casual viewers, the informality of these works may mask the confidence required to make them. Labor was an obvious element of Carter’s earlier sculptures, especially his densely tangled, painted-wood reliefs. The equipoise achieved here, however, appears more slapdash, as if making the works were a matter simply of sticking scraps into place. Yet these lean, smart, formal exercises confirm Carter’s place in the company of talented artists, from Tony Feher to Evan Holloway to Jason Meadows, who, in their alchemical gestures, impart to simple, undistinguished objects a second life.

Installation view, Casey Kaplan Gallery, 2010

Installation view, Casey Kaplan Gallery, 2010

Thomas Struth

Published on Artforum.com on May 23, 2010. To see the review in context, click here. For the exhibition press release and a selection of images, click here.

Thomas Struth, Grazing-Incidence-Spectometer Max Planck IPP, Garching, 2010, color photograph, 46 7/8 x 58 1/4".

In this exhibition of new large-scale color photographs, Thomas Struth discloses realms largely hidden from public view: experimental science and high-tech industry. Struth’s images do not offer a comprehensive representation of how the plants and laboratories he portrays actually function. Nor, for that matter, can we understand from viewing the photos how the industries depicted therein—pharmaceutical production, space exploration, physics research, offshore drilling—are integrated in a globalized market. But the claustrophobic images of wires, tubes, and rarefied machinery reveal something else altogether: Beneath the rhetoric of continual discovery and behind the millions of dollars given over to such research lies a surprisingly fragile, patched-together infrastructure. Tubes are fastened together with blue tape; pipes are hastily enclosed in crumbling insulation or torn bubble wrap; the rubber casings on various machines reveal cracks. In a way, Struth’s dispassionate, analytic photographic style is more imperviously machinelike than the physical plants themselves.

These images are also remarkable as compositions. The show’s largest photographs pull one’s eyes deep into the background at the center of the image. In Space Shuttle Endeavour Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, USA, 2008, the tiled underside of the shuttle blocks a view of the full height of the hangar in which it sits; a phalanx of scaffolding and ladders, scattered beneath it in a V-shape, creates a passageway that points to the shuttle’s nose and beyond. Semi Submersible Rig DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island, South Korea, 2007, achieves a similar effect. Rusting steel chains stretch back from the immediate foreground to the enormous four-legged rig they help anchor. Most of the other photographs, however, are insistently frontal. That they are reminiscent of the series “Paradise,” images of verdant forests that Struth first photographed more than a decade ago, ingeniously reminds viewers that a strict division between the natural and the artificial is overly simplistic.

“Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place”

Published in Artforum, May 2010. The exhibition remains on view at the International Center of Photography in New York until May 9. For more information, click here.

Alan B. Stone, Untitled (Lachine Canal), 1954, black-and-white photograph

We’re drawn to the past for countless reasons and revisit it in myriad ways, but analytic, interrogative approaches to what has come before us predominate in today’s art world. Even nostalgia itself is codified and anatomized: Witness, for example, how the phenomenon of “Ostalgie,” or nostalgia for life in the former East Germany, has been cross-examined in exhibitions and essays. In this context, “Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place” is refreshing for the ways in which guest curator David Deitcher has woven his own biography and hometown memories into a sophisticated appreciation of his subject. The exhibition is an exercise in neither formalist connoisseurship nor rote history. Sampling a little-known body of photographs created by Stone in the 1950s and ‘60s, under his own name and that of his Mark One Studio, the show deftly evokes what mid-twentieth-century Montreal looked like from a gay man’s point of view.

The bifurcation of authorship is the first hint of the social, cultural, and legal divisions that marked gay life in that time and place. As himself, Stone produced street views of the city’s historic downtown; admiring portraits of sailors, stevedores, Boy Scots, and others; and images of recreation, whether swimmers in and around the Lachine Canal or young men playing ice hockey. Sober depictions of newsstands and granaries contribute to a useful understanding of Montreal as a working city tied to its waterways. On the other hand, Stone’s Mark One Studio, established in 1953 in the basement of the home he shared with his mother and sister, produced “beefcake”—erotic images of male bodybuilders in scant attire that, passing under the sign of either art or sport, were distributed as small-scale bundles of prints or in magazines with titles like Physique Illustrated and Ahoy. These images, here presented in a vitrine, reorient the viewer’s impression of Stone’s more or less innocuous black-and-white photographs, as do the reproductions of homophobic newspaper articles from the era.

One notices, first, how Stone’s Montreal is almost entirely out-of-doors, as if in acknowledgment of the constraints placed upon gay men who wished to congregate in residential or commercial venues. Likewise, as Deitcher notes in his catalogue essay, the pictures seem taken “on the sly”: The photographs are shot from odd vantage points, and dynamic compositions lend several of them a superficial resemblance to vertiginous shots of ‘20s Paris by modernist masters such as Brassaï or Cartier-Bresson. The historical interest of Stone’s pictures rests in these subtle hints of gay life being carried out by necessity in the interstices of the dominant culture. Yet Deitcher, a gay man who grew up in Montreal during the era of the pictures on view, chooses to explain as well the personal interest Stone’s work holds for him. In doing so, the frisson of desire is rendered central in images that might otherwise be primarily understood as illustrations for an argument about injustice. Untitled (Torso), 1963, for instance, which depicts the sculpted bare chest of a man standing behind a tree trunk, his head obscured by the bark, is not merely a record of the use of parks as trysting locations. It is exhibited on a wall that contextualizes it historically, with a photograph of a sign that reads PERSONS OF GOOD EDUCATION AND MORALS ARE INVITED TO THIS PARK and the reproduction of a newspaper story that describes homosexuals’ “mincing gait.” But, especially as framed by Deitcher’s tales of his fugitive interactions with beefcake pictures as a teen, Untitled (Torso) also retains its original, mildly illicit heat.

Alan B. Stone, Untitled (Steve by Mark-One), 1964, black-and-white photograph

Eirik Johnson, “Sawdust Mountain”

Published on Artforum.com on April 23, 2010. To see the review in context, click here. For more information about the exhibition and related book, click here.

Eirik Jonson, Below the Glines Canyon Dam on the upper Elwah River, Washington, 2008, color photograph, 50 x 40"

Wandering, Pac-Man-like, along Manhattan’s street grid on a sunny afternoon, it’s easy to romanticize the Pacific Northwest: air heavy with moisture, smeary gray sky, carpet of deep green foliage on every nearby hillside. Such pastoral imaginings are obviously deficient, not least because human traces so rarely intrude upon them. A recent spate of creative work, however, emphasizes more complex negotiations between people and this corner of the national landscape. There is, for example, the dreary, anonymous Portland depicted in Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, or musician Phil Elverum’s emotionally freighted relationship with Mt. Erie in rural Washington State. Photographer Eirik Johnson’s series “Sawdust Mountain,” 2005–2009, the subject of this exhibition and a related book, depicts sites located somewhere between a colorless urban fringe and a mystical rural retreat: Nature predominates, but it is heavily worked. Shot over four years in Washington, Oregon, and northern California, the series concentrates on logging and fishing. Johnson’s lucidness about environmental despoliation and economic finitude manifests itself most clearly in pictures taken from elevated vantage points, which allow viewers to see how landscape is constructed. This distance is nicely counterbalanced by the intimacy of Johnson’s portraits, which betray sympathy both for his human subjects—hatchery employees, ecologists doing fieldwork, independent shopkeepers—and for the region in which he was raised.

The overall narrative is of decline and germinating hope for renewal. This point is made explicit in Johnson’s juxtaposition of photographs depicting a stack of logs in a multinational company’s sort yard and a nursery of western larch seedlings. It’s visible as well in the rust-stained, dilapidated former Masonic lodge now rehabilitated as The Sweater Store, South Bend, Washington, 2005. It may not be much, this picture seems to say, but it’s a living. The building itself is centered in the frame and depicted frontally, echoing Walker Evans’s churches and storefronts. Other images play with reflections in windows; stagger objects from foreground to background; or present pictures within pictures. The influence of older photographers, from Carleton Watkins to Robert Adams to Joel Sternfeld, can be detected in these works. But no forebear dominates, and Johnson’s vision of a Pacific Northwest resilient in the face of difficulty is clearly articulated and entirely his own.

“Joe Deal: New Work”

Published in Aperture 199, Summer 2010. “Joe Deal: New Work” was presented at the RISD Museum of Art, Providence, September 4, 2009–January 3, 2010. A version of the show is on view at Robert Mann Gallery, New York, until May 8, and will then travel to the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, June 5–August 1, 2010. Deal’s West and West: Reimagining the Great Plains is published by the Center for American Places.

Joe Deal, Flint Hills, 2006, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

Joe Deal, Flint Hills, 2006, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

It is not hard to see how the Great Plains might have driven early American pioneers to agoraphobic distraction. Photographer Joe Deal hails from this empty region, and after several decades cataloging the interaction of people and landscape, often in the farther American West, he has returned here for his new series West and West. At first glance these square-format black-and-white photographs, twenty-three of which were installed close together in one room of this exhibition, appear relatively characterless, their uniform horizon line encircling the space. But, like Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ostensibly simple photographs of open seas, upon closer inspection Deal’s images reveal a landscape full of incident. The land is threaded with streams, or is interrupted occasionally by a knotty rock formation. Small hills calve and fold. A random tree punctuates one scene like an exclamation mark.

Deal has compared the camera’s imposition of a frame on this environment to the mechanical act performed by surveyors. Yet early rationalist grids—such as Thomas Jefferson’s proposed division of the land west of the Appalachians, or the Kansas-Nebraska Act—caused speculators to disregard the landscape’s variety. Deal’s camera, by contrast, lovingly catalogs its diversity. The startling incongruity from picture to picture is highlighted by a trio of images hung close to one another in the show: Wash, Red Hills (2007), in which a shall natural depression reveals stratified layers of rock; Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains (2005), in which thin clouds hover just above a featureless black expanse; and Flint Hills (2006), which is strewn with lunar-looking rocks. The tension Deal achieves between strict regularity and variety, between grid and ground, is in large measure the source of these photographs’ power.

On another level, the minimalist compositions of West and West—each print is perfectly bisected by the horizon line—comment on what constitutes “landscape” to the human eye. A swipe of sky and swipe of ground: it’s as simple a definition as an artist can deploy. That Deal may have such abstract questions of representation in mind is underscored by the pictures from another recent series, Kars and Pseudokarst, installed in a second room. In this project, which takes its name from the two often indistinguishable types of caves it depicts, Deal has chosen to shoot both from the inside and the outside of the caves, resulting in two very different types of prints. When he peers in, the allover compositions give the impression that the cave mouths, whether dusty and rocky or fringed with green, allow passage through the surface of the print, literalizing the cliché about representational pictures being a “window onto a world.” Even more striking is the sensation, felt when looking at the images taken from within the caves’ dark interiors, that one is positioned inside a camera lens as it admits the light of day. In these two series, Deal, an integral part of the New Topographics cohort, subtracts the signs of humankind’s incurions into the “natural” landscape, which he is well known for recording. Yet he does not sacrifice the complexity of his meditations upon that landscape—upon not only the land itself, but also his particular means of representing it.

Joe Deal, Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains, 2005, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

Joe Deal, Horizon and Night Sky, High Plains, 2005, carbon pigment print, 24 x 24".

Anne Collier

Published in Artforum, April 2010. For additional images and information about the exhibition, click here.

Anne Collier is an exceedingly patient artist, revisiting key themes again and again to refine the delicate balance between what she has termed her “forensic aesthetics” and her photographs’ “psychological or emotive” content. This exhibition, her first full-scale one-person show in New York, came after more than a dozen other solo presentations, including a small backroom debut at this venue in early 2008 that offers several illuminating points of comparison. A 2007 image of a self-help book inviting its readers to outline individual goals found its corollary in First Person 1–4, 2009, a four-part photograph of a book offering “your personality profile checklist.” A photograph of a poster depicting a sunset (Studio Sunset, 2007) included in the earlier exhibition morphed, in this show, into Open Book #1 (Crépuscules), 2009, a picture of hands holding open a book to reveal a very similar image. Each work Collier makes achieves specific effects, yet so uniform and seemingly transparent is her photographic technique, so coherent her taste, and so structurally sound the conceptual scaffolding that underpins her images that viewers seem to admire or dismiss her art in equal measure. Such a neat bifurcation is perhaps testament to the balance, suggested above, that she achieves with each picture. Yet because her photographs appear so thoroughly premeditated, it can be easy for naysayers and proponents alike never to really think about them.

Anne Collier, Developing Tray #2 (Grey), 2009.

Anne Collier, Developing Tray #2 (Grey), 2009.

I like Collier’s photographs, and I believe that, as is true of much that is elegant and stoic at once, they reward effort. Her artistic process, by which she captures vernacular objects in an antiseptic “commercial” style, is reliable and flawless. Her subject matter, too, is consistent, with album covers, posters, eyes, cameras, self-help literature, and media depictions of women figuring repeatedly. The earlier Kern show included an image of Tim Buckley’s LP Happy Sad, while this one presents an image of an album cover by the Smiths that itself reproduces a still from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. As these examples suggest, Collier’s photographs are satisfyingly clever, while their inviolable stylistic consistency dramatizes the fact that one’s criteria for judgment are generally a matter of intuition. The lyric or romantic imagery in the photographs, meanwhile, is chosen in part to invoke sentimental, private associations in the viewer, thus rendering dispassionate discrimination impossible. To assess this body of work, one must think concretely not only about the images but about what one brings to them.

Such concerns arise alongside pressing questions that emerge from the artist’s approach to her medium. For Collier, our understanding of photography is conditioned by its everyday use, as well as by the odd process through which we invest impersonal, commercial items such as books or record sleeves with the highly personal meanings she so ably induces. Likewise, she explores the complicated weave of presentation and concealment that inheres in the use of a camera—which is a machine—for personal expression: Witness May/June 2009 (Cindy Sherman, Mark Seliger), 2009, which appropriates a media image of an artist known for camouflaging herself, or Developing Tray #2 (Grey), 2009, in which Collier’s own eye gazes out at the viewer from a print submerged in developer. This latter image, visually stark and conceptually compacted, dry as can be yet possessing a surprising vulnerability, underscores just how much value Collier extracts from the seemingly narrow territory she has chosen to explore.

Anne Collier, Open Book #1 (Crépuscules), 2009.

Anne Collier, Open Book #1 (Crépuscules), 2009.

Anne Collier, Studio Sunset, 2007.

Anne Collier, Studio Sunset, 2007.

Roger Ballen, “Boarding House”

Published in Artforum, February 2010. For additional images and information about the exhibition, see this page on the Gagosian Gallery website or visit the artist’s website. A book of photographs from this series is published by Phaidon.

Roger Ballen, Boarding House, 2008

No photographic, or even artistic, category quite encompasses the complicated, engrossing, and at times unsettling images in South Africa–based artist Roger Ballen’s new series “Boarding House,” 2003–2008, several dozen images from which made up this large exhibition. Though the artworks are consistently square-format black-and-white photographic prints, they represent a combination of photography, theatrical performance, drawings, and sculpture. The images were made in collaboration with the residents of a Johannesburg warehouse that, from Ballen’s description, seems like a miniature shantytown—a warren of tiny rooms that for decades has been its own ecosystem. There, some of society’s marginalized figures (a few labor in nearby mines, although many are entirely destitute) scratch out an existence of minimal comfort, their small dwellings divided not by solid walls but by rugs, sheet metal, and other provisional materials.

What differentiates these pictures from the portraits Ballen made in the early to mid-1990s and his two most recent series, published in book form as Outland (2001) and Shadow Chamber (2005), is that he has reversed the priority given to his human and nonhuman subjects. Whereas those earlier photographs depicted men, women, and children in contorted poses and faintly repulsive scenarios that simultaneously elicited and rebuffed the viewer’s empathy, in “Boarding House” there are few actual subjects with which to identify. The already claustrophobic, airless interiors of the building have been further flattened by Ballen’s bright flash, and in the shallow compositional field that results one finds not whole bodies but parts: feet dangling into one picture from the top of the frame; hands reaching up from the bottom of another; noses and lips and eyes partially visible behind fabric panels or other obscuring devices. These human fragments are now just one more element in Ballen’s macabre theater. What has come to the forefront are animals (snakes, tarantulas, ducks, pigs, puppies, kittens); tangles of wire and other detritus, such as children’s toys; and, most prominently, the expressive, somewhat crude figurative drawings on the otherwise bare rear walls of these grimy dioramas. It is in creating these sometimes dense scribbles and human outlines, along with selecting sculptural props to appear in the compositions, that the boarding house residents participate actively in Ballen’s project.

The oddness and seeming cruelty of Ballen’s earlier work, in which the subjects often appeared to perform their abjection for the camera, has been elevated here to a more abstract, poetic plane—one that may be all the crueler for the artist’s ability to aestheticize, and therefore mask, real destitution. Nonetheless, Ballen is a talented dramaturge, and throughout the series he maintains a disturbingly exquisite tension between he squalor and dissolution he depicts and a formal control that highlights the constructedness of each scenario, its collaborative, semifictional nature. In this equipoise, “documentary” realism becomes somewhat unreal. Unlike his earlier work, there is nothing specifically South African about the images in this series: The artist intends these miniature blasted landscapes to represent a psychological state dwelling somewhere within all of us. His descriptive precision, image to image, makes that claim to universality more plausible than most made by artists. One can imagine the rips and tears in the fabric hangings as psychological or emotional wounds, or the doors that lead only farther into the boarding house, never out, as reflective of the labyrinthine pathways of thought. Whether one proves able to relate to the bleak mental landscape of these astringent, absorbing compositions is another matter.

Roger Ballen, Scavenging, 2004

Roger Ballen, Squawk, 2005

“Dance with Camera”

Published in Aperture 198, spring 2010. The exhibition remains on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia until March 21, and then travels to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where it will be on view from August 7 to October 17. See also this post on a wonderful Hilary Harris film included in the exhibition.

Joachim Koester, Tarantism, 2007, still from a silent 16-mm film.

Many variables structure the exchange between cameras and dancers, including whether the lens captures a still image or motion, whether the camera itself is static or moving, whether the performers acknowledge the camera’s presence, and whether the camera aims for a synoptic overview or fragmented details. The small first gallery of “Dance with Camera,” an exhibition and screening program organized by Jenelle Porter for Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, includes work that vary these characteristics like reels in a slot machine. In the process they offer a succinct introduction to the show’s catholic approach to its subject. Elegantly composed photographs by Christopher Williams and Kelly Nipper suggest the passage of time from mobile and fixed vantage points, respectively. A video of Eleanor Antin’s ungainly attempts to assume ballet poses for a male photographer belies the elegance of his pictures of her, which hang on the wall nearby. Mike Kelley’s static eight-and-a-half-minute video of two dancers performing on a laboratory-like stage set seems like unmanned CCTV footage. In contrast, Charles Atlas’s Fractions I (1977) alternates black-and-white and color footage of Merce Cunningham’s company dancing a work that was intended to be recorded: as each camera tracks the performers, it passes before monitors displaying what other cameras are recording, creating a kind of picture-within-a-picture.

Round the corner into the museum’s main spaces and Cunningham himself appears, in another Atlas recording (included in a “video kiosk” highlighting inspirations for the show) and in a 2007 film by Tacita Dean in which he gives a majestically reserved performance of John Cage’s 4’33”. Yet “Dance with Camera” is by no means limited to artists recording professional dancers. A pair of recent videos by Oliver Herring document the stout painter Joyce Pensanto acting out choreographic fantasies with younger male partners. Two generations earlier, Bruce Nauman tapped his way around a square marked off on his studio floor, and Bruce Conner captured Toni Basil’s delirious gyrations against a black backdrop, a piece that rhymes nicely with Joachim Koester’s 2007 film Tarantism, in which a group of young men and women convulse uncontrollably in a similarly featureless environment. In his 2007 film Untitled (Agon), Elad Lassry deployed suggestions outlined in Doris Humphrey’s 1958 book The Art of Making Dances to position his cameras for the documentation of the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s 1957 ballet Agon. Lassry’s film is one of the few included here to offer not only exquisite compositions but also, with its close-up views of the dancers’ faces in between performances, some sense of just who is in front of the camera.

The plethora of filmic components in this presentation inevitably creates minor problems, such as sound bleed and distractions in one’s peripheral vision. But unlike many surveys that rely on time-based media, “Dance with Camera” is admirably well programmed with works that are varied in their approach but of relatively short duration. A two-hour visit neither exhausts a viewer’s patience nor leaves one with the sinking feeling of having missed great swaths of what was on offer. The exhibition successfully presents dance as a profitable frame of reference through which to understand anew collaboration, narrative propulsion, the body, and other topics artists wrestle with today.

Installation view. From left: Tacita Dean, Merce (Manchester), 2007; Elad Lassry, Untitled (Agon), 2007. Photo: Aaron Igler.

Two other notes: First, the catalogue for the exhibition, designed by Conny Purtill of the Purtill Family Business, is wonderfully put together. Not only does it feature an impressive (and impressively long) essay by Porter, but it includes choice reprints that span several decades. These texts reflect upon both specific artworks in the exhibition and the general issues it raises. It’s a lovely object, one well worth having in your library if the issues addressed by the exhibition interest you. Second, as my interest in photography grows it has been a pleasure to contribute to Aperture, and this issue includes a plethora of articles I’m looking forward to reading, including Geoffrey Batch’s review of “The Pictures Generation,” Tim Davis’s review of the new “New Topographics” exhibition, and my talented friend Alan Gilbert’s essay on Walid Raad’s art.

Jason Dodge

Published in Artforum, January 2010. To see more images from the exhibition, and to download its press release, click here.

Jason Dodge, Seven Homing Pigeons..., detail, 2009.

Jason Dodge, Seven Homing Pigeons..., detail, 2009.

From Trisha Donnelly to Jonathan Monk to Simon Starling, Casey Kaplan Gallery represents a number of artists whose conceptually inflected artwork constructs or relies upon narrative scaffolding. So, too, does Jason Dodge’s slow-burn art. His sixth exhibition at this gallery was visually unprepossessing but upon reflection revealed engaging emotional and psychological complexities. Take, for example, in order of imagined altitude / an astronomer, a meteorologist, an ornithologist, a geologist, and a civil engineer, cut pockets from their trousers (all works 2009). One would be hard-pressed to know, without the title, what to make of the small pile of pieces of fabric resting on a pedestal. The idiosyncratic professional hierarchy suggested by the arrangement, funny on its own, is buttressed by knowledge of Above the Weather, 2007, an earlier work (not in this show) for which Dodge commissioned a Polish woman to knit a length of yarn equivalent to the distance from the surface of the earth to the height at which one is “above the weather.” Together, these sculptures manifest Dodge’s sky-gazing Romantic conflation of science and poetry, perhaps akin to that of the enthusiastic amateurs Richard Holmes describes in his appropriately titled recent book The Age of Wonder (2008).

As evidenced in the rest of this exhibition, for Dodge, poetry most often takes precedence. That was the show’s chief strength and its primary liability. As flat-footed works such as light and glove or sleeping bag / air / a tenor recorder suggest, it can be exceedingly difficult to communicate to viewers the ineffable meanings that cling to demure arrangements of everyday objects. Your moveable and un-moveable parts / a broken furnace removed from house, and a box / that carried a new furnace demonstrates the limit of this methodology at its other extreme. The objects Dodge selected—a broken furnace and the box of its replacement—suggest rich connections to both a city’s arterial infrastructure systems and to the lives once and soon to be literally warmed by the furnace. It is his self-conscious intervention into this arrangement, two small pieces of pink paper on which the word VIOLINS is written, that comes off as affected and twee. A current (electric) / through / (A) tuning fork / and light achieves a better balance. No more than a lightbulb whose long electrical cord has been sliced open to allow the copper wiring to be soldered to the ends of a tuning fork, the sculpture prompts koanlike questions such as, What is the sound of light?

The strongest artwork in the exhibition alone proved the value of Dodge’s explorations at the edge of sentimentality. (Its descriptive title is too long to reproduce here.) To make the work, Dodge typed a woman’s full married name, divided into syllables, on n arrow strips of paper that he affixed to the legs of homing pigeons, which returned to Berlin from Kraków, Poland. He did the same for the woman’s maiden name, though this time the pigeons carried the paper slips from western Ohio to New York. Her Germanic maiden name, Eleanor M. Edelmann, hints at a personal history that might likewise have included an emigration from Kraków or Berlin to the United States. A missing syllable in her maiden name—what happened to that pigeon?—underscores the extreme uncertainty of any such flight. These conceptually linked journeys can also be tied to the risky, speculative process of artmaking itself. By installing the framed slips of paper on opposing walls, Dodge summoned a poignant affective charge that even the most detached viewer would have difficulty not feeling.

Jason Dodge, In Order of Imagined Altitude..., 2009.

Jason Dodge, In Order of Imagined Altitude..., 2009.

Robert Kinmont

Published in Artforum, December 2009. For more information about and to see additional images of Kinmont’s work, click here.

Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands (detail), 1969.

Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands (detail), 1969.

For those who arrived in the art world during the past three decades, Robert Kinmont was known, if at all, through the photograph of him performing a cliff’s-edge handstand reproduced in Lucy Lippard’s 1973 book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. That picture is part of Kinmont’s 8 Natural Handstands, 1969, which also finds him upended in desert grasslands and in a shallow river. The work is emblematic of the small but potent body of sculptures, photographs, and performances Kinmont created in the late 1960s and early ’70s, many of which were also on view in this exhibition, his first solo show in thirty-eight years. He stopped making art in 1975, initially taking care of his children so that his wife could finish a cookbook, and later studying Buddhism and working as a carpenter. In 2005 he picked up where he had left off. Sculptures of hollowed-out logs, one filled with peacock feathers, made in 1973, and one, from 2007, filled with dirt and children’s toys, point to continuity. But two other recent log sculptures—filled, respectively, with “fear” and the “sound of sawing”—suggest a change took place after all during his Zen-inflected intermission.

In both a literal and an abstract sense, an intimate connection to the northern California landscape marks Kinmont’s practice. Besides the hollowed-out logs, the show included Weed Container, 1964, a small, glass-framed box holding a collection of weeds; Wait, Wait, Wait, Grasp, 2008, a round cake made of walnut husks that was formed by their decomposition after they were collected in a plastic bucket; Hidden Meaning, 2006, a piece of willow that Kinmont whittled so that its two forked forms are joined only at their end points; and Willow Loop, 1972/2005, a delicate willow rod that Kinmont has formed into a circle by inserting one end into the other. My Favorite Dirt Roads, 1969/2009, a suite of sixteen deadpan black-and-white photographs and a framed text piece bearing the title, contains no organic material but nonetheless discloses an easy familiarity with a region that, without markets, might be impenetrable to outsiders. (In a recent interview, Kinmont speaks fondly and at length of the memories associated with just one of these roads.)

The amateurish aesthetic, the serial presentation, and especially the subtle traces of absurdist humor in works like My Favorite Dirt Roads and 8 Natural Handstands bring to mind roughly contemporaneous camera-based explorations by Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman. Similarly, some of Kinmont’s sculptures suggest the work of post-Minimalist or process-oriented artists. Source Support, 1970-73, in which four wooden legs each support two crossbeams, would collapse were it not for the joints swelling with water seeping into the wood from copper funnels. In a roundabout way this structural clarity and precariousness evokes Richard Serra’s “prop” sculptures while simultaneously prompting a unique kind of mindfulness—one must, after all, keep the work hydrated.

Corollaries for Kinmont’s recent output in today’s art world may be harder to find. Yet the artist’s infusion of late-’60s and early-’70s artistic strategies with a Buddhist concentration on the fullness of immediate experience seems more promising than most of today’s aesthetic and political rehashings of that earlier era. And, of course, unlike many of those now trading in nostalgia, Kinmont was actually there.

Jochen Lempert at Culturgest, Lisbon

Published in Aperture 197 (Winter 2009).

Oiseaux - Vögel, 1997/1999.

Oiseaux - Vögel, 1997/1999.

Seen one at a time, Jochen Lempert’s black-and-white photographs of the natural world and its inhabitants do not make great claims upon a viewer. Some have artless compositions; others seem out of focus or to have no subject at all. Encountered in aggregate, however, as in Field Work, the first major survey of Lempert’s photographs presented outside his native Germany, they possess a quietly mesmeric force. This exhibition, organized by Miguel Wandschneider, was an unforeseen revelation. Its scores of images, printed at modest scale on thick paper that the artist allows to warp slightly as it dries, were presented unframed, either singly or in rows and grids according to subject. These arrangements collapsed the distinctions between documentary naturalism and lyrical Conceptualism, the two contemporary photographic genres into which one is tempted to slot Lempert’s work. That Lempert’s silver-gelatin prints look more like charcoal drawings than they do conventional photographs further accentuates the artist’s singular achievement.

Lempert trained as a biologist before embarking upon his work as a photographer in the early 1990s, and the scientist’s rigorous avidity was one of this exhibition’s leitmotifs. He pursues his (mostly avian) subjects intently, finding them both in the field—whether urban or rural—and in the natural history museum. One series of images, each printed smaller than a sheet of letter-size paper, depicts lone cormorants moving gracefully through various urban environments: one is silhouetted against the sky between an imposing skyscraper façade and the delicate filigree of tree branches; another hovers just above a river’s surface at the bottom of a picture dominated by an apartment tower and a bridge. Still others register the concentric ripples set off by the birds’ feet as they flap across unknown waterways, evoking Adam Fuss’s tranquil studies of splashes. Several other series, arrayed in grids, depict the heads and beaks of various taxidermy specimens in a uniform style, calling to mind not only the presentations in natural-history museums but also Richard Prince’s collections of women extracted from advertisements and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial censuses.

A vein of romanticism counterbalanced these quasi-scientific investigations—and not every photograph has as its subject a bird or birds. One series, A Voyage on the North Sea (2007), includes six images of roiling waves cropped so that each presents the same horizon line. The quixotic nature of the endeavor—how could one document the sea in a systematic manner?—belies the uniformity of the presentation. In another gallery, five pictures of “photosynthesis”—lovely images of sunlight streaming through trees—were juxtaposed with a photographs of fire: depictions of the production of energy were neatly counterbalanced with depictions of its consumption. Lempert’s most abstruse and poetic collection of images, Symmetry and Architecture of the Body (1997-2005), was presented in the final gallery. Here one encountered photographs of coral, a flamingo, the back of a man’s head, a goat, a goose, and a tattoo of a bat on a woman’s shoulder, among other subjects. Rendered in the same unselfconscious style as many of the other photographs included here, the esoteric links between these images—they cohered visually but the logic of the juxtapositions remained elusive—further stressed what had become increasingly apparent as one moved through the show. Far from being mere “nature studies,” Lempert’s photographs are evidence of an artistic sensibility compelled to wrest order from circumstance, and, through the tight control of progression, variation, focus, scale, and exposure, to make of this order something enchanting.

Peter Hujar

Published on Artforum.com on September 25, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. The exhibition remains on view at Matthew Marks Gallery until October 24, 2009.

Peter Hujar, Children with Nun, Florence, 1958. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Peter Hujar, Children with Nun, Florence, 1958. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Some of the pictures in this exhibition were published a decade ago in Doubletake magazine; most have never been exhibited. They were made from 1956 to 1958, while Peter Hujar was in his early twenties, and most depict children at play in homes for the developmentally disabled in Southbury, Connecticut, and Florence, Italy. Neither sentimental nor aggressive, these small black-and-white images possess the empathy and compositional rigor we associate with Hujar’s unruffled portrait work of the 1970s and ’80s. Indeed, some, like Boy Rubbing His Eye, Southbury, 1957, and Girl Sucking Her Thumb, Florence, 1958, prefigure poses he would later favor: The children lie on their sides, each poking into the frame from its right-hand edge, both of them aware of the camera but obviously in their own worlds. Other photographs, like Children on a Slide, Southbury and Playground, Southbury, both 1957, have a kinetic dynamism that captures something of the children’s vitality while acknowledging that they are damaged. Hujar recognizes in each child an essential human dignity that, I think, would escape most of us, with our cultural biases and reflexive attunement to difference. (This openness would serve him well in later decades as he photographed the eccentric figures of the downtown demimonde.) In a gaggle of Italian children crowding around a swing set, watched over by a nun, one boy seems more severely disfigured. With arms and legs akimbo and head sharply cocked, he is visually separated from his playmates by being the only one dressed in dark clothing. And yet it is characteristic of this striking, humane body of work that it is his gaze that finds its way directly to Hujar’s lens.

Related reading: A wonderful essay on Hujar’s work by Vicki Goldberg that was published in the New York Times in 2000.

Troy Brauntuch

Published on Artforum.com on September 23, 2009. To see the review in context, click here. Troy Brauntuch’s exhibition remains on view at Friedrich Petzel Gallery until October 17.

Troy Brauntuch, White Light Study, 1979, paper, newsprint, photostats, cardboard, tape

Troy Brauntuch, White Light Study, 1979, paper, newsprint, photostats, cardboard, tape

This exhibition presents a three-decade sampling of Troy Brauntuch’s art, including a preponderance of small sketches, notes, and other source materials for his larger paintings and drawings. A narrow color palette and the artist’s casual blending of news photographs with personal snapshots certainly effaces distinctions between “public” and “private” imagery. But for all the talk of Brauntuch and his “Pictures generation” cohorts disinterestedly unthreading our media cocoon, it’s hard not to notice a powerful current of feeling swirling beneath these placid surfaces. It pulls in both directions. On a long wall, one finds images of mangled airplane cockpits and a woman extracted from rubble juxtaposed with depictions of the artist’s cat and a young Mickey Rourke draped in sunlight. Nearby, there is a handwritten note describing the tragic wartime plight of a bear: It died in the Sarajevo Zoo when autumn shook loose the canopy of leaves protecting the brave zookeepers who risked sniper fire to feed it. The tight crop of Boys Head, 1979, a small color print, renders the image ambiguous. Is it a boy, perhaps a wrestler, in the full flower of youth, or a piece of broken classical statuary ravaged by time and on the return journey to dust? The small-scale drama of attraction and repulsion is perfectly pitched in a 1987 photograph in which a pair of tall church windows, perhaps inlaid with images granting hope to the lost, are plunged into deep shadow. They look like open graves. A lesson about life seems to lurk in here somewhere, one that critic Daniel Mendelsohn recently found expressed in a Tennessee Williams stage direction: “How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.”

Florian Slotawa

Published in Artforum, September 2009.

Florian Slotawa, Besitzarbeit XII, 2009, installation view, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York.

Florian Slotawa, Besitzarbeit XII, 2009, installation view, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York.

Since 1996, German artist Florian Slotawa has created “Besitzarbeiten” (Property Works), a series of sculptural installations comprising various functional objects removed from his Berlin apartment and meticulously arranged in a gallery setting. The newest, Besitzarbeit XII, 2009, is the sole artwork in this exhibition, Slotawa’s first solo outing in New York. Created at a rate of about one per year, the “Besitzarbeiten” can be seen as a baseline, or control group, for his artistic practice, in which the primary gestures—designation, reorganization, juxtaposition, contextualization—are immaterial and the resultant artworks are increasingly diverse. In this sense, introducing New York audiences to Slotawa’s work with a sculpture from this series seems reasonable. The result, though, is also fairly insipid. Given the artist’s ability to respond inventively to specific exhibition sites—demonstrated last year at Arthouse in Austin, Texas, where Slotawa’s architectural intervention cannily revealed the building’s previous uses—it is unfortunate that the show, in one of the city’s most architecturally unique artistic venues, doesn’t take greater advantage of its setting.

Instead, the arrangement of objects stacked near one end of a long, narrow gallery determinedly mimics the compositional motifs of Piet Mondrian’s “Pier and Ocean” paintings, created in 1914 and 1915. The “artist’s household inventory,” as the wall label describes it, is here formed into a sturdy tower of domestic items including a roll of carpet, a steel shelving unit, a Bosch WFF 1401 washing machine, a kitchen sink, an armchair, a door with a dead bolt, and a wood dining table, among other objects. These materials, unaltered save for their extraction from the residential setting they normally inhabit, are balanced in a compact arrangement whose solids and voids do indeed recall the array of horizontal and vertical marks in the Mondrian paintings. (This fact is confirmed by the letter-size printouts of images of five such canvases taped to the wall in an adjacent room.) It is marginally more rewarding, however, to consider the conceptual, rather than the formal, precedents for Besitzarbeit XII.

Foremost among this work’s progenitors are Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Robert Smithson’s “non-site” sculptures. Slotawa’s consumer goods and household accoutrements are returned to his apartment after each exhibition, highlighting the artist’s power of arbitrary designation-as-art first employed by Duchamp nearly a central ago; the washing machine, for example, oscillates between receptacle for dirty clothes and artwork at the artist’s whim. Likewise, the presence of these objects in the gallery implies a partially emptied apartment in Berlin. Whereas Smithson effaced the distinction between “natural” and built environments with his importation into the gallery of sand, rocks, and other debris from the wilds of New Jersey, Slotawa’s series effaces the distinctions between private and public and between an artist’s home life and studio practice. (It is striking how different Slotawa’s series feels from its intellectual kin, Haus u r [House u r], 1985–, Gregor Schneider’s ongoing dark, psychologically fraught exploration of the domestic sphere.) These considerations, as well as the peekaboo relationship of each individual “Besitzarbeit” object to the art world and the art market are perhaps the most distinctive and intellectually fruitful aspects of this series of installations. In other recent works, including his 2008 solo exhibition at Sies + Höke in Düsseldorf, it appears that Slotawa was able to effect a palpable tension between the exhibited objects and their context. Here, unfortunately, the lack of engagement with the site’s unique history and physical characteristics does a disservice to the engaging conceptual concerns of Slotawa’s practice.

The exhibition is on view until September 14, 2009. For more information, click here.

Ry Rocklen

Published in Artforum, summer 2009.

Ry Rocklen, installation view, Marc Jancou Contemporary, New York, 2009

Ry Rocklen, installation view, Marc Jancou Contemporary, New York, 2009

Los Angeles artist Ry Rocklen’s fascination with the “soul residue” of discarded objects leads him to create sculptures that, while not anthropomorphic, possess many human qualities: tenderness, a complicated history, resilience despite apparent fragility. “Good Heavens,” the artist’s first exhibition in New York since the 2008 Whitney Biennial, emphasized that the seemingly childlike or quasi-mystical lens through which he views the world’s detritus is conjoined with a talent for drawing out and communicating the essential dignity in whatever catches his eye. Yet his alchemical transformations—a better word may be resuscitations—sidestep the conceptual concerns of many other artists who deploy ready-made objects in their work; one doesn’t sense Rocklen is too interested in the theoretical issues raised by Duchamp and his heirs. Instead, the affective power granted his sculptures by their art-world context seems to be, in his view, an extension of his scavenged items’ own intrinsic nobility.

In the gallery’s main room, triangular tiles, made from a claylike material and covered with grids of pennies, were laid over much of the floor, giving the gallery a burnished copper glow. Three hexagonal openings in the arrangement served as negative-space pedestals for freestanding sculptures. On the Fourth Day (all works 2009) is a limp, folded-over mattress encased in resin and pin-striped with iridescent purple tiles. Rocklen has stated that the mattress was found on day four of his hunt in Los Angeles alleys, but given the tiles’ winking reflections, the title also calls to mind the Book of Genesis: On the fourth day, God created lights in the firmament. “We are all in the gutter,” as Oscar Wilde once observed, “but some of us are looking at the stars.” Unbrella is a ripped-up patio umbrella coated in cornflower-blue epoxy putty and jammed into the seat of a wooden chair. The sculpture possesses the least formal allure of those presented here, and its reliance on a titular pun (reminiscent of Rocklen’s earlier works) seemed somewhat out of place. A third work, Siren, transforms a threadbare window curtain, anchored on a thin metal base and stiffened with epoxy putty, into a wavy, midnight-blue fence or hedgerow, its tattered ends reaching skyward. Rocklen has also driven hundreds of silver- and copper-colored tacks through the amterial, and the reflections captured in their small circular heads animate the work. Siren’s magnetism is potent yet oddly difficult to explain.

Rocklen’s role as an object healer stems from his interest in diverse notions of health and spirituality, two interrelated themes that underpin other works in the show. On the walls surrounding the aforementioned freestanding sculptures hung a series of nine “Magic Number Ponchos,” linen garments backed with pastel-colored cotton. These works each make consistent use of one number: Not only is Magic Number Poncho (Three Threes) cut so that it has three sides, but the runic design on its chest is made from joining together three numeral 3s. Similarly treated is the octagonal poncho with a flowerlike emblem created from eight 8s. As in some of the artist’s earlier solo shows, a braided rope was strung along the top of the wall like a frieze. Here it wound its way up a stairwell to a mezzanine gallery, where one discovered that from it hung a tondo painting of a pie-chart design in Miami-bright colors. Based on “health medallions” Rocklen once made with elementary-school art students, the piece, in its unusual presentation, also recalls the Thai tradition of wrapping strings around buildings for protection. As with Rocklen’s own faith in the castoffs he uses for his sculptures, the works included here require a certain suspension of disbelief by the viewer. For those willing to grant it, the rewards were many.

Mark Ruwedel, “Westward the Course of Empire”

Mark Ruwedel, Denver and Rio Grande Western #4, 1996.

Mark Ruwedel, Denver and Rio Grande Western #4, 1996.

Published in Artforum, April 2009. To see additional images from the exhibition, as well as read the press release, click here. Last summer, Yale University Press published a book of Ruwedel’s photographic series, with an essay by Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery. It is a remarkable book; I recommend it.

At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, there were 35,085 miles of operable railroad track in the United States. Eight years later that number had doubled. Midway between these dates, on May 10, 1869, a golden spike joined the rails of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was near this site that photographer Mark Ruwedel was inspired to begin his series “Westward the Course of Empire,” 1994–2007. This exhibition brought together seventy-five of the small black-and-white photographs, which document the railroad lines, now abandoned, that knit together our country (and Canada) in an unprecedented wave of industrial ambition and governmental largesse. For centuries to come we will be untangling the ramifications of the historical process he charts.

Ruwedel is keenly aware of the palimpsest of physical interventions and imaginative representations that have altered both the landscape of North America’s western half and our perceptions of it. Anyone who depicts these arid plains and craggy mountains today necessarily enters into dialogue with a legion of antecedents, from late-nineteenth-century geographic-survey photographers to Earthworks artists who fanned out across the West a century later; from environmental pioneers like naturalist John Muir and photographer Ansel Adams to contemporary writers like John McPhee; and from atomic scientists seeking uninhabited test sites to real-estate developers hoping to turn ranchland into exurban subdivisions. Ruwedel’s carefully composed images, made with a large-format camera, bear traces of this complex legacy. In the foreground of Deep Creek #2, 1999, for example, a gate in a barbed-wire fence carries United States Air Force signs warning visitors to keep out and identifying the flat territory as a bombing and gunnery range. The lone wooden railroad tie in Carson and Colorado #6, 1997, is complemented by at least seven enormous upturned satellite dishes visible in the background.

The photographs also enter into dialogue with visual strategies familiar to viewers of contemporary art. Ruwedel’s installation of the photographs in small grids by type (tunnel mouths, cuts through rock formations, trestle bridges) recalls Bernd and Hilla Becher’s rigidly sorted documentation of heavy industry. So many straight lines proceeding toward the horizon, denuded first of vegetation and, decades later, of the wooden ties and steel rails themselves, bring to mind the photographic record of Richard Long’s walks in the landscape.

Despite these connections to other practices, Ruwedel’s photographs, with their magnificent placid compositions and unexpected details, encourage one to savor their intrinsic allure. In San Diego and Arizona Eastern #7, 2003, a trestle bridge spans the mouth of a canyon like a dark spiderweb. The tunnel entrance in Columbia and Western #21, 2000, seems like a portal to another world. The concrete pylons depicted in Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific #30, 2005, stand like an industrial-era Stonehenge in an otherwise empty landscape. Other photographs emphasize how nature has reclaimed some lost ground, subsuming humankind’s hubristic gestures within an inexorable vegetal creep. The give-and-take between man and nature will continue for as long as we persist. “Westward the Course of Empire” is an uncommonly sensitive survey of the evidential traces of that relationship’s recent history and a formidable aesthetic statement.

“theanyspacewhatever”

Published on Afterall.org on February 5, 2009. To see this review in context, click here.

Some claim that art historians and curators, like fashion designers in search of fresh inspiration, pillage the past chronologically. And because such fascinations, whether critical or sartorial, expend themselves quickly—it takes less than a decade to assess an earlier decade—the gap between present and past seems ever narrower. After the canonization of the Pictures generation and the recent upsurge of interest in the art of the 1980s (witness, for example, Artforum‘s issues of March and April 2003 or the 2006–2007 exhibition “The 80s: A Topology” at the Museu Serralves in Portugal), attempts to categorize and historicize the art of the ’90s are undoubtedly near.

With “theanyspacewhatever,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum curator Nancy Spector took one of the first shaky steps toward imposing a historical structure upon the seemingly untameable aesthetic proliferation of the decade just past. The exhibition’s ten artists—Philippe Parreno, Angela Bulloch, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Liam Gillick, Carsten Höller, Maurizio Cattelan, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Douglas Gordon—were all participants in “Moral Maze,” a 1995 exhibition organized by Gillick and Parreno for Le Consortium in Djion, as well as in French curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s 1996 exhibition “Traffic,” held at the CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux. They were also, in varying ways, associated with relational aesthetics, the term Bourriaud coined two years later in his book of the same name. Despite Bourriaud’s expansive definition—”a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space”—some of these artists, of course, felt the term fit them like a corset. Their discomfort surely increased during the ensuing decade, as “relational aesthetics” was applied to nearly any artistic gesture, however unsubtle, that actively engaged viewer-participants—as if relational art was something to be subcontracted by museum education and programming departments. In “theanyspacewhatever” catalogue, Spector herself makes a point of distancing her show’s thesis from Bourriaud’s overarching framework. The exhibition’s fascination ultimately owed less to the artworks it included than to this particular effort.

anyspacewhatever_parreno

The regal glitz of Parreno’s all-white, message-free theater marquee, which hung above the museum’s entrance, was something of a red herring because there were few such iconic objects within. Spector instead emphasized the artists’ shared interest in expanding the definition of an exhibition. Indeed, the strongest contributions to the show were ephemeral, invisible, or to be experienced outside of the Guggenheim. Among them were Gonzalez-Foerster’s opening-weekend performance NY. 2022, a collaboration with the musician Ari Benjamin in which theatrical vignettes were performed to live music by an orchestra whose members slowly exited one-by-one; Parreno’s audio guide for the exhibition, in which world-champion memorizer Boris Konrad recited information about artworks and artists included in the show without the aid of the written materials he had scanned only once; and Huyghe’s book of iron-on patches depicting the museum’s interior and exterior spaces, available in the museum’s gift shop. Such interventions as Parreno and Huyghe’s creatively tweaked ossified museum conventions, a necessary effort at any cultural moment.

Yet however important it may be to think beyond the traditional exhibition, “theanyspacewhatever” foregrounded the way such thinking can also create an attenuated experience for museum visitors. For example, Höller’s inspired contribution to the show, a miniature hotel room on rotating platforms, provided a singular encounter for only the few individuals wealthy or connected enough to secure a night’s stay. Those visiting during regular hours were left with an inherently frustrating imaginative exercise while looking at Höller’s unexceptional objects. There was likewise little reason to engage with Gillick’s S-shaped benches or hanging stainless steel signage, the latter of which conflated institutional, theoretical, and vaguely poetic language to describe aspects of the exhibition or the building (“RIRKRIT FILM YOURSELF,” “CUCKOO SANCTUARY,” “VARIED ADMISSIONS,” “EXTERIOR INFORMATION,” read some). Gillick also contributed the show’s title, lifted from Gilles Deleuze; the “any-space-whatever” was the late French philosopher’s term for the peculiar brand of space created when disparate, but equally anonymous, film scenes are seamlessly cut together.

anyspacewhatever_holler

In the exhibition’s less successful works, the “activation of the social” that Spector champions necessarily rubbed against the behaviorally chastening environment of the institution, with its explicit and implicit rules and conventions. This friction is useful as a test of institutional flexibility in the face of radically new (and often difficult to categorize) art practices. It also prods those practices themselves, which are—until their presentation in a museum context—often sequestered within a realm of mutually recognized specialized knowledge that can stunt their broader effectiveness. Still, interesting as these considerations are, the particular experience of visiting this show was less rewarding.

There were other encumbrances. “theanyspacewhatever” aimed to make sense of what Spector sees as a shift away from mimetic representation that characterized the art of the mid-’90s, yet it used artworks almost exclusively created during the past two years to illustrate this point. The result was not the first United States survey of the mid-’90s relational/social/non-mimetic moment—which, since this moment occurred largely in European kunsthalles and museums, would have benefited American audiences—yet neither was it a coherent snapshot of any trend now taking place. Since the artists were first corraled, their individual practices necessarily diverged. Though they occasionally collaborate and, as Spector notes, their affiliation is still “grounded in friendship,” their interests are perhaps not as closely aligned as they once were. Originally invited to collectively formulate a scenario for the exhibition, it seems the ten artists met the prospect of erecting a monument to their past selves using current artworks with a profound ambivalence, a feeling everywhere apparent along the Guggenheim’s spiraling ramp.

Irrespective of how one feels about these artists, their contribution to recent developments in art is incontrovertible. (To be clear, I myself am sympathetic to the art’s ends, skeptical of many of the means employed by the artists, largely disappointed by the art’s effects and suspicious of the ongoing credibility afforded several of them despite this gap between rhetoric and accomplishment.) Wresting control over the narrative of their contribution from Bourriaud’s catchy, all-pervasive and decreasingly meaningful shorthand is an appealing challenge—one Gillick, in particular, has set for himself in his own writings on maintaining “critical relationships to society.” But any attempts to do so in a museum environment will require more clearly delineated countervailing principles than this muddled exhibition offered. Instead, “theanyspacewhatever” made clear that the insertion of these practices into accepted art history will require a more thoughtful consideration of how they function outside the contemporary art world’s cocoon of benign acceptance.

Luigi Ghirri, “It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It”

Published in Artforum, February 2009. To learn more about the book that accompanied this exhibition, click here.

Luigi Ghirri, Rimini, 1985.

Luigi Ghirri, Rimini, 1985.

This was Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri’s first New York solo exhibition in over seven years, and coincided with Aperture’s publication of the first English-language monograph dedicated to the artist. Ghirri, who worked consistently from the early 1970s until his death in 1992, should be better known in the United States, not only on the merits of his intelligent, subtly mischievous color photographs but also because American audiences will find in these images the traits they cherish in their own canonical figures from the era. They will detect, for instance, similarities to prints by chance-oriented Conceptual provocateurs like John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler and Southern color masters like William Eggleston and William Christenberry. Yet there’s no mistaking that Ghirri was an Italian photographer. His landscapes’ flat, white sunlight and washed-out palette of stone, sand, and sky; his obvious love for the cities and people of Emilia-Romagna; and his metaphysical concern with the constructed reality of the image locate him indelibly within Italy as both place and art-historical precedent.

Ghirri’s constant probing of the distinction between “reality” and “artifice” came through forcefully in this exhibition of some one hundred pictures, most of which date from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The images whimsically conflate people and objects with painted backdrops (one series is revealingly titled Topography-Iconography,” 1978–92); or depict mirrors and windows that create compositions the camera dutifully records, but to which the eye and mind acclimate only with time; or upend expectations about scale; and occasionally employ darkroom sleight of hand. “My duty is to see with clarity,” Ghirri once wrote, and what his clarity communicates, with consummate humor, grace, and rigor, is that things are not always what they seem—and that this can be a source of unceasing wonder.

To this end, the exhibition included photographs of map details of the Atlantic Ocean and constellations in the night sky; cafeteria diners in front of a park scene printed on wallpaper; a bland institutional interior with a rolling, grid-partitioned mirror reflecting a man on a weight-lifting bench; tourists roaming like Gullivers through a miniature copy of Venice’s Piazza San Marco; and a self-portrait taken in the reflection of a Parisian shop window that also depicts, mysteriously, an oval mirror (and what it reflects) where the camera lens should be. Parma, 1985, is an interior view of a grand hall in an anonymous Italian palazzo that shows, head-on, a dark wood confessional. What is initially simple becomes increasingly strange: On the wall behind the booth is a peeling image of Corinthian columns receding into an even grander “hall”; to the left is part of a large, empty, golden painting frame that partly overlaps with the frame of a high window, which is itself the source of an oblong glimmer of light cast onto the floor.

The inclusion, in a blue-painted room-within-a-room, of Ghirri’s portraits of the studios kept by architect and theorist Aldo Rossi and painter Giorgio Morandi, both made between 1989 and 1990, highlighted the modern order underpinning Ghirri’s postmodern playfulness. That tension is evident in nearly all of the photographs included here. American viewers of this exhibition who came thinking of their own artistic forebears might have departed wondering about the protean artist’s Italian contemporaries, like Italo Calvino, creator of uncompromisingly ordered yet fantastical fictional words, and the Memphis Group, designers of brightly colored furniture and products with a heretical bent. It is a testament to Ghirri’s talent that he fits comfortably in both American and Italian contexts.

Luigi Ghirri, Self-portrait, 1976.

Luigi Ghirri, Self-portrait, 1976.

Lecia Dole-Recio

Published on Artforum.com on January 20, 2009. To see the review in context, click here.

Lecia Dole-Recio, Untitled (gld.crvs.lnn.), 2008.

Lecia Dole-Recio, Untitled (gld.crvs.lnn.), 2008.

Few lines align with the edges of the compositions in Lecia Dole-Recio’s new works. Nearly five years after her busy cut-and-paste collages of vellum, paper, and gouache were presented in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, this exhibition, the artist’s first New York solo show, presents eight pieces that maintain an equivalent sense of dynamism despite having far more subdued surfaces. In Untitled (prpl.rd.orng.lnn.) (all works 2008), large blocks of bright red, rendered in acrylic, angle across the linen canvas, their edges picked out with contrasting strokes in orange; in Untitled (blk.lns.bl.lnn.), broad swaths of azure, cut diagonally by slashes of black, float against a green background like linens out to dry. Dole-Recio now often works with stencils, a fact readily apparent in Untitled (red.cppr.lnn.), in which long, thin rectangles in copper, gray, purple, and white overlap atop haphazardly applied pinks that range from cherry blossom to near crimson. These forms appear to be enlarged versions of the rectangular cutouts in several small works on paper, which, with their off-kilter circles and rectangles sliced into or composed of cardboard and then painted, serve as links to the works presented at the Whitney. But if those earlier collages fetishized each of the artist’s choices, and their cuts perhaps symbolized the precedents she was excising from the history of formalist modernism, a glorious new canvas like Untitled (gld.crvs.lnn.) gives evidence of the ways in which Dole-Recio, now more confident, deploys her chosen vocabulary. An explosion of stenciled curves in gray, dark green, black, and safety-alert orange wells up from the bottom of the painting like fireworks or a peacock’s plumage and is loosely coordinated with similar semicircles visible beneath a golden ground. In this work, as throughout the show, order and disorder are held in captivating balance.

Rodney McMillian

Published in Artforum, January 2009.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

“The challenge of the next half century,” said Lyndon B. Johnson at the University of Michigan in 1964, “is whether we have the wisdom to use [our] wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” Los Angeles–based artist Rodney McMillian, who in recent years has delivered Johnson’s famous “Great Society” speech at numerous art venues, might argue that the past fifty years have not lived up to the former president’s hopeful vision. McMillian’s art has, without seeming merely didactic, patiently explored the social fissures—in particular, those along racial and economic lines—that still rend our “great” society. At the Kitchen, the artist presented an installation (inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel The Road) that drew on the power of sacred architecture to elevate his secular concerns. On their own, the paintings, sculptures, and photographs may seem somewhat abstract, largely divorced from current events. Considered in the context of McMillian’s earlier artworks, however, they become a forceful, plangent lament for the degrading inequities many in America still encounter every day.

Five mural-size, bannerlike paintings hung on the walls of the gallery; interspersed among them were columns of framed black-and-white photographs, found at flea markets and antique stores, depicting anonymous individuals and couples young and old. At the center of the space rested a dirty old rug and an armchair, both doused with red paint, beneath a six-pointed canopy made of white paper and tape. A pile of Internet printouts of nursey-rhyme lyrics (“John Brown Had a Little Soldier,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep”)—intoned by an actor during a performance at the show’s opening reception—was laid on the chair. The unstretched paintings depict part of a brick house, tree branches, and what may be interpreted (somewhat liberally) as a figure being torn apart; all are awash in scarlet. A fourth canvas is an abstract agglomeration of red, white, and black paint that resembles viscera. The title of Edmund Wilson’s study of the literature of the Civil War, Patriotic Gore, came immediately to mind while I looked at these works, as did painter Barnaby Furnas’s enormous crimson floods. (The installation as a whole also evoked Robert Gober’s sober 2005 exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery.)

In McMillian’s 2006 exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter in Los Angeles, eighteen cardboard-and-duct-tape “minimalist objects,” made to look like coffins, were arranged haphazardly throughout the space. These works foregrounded precisely what our government was at the time taking great pains to obscure—images of dead American soldiers. By deploying at the Kitchen a spatial arrangement that imbued the gallery with a sacred aura, McMillian even more powerfully dredged up the violence that has underpinned American history and offered an ironic counterpoint to the rhetoric of hope embodied by Johnson’s space (and those of today’s politicians). Whereas McCarthy, in his book, looks forward, McMillian plays the role of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, pushed forward while looking back upon a landscape of ruins.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

Rodney McMillian, installation view, ArtPace, San Antonio, TX, 2008.

In the elated afterglow of Barack Obama’s election on November 4, during which time I first viewed the exhibition, the disenchantment and anxiety that characterize McMillian’s installation risked seeming anachronistic. But as that moment passes and we enter more fully into our own historical crisis, we will come to depend increasingly on eloquent, historically aware interpreters of our tumultuous era. In the introduction to his book, Wilson asked, “Has there ever been another historical crisis of the magnitude of 1861–1865 in which so many people were so articulate?” We are not as fortunate in today’s culture of distraction. Yet McMillian, with this exhibition, proves he is among the artists to whom we should look.

Sharon Core, “Early American”

Published on Artforum.com on November 9, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg (Raphaelle Peale), 2007.

Sharon Core, Strawberries and Ostrich Egg (Raphaelle Peale), 2007.

What pictorial genre seems to require less interpretive acumen than the painted still life? Accumulations of fruit and fish and fowl are all exquisite surfaces, and invite surface readings. But photographer Sharon Core, after making a reputation with images of her re-creations of Wayne Thiebaud’s dessert tableaux, proves once again with her exhibition “Early American” that profound questions of representation can reside within simple compositions. Core’s muse for this body of work, the early American painter Raphaelle Peale, is smartly chosen. In the past two decades, scholarship about the hundred-odd still lifes he created in Philadelphia between 1812 and 1824 has elucidated their strangeness, a fact that gives an added edge to the ten small-scale photographs presented here. As with her earlier series, Core’s pictures are approximations of a painted precedent once removed: Instead of working from Peale’s canvases, which, like Thiebaud’s, reside in museums scattered around the world, Core has re-created with uncanny accuracy color reproductions of his compositions found in books. In some works, she has left behind the strict mimesis of her Thiebaud series in an attempt to “inhabit” Peale’s prephotographic visual imagination. There is a palpable tension between the uncomplicated attractiveness of the luscious, softly lit, exacting images—of watermelons and day lilies, of bruised and rotting apples in a porcelain basket, of a dimpled ostrich egg and strawberries—and the elaborate means by which they were created. Not only did Core have to source the antique bowls, plates, and utensils that appear in the photographs, but she also needed to secure (and, one suspects, artificially age, prune, and otherwise prepare) the produce that takes center stage, as well as arrange her quarry and light it meticulously. The gracefulness of the resultant images masks—but only barely—her efforts, and the hall-of-mirrors instability they instigate.

Joel Sternfeld, “Oxbow Archive”

Published in Artforum, November 2008. To see images from the exhibition, click here.

In a passage in his journal dated February 5, 1855, Henry David Thoreau asserted, “In a journal it is important in a few words to describe the weather, or characters of the day, as it affects our feelings. That which was so important at the time cannot be unimportant to remember.” The thirteen large-scale color photographs in this exhibition chronicle the weather and the characters of the day in and around a single meadow in Northampton, Massachusetts, from July 29, 2005, to April 20, 2007. The site, famously depicted in a heroic Thomas Cole landscape that was painted in 1836 and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is characterized by a small loop of water (called an oxbow) that juts out from the Connecticut River. It encircles a series of meadows, and similarly flat land extends away from the river’s outer banks.

At this site Joel Sternfeld has catalogued, with Thoreauvian attention to detail, the variety and bounty of what the photographs’ titles identify as the East Meadows. In these images, one glimpses the twisting silhouettes of denuded trees framed against a pink-gray March sky; a horizontal expanse of melting late-winter snow placidly reflecting the clouds massed above it; steam rising off puddles of water as the Earth, in spring, returns to life; and the tracks of truck wheels rolling off into the distance, bathed in an orange summer glow. Cole described the view from nearby Mount Holyoke as the “grandest prospect in North America,” but Sternfeld observes this place with an unsentimental eye. And, unlike his series “American Prospects,” 1978–86, which deliberately charts human incursions into the landscape, these photographs see Sternfeld largely ignoring the greatest of such intrusions—nowhere, for example, does one find Interstate 91, which runs north-south across the oxbow. (In a related catalogue, however, additional images depicting abandoned campsites, roads cutting through cornfields, and more truck tracks appear.) In this sense, the photographs in “Oxbow Archive” continue the placidity that characterized “Sweet Earth,” the series, mostly made in the mid-’90s, depicting American utopian communes that Sternfeld exhibited at this gallery in fall 2005.

Joel Sternfeld, March 4, 2007, The East Meadows, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Joel Sternfeld, March 4, 2007, The East Meadows, Northampton, Massachusetts.

To see this cycle of days and seasons unfolding ninety miles west of Boston would chasten any urbanite; while Thoreau and his peers were intimately familiar with this landscape and its intervals of growth and decay, many people today would be hard-pressed to identify its plant species. That such knowledge is now alien to a large share of the population highlights the disconnect between humans and their environment that is causing problems far greater than can be understood in two years’ study of one small patch of land. One at a time, these pictures prompt humility before nature’s variegated plenitude. In aggregate, as they chart how and when the seasons change, they bear witness to inexorable forces that will fundamentally alter such patterns in the future.

This is not to suggest such concerns prompted Sternfeld’s photographic journal, though by including the word archive in his title one is given some license to think so. It is, however, to state that the vocation of careful attention evidenced by these works prompted one viewer to attempt such diligent watchfulness of the world around him. The pictures themselves, with their flat, thin, dispersed northern light and their carefully considered compositions, are arresting, and function well both within Sternfeld’s oeuvre and as their own aesthetic statement.

“Lucky Number Seven,” SITE Santa Fe Biennial

Published in Artforum, September 2008. To view the exhibition’s website, click here.

In lieu of a single theme, curator Lance M. Fung laid out several structuring principles for the seventh SITE Santa Fe Biennial, titled “Lucky Number Seven”: The participating artists would be winnowed from recommendations made by widely dispersed art-world professionals; they would visit Santa Fe well before the exhibition and respond to the environs with newly commissioned work; and all materials, where possible, would be recycled after the exhibition had closed. (Additionally, the artists could exhibit anywhere in the city, but those who opted to show in SITE’s warehouselike space would have to content with a sharp-angled ramp—designed for the show by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien—that cuts through the galleries.) These open-ended prescriptions, and in particular the assurance that nothing would be for sale at a later date, held out the possibility of great experimentation; in theory, all the artists could have collaborated to create one artwork. Some engaged with these novel precepts productively, while others retreated to familiar methodologies. The result is a very uneven exhibition.

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Studio Azzurro, Fourth Ladder, 2008.

Much of the art relies heavily on models of artmaking familiar to those who have experienced site-specific projects, including documentary-style video, audience participation, and research documentation. The Fourth Ladder (all works 2008), a two-part video installation presented in SITE’s building by the Italian collective Studio Azzurro, is one example of this tendency and essentially serves as a computer-enhanced, idiosyncratic tourist guidebook. The piece consists of an interactive video projection depicting local citizens who, ascending a long ramp, recite directions to nearby locations of personal significance when visitors “pause” them by touching the wall. Shown on an adjacent wall, a second video combines interviews with some of the same subjects with footage of the sites they discuss. Kaeru/T, one of Hiroshi Fuji’s two saccharine contributions, hangs above visitors’ heads at the Museum of International Folk Art. It is made of donated toys that have been creatively recombined in collaboration with local children. Like Studio Azzurro’s installation, Kaeru/T‘s earnest engagement with a portion of the local population comes across as flat-footed, akin to a neat after-school craft project.

Part of Luchezar Boyadjiev’s Off-SITE(s) deploys whiteboards around town on which passersby can write their own responses to the biennial. But his presentation at SITE itself, part of the same artwork, proves somewhat cannier. Boyadjiev has affixed to the wall seventy-seven ten-dollar bills, each labeled with a name drawn from the phone book; visitors who prove themselves one of the chosen can claim their money and read a message Boyadjiev has written on the wall beneath their bill. Interestingly, because Santa Fe is so small, the piece has a viral effect—visitors identify and inform friends of their selection. Of the artists who engage with the domineering intervention by Williams and Tsien, Piero Golia does so most forcefully: He has cut the ramp short about twelve feet. After signing a waiver, visitors can leap from the edge onto stunt landing pads arranged on the floor below.

Two installations provide more unconventional riffs on the show’s site-specific mandate. A1 Southwest Stone, by Australian artist Nick Mangan, is located at a former stone-supply yard and consists of a realistic but entirely contrived archaeological dig. Accompanied by newspaper notices aiming to recall, for research purposes, stone that had been purchased from the shop, the work’s three-tiered excavation beds refer perhaps too neatly to the foundational layers (indigenous, Mexican, and Spanish) of local culture. But the installation should nonetheless be credited for being sited in an off-the-art-path residential neighborhood. The other, The Abduction by French duo Fabien Giraud and Raphaël Siboni, creatively redeploys clichés about New Mexican culture—namely, that it is dominated by Roswell alien-abduction stories and schlocky “Wild West” art. The work consists of a bronze sculpture of a family on a horse bolting downhill—given to the artists by a tourist-friendly Canyon Road gallery—that has been melted and reconfigured to depict the subjects deposited back on earth after a visit to the mothership. It is displayed as it would be at its usual location—in a gray-carpeted room on a spotlighted, rotating pedestal—alongside a photograph of its original incarnation. After the exhibition, the sculpture will be melted down again and returned to its original design. Many artists seem to have approached this exhibition by attempting to graft a few site-specific characteristics onto their usual practice, or by jettisoning tried-and-tested tactics altogether in an embrace of the curatorial mandate. By engaging with Santa Fe’s culture instead of didactically interacting with its citizens or merely rehearsing its history, Giraud and Siboni’s wry sculptural intervention both stays true to their conceptually oriented practice and surpasses the rest of the show.

Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni, The Abduction, 2008.

Fabien Giraud & Raphaël Siboni, The Abduction, 2008.

Tacita Dean

Published on Artforum.com on August 12, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008.

Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33" with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008.

Much of Tacita Dean’s recent work in film has been portraiture, and her scrupulous attention has brought forth a range of engrossing characters, many of them older men. Poet and translator Michael Hamburger gave Dean a chatty tour of his apple orchard and storerooms in a film exhibited in London last year. In this exhibition, dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham is seated, and silent, in his nearly empty studio. Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33″ with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007 (six performances; six films), 2008, the unwieldy title of the installation, conveys everything and nothing about the films projected onto screens scattered throughout Dia:Beacon’s colonnaded lower level. In static, one-take shots, Cunningham, on Carlson’s cues, looks to his right, or straight ahead, or rests his chin on one hand to mark the three movements of his longtime partner’s infamous score. The simplicity and directness of the choreography, like that of the filmmaking, belie the affective power of the homage. Like the beatific quietude of artist Mario Merz in Dean’s sun-dappled 2002 film, Cunningham’s calmness makes him a repository for viewers’ assumptions; one can’t help but imagine the experiences and emotions compressed into his stony performance. The downward tug of melancholic sentiment, one of Dean’s trademarks, seems at odds with the principle of chance operations that guided Cage and Cunningham—and, for that matter, Bruce Nauman’s multichannel Cagean exercise that was on view until recently in this space. But the tension is remarkable.

Brian Jungen

Published in Artforum, June 2008.

What separates true artistic development from mere rehashing? At what point should we expect established artists to move beyond the ideas that brought them their initial success? Brian Jungen’s second solo exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery prompted these and related questions. For nearly a decade, Jungen, a member of the indigenous Dane-Zaa Nation of Northern British Columbia, has explored the intersection of traditional cultures and first-world consumer economies. His breakout exhibition, at Charles H. Scott Gallery in Vancouver in 1999, featured the first of a series of sculptures made by pulling apart Air Jordan tennis shoes and restitching them into semblances of the Haida masks created by the aboriginal populations of Canada’s northwest coast. In the intervening years, Jungen has fashioned, out of golf bags, sculptures that recall totem poles; carved baseball bats to look like “talking sticks” (used by aboriginal tribes to designate the right to speak in meetings); and created a twenty-foot-tall tepee from the leather used to upholster sofas. Some artists focus exclusively upon a narrow set of concerns but manage to find nuanced and varied expressions of them. Jungen, though formally creative, seems to be on intellectual autopilot.

Many of Jungen’s fastidiously tailored objects possess an iconic power, and for someone so dedicated to sculpture, he is a canny crafter of images. He has been credited with scrutinizing the inequitable balance of power between the traditional and the new, acknowledging the adaptive reuse of commercial goods by those subject to the influence of mass culture, and allegorizing the substitution of tribal ritual with the ceremonial competition of modern sports. Also apparent is Jungen’s desire to inscribe his objects with the additional value accorded the handmade, and that doing so with anonymously produced materials is for him a political gesture.

Brian Jungen, Blanket no. 4, 2008.

Brian Jungen, Blanket no. 4, 2008.

These themes were taken up once again in this show in six “blankets” made from disassembled professional football and basketball jerseys. Woven into patterns that riff on tribal-style designs, the color combinations of familiar teams could be recognized—the navy and orange of the Chicago Bears, for example—and, by looking closely at the garments’ labels, one could discern the uniforms used in others. Some feature a tessellating pattern of players’ numbers; others are more abstract. When Jungen embarked on this path ten years ago, it could be argued, consciousness of the truly global reach of western popular culture and consumer goods was less widespread. Now that he has created all the accoutrements necessary to outfit a First Nations tourist village, it seems time for Jungen to aim for more than juxtaposition.

Dragonfly, 2008, a red five-gallon plastic jerry can of the type used for holding gasoline, incised with a delicate pattern of dragonflies, underscores the point. Here again, the work alludes to larger forces and wider issues, among them the problem of gass huffing on reservations, and the simultaneously and ironic lack of easy access to gasoline on First Nations land, despite the rich oil reserves that lie beneath them. At present, Canada’s economy is in part buoyed by the oil sands beneath Alberta’s soil, and the race to lay claim to oil in the Arctic Circle has ensnared Russia, Norway, the United States, and Canada in a geopolitical turf war. Yet this topic, despite Jungen’s effort, remains ripe for critical investigation.

“Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?”

Published on Artforum.com on May 23, 2008.

For the 2006 Whitney Biennial, artist Urs Fischer knocked large holes in two gallery walls; last year, he tore through the floor and dug deep into the earth beneath Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. The latter seemed an endgame gesture in this brief trajectory, but here he has raised the stakes by punching through the normally invisible wall sealing off a venue’s past from its present. (Michael Asher’s recent installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is another example of this potentially fruitful trend.) The Swiss artist commissioned the photographer Ellen Page Wilson to document Tony Shafrazi’s previous group show—artworks, walls, air ducts, security guards—then created seamless, to-scale trompe l’oeil wallpaper from the images. This evidential trace of the gallery’s last exhibition is now the ground against which nearly two dozen artworks, selected by Fischer and Brown and which at some point were in Shafrazi’s inventory, cagily rest.

Installation view, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 2008.

Installation view, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 2008.

Walking through the show is an uncanny delight: Like an autofocus lens unable to locate its subject, one’s mind and eyes strive to unscramble the artworks actually present from those that are verisimilar copies. A 1943 portrait by Francis Picabia is centered on the image of a Donald Baechler painting of a dandy and some beach balls; on an adjacent wall, Malcolm Morley’s Age of Catastrophe, 1976, a large painting, seems planted in the middle of an even larger Keith Haring. Richard Prince’s photograph Spiritual America, 1983, and Sue Williams’s painting Dessert, 1990, each partially obscure the image of a Basquiat canvas. Matters are further complicated. The Lawrence Weiner wall text and the wallpaper Basquiat beneath it seem to keep switching places. Lily van der Stokker’s two brightly colored wall paintings squeeze into the interstitial space between the wallpaper and the other artworks, in the process acquiring a conceptual grounding that belies their whimsy.

While the included artworks, in a white cube, would make for an odd group show, in this bizarro world harmonies arise. (Who would’ve thought a large late-1970s sculpture by Robert Morris, with its ungainly pipes and warped planes of plastic, mirror, and copper, was redeemable for today’s tastes?) A surge of affinities chastens typical attempts at neat categorization; nothing stays in its place. As one pads across Rudolf Stingel’s carpet installation, the rush of Rob Pruitt’s corny homemade waterfall tickles the ears like so much chatter between these clashing artworks. The recognition dawns that Fischer and Brown have concocted a surprisingly subtle meditation on the many lives of artworks, and its presentation in a secondary-market gallery owned by a man once arrested for defiling Picasso’s Guernica—as depicted on the exhibition’s announcement poster—raises similar questions about the many lives of those of us who engage with them. That such canny, simple gestures seem so refreshing is a gentle rebuke to the ossified conventions to which we all unthinkingly subscribe.

Matthew Buckingham

Published in Artforum, May 2008.

“Someone with historical sense sees reality differently: in four dimensions,” notes historian Gordon S. Wood. “If it is self-identity that we want, then history deepens and complicates that identity by showing us how it has developed through time.” Artist Matthew Buckingham clearly possesses this historical sense, and his nuanced understanding of time has informed a decade’s worth of installations that use time-based media (film, video, and slide projection) to imaginatively conflate past and present. Buckingham’s alignments of story and image, whether anchored in dry historical fact or conjured from evocative fragments, are palimpsests that instruct and entertain, expanding viewers’ sense of identity. This exhibition featured two recent installations, one of which ranks with A Man of the Crowd, 2003, as among the artist’s best to date.

Matthew Buckingham, still from False Future, 2007.

Matthew Buckingham, still from False Future, 2007.

False Future, 2007, resurrects the little-known life story of Louis Le Prince, the French inventory who is now credited with discovering how to record motion pictures onto film several years before the better-known Lumière brothers. The narrator of Buckingham’s ten-minute 16-mm film, speaking in French subtitled in English, describes Le Prince’s late-1880s experiments with recording technology and relates his mysterious disappearance from a Dijon-Paris train in September 1890, just prior to a trip to the United States on which he was to promote his camera. Among the items discovered after his vanishing was a twenty-frame (one-second) fragment of footage shot at the Leeds Bridge in England in October 1888. Buckingham’s film was shot from the same spot, and depicts pedestrians and white double-decker buses—substitutes for the horse-drawn carriages and strollers in Le Prince’s fragment—crossing the bridge in slanting late-afternoon light. The image, projected onto a white sheet strung diagonally across the middle of the gallery, likewise echoes the work of the earlier inventor, who is said to have tested his films at night in his Leeds workshop in a similar manner.

As the work’s title implies, however, Buckingham is not interested solely in an act of historical exhumation, but also in what can be imagined of an alternative protohistory of cinema. What if Le Prince had survived, and his camera gone on to document the Dreyfus affair, or the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, or the anomalous nine-inch snowfall in New Orleans in February 1895? Such questions, posed by the narrator, are rhetorical, but images inevitably arise in the mind. The enormity of such a possibility is brought home by the end of the narrative, which offers close analysis of what is depicted in Le Prince’s fragment. Noting the number of buggies, men tipping their haits to acknowledge friends, and other stray details, the sound track instructs the viewer in how to look at the seemingly simple image Buckingham has recorded just before the film loops and begins again.

Everything I Need, 2007, a two-screen video projection on view in another room, presents an autobiographical narrative by the pioneering psychologist, writer, and early advocate of gay and lesbian rights, Charlotte Wolff, whose life in Germany and England spanned revolutionary changes in social attitudes toward women and homosexuals. The installation juxtaposes images of a 1970s-era commercial airplane interior with reminiscences occasioned in part by Wolff’s return to Berlin, in 1978, to speak to a new generation of feminist and lesbian activists. While the installation engages in a dialectical playo f image and text similar to that of False Future (and, for that matter, much of Buckingham’s corpus), it doesn’t manage to provoke that work’s tantalizing sense of latent possibility.

Al Taylor

Published in Artforum, April 2008. To learn more about and view images from the exhibition, click here.

Al Taylor’s recent exhibition at Zwirner & Wirth focused on the creative efflorescence that resulted from the late artist’s decision in 1984 to take a break from painting. The gallery presented a well-edited selection of three-dimensional “constructions” and works on paper made by Taylor between 1985 and 1990, for which the artist employed an improvisational process in an attempt to elide the borders between the two mediums. These wall-based constructions (Taylor disavowed the term sculpture) confront viewers with a diverse array of visual feints, bringing together humble materials to provide a workout for the eyes.

6 – 8 – 9, 1988, which features five irregularly painted black-and-white wooden rings attached to the top and bottom of a brass dowel that emerges from a wooden board affixed to the wall, provides a joyously destabilizing visual experience. This is due in part to the tangle of shadows that it projects onto the wall around it—an important feature of many of the constructions shown here—which combines with the hoops to bring to mind magicians’ linking rings or a cartoon-like psychedelic swirl. 6 – 8 – 9 implies movement, and indeed one prominent characteristic of Taylor’s arrangements is their arrested kineticism, as if each piece were but a provisional way station on the road from one form to another.

Al Taylor, 6 - 8 - 9, 1988.

Al Taylor, 6 - 8 - 9, 1988.

Cobbled together from recycled scraps that Taylor reclaimed from stage sets he had designed, or simply from detritus picked up off the streets of New York, these constructions replace the macho, torch-wielding hubris of David Smith’s “drawings in space” with something funkier, more intimate, almost libidinal. They are seriously seductive. Witness Layson a Stick, 1989, in which two jointed broomsticks, jutting out fro the wall, are draped with yellow and green plastic leis, or Untitled: (Bra), 1987, a composition assembled from wood, Formica, and painted broomsticks that looks more like a seatless stool seen from below, legs splayed. Both were accompanied in the exhibition by related drawings, which, contrary to expectation, were made after the sculptures; Taylor’s attempt to frustrate conventional sculptural thinking (he reported thought of his sculptures and drawings as aspects of the same project) was paired with an equally counterintuitive approach to his works on paper.

As is the case with many talented artists, Taylor was out of step with his moment. In the context of neo-expressionist and neo-geo painting, other artists’ practices driven by nascent forms of institutional critique, or any of the movements typically associated with the middle and late 1980s, Taylor’s haphazard formalism, his scrounged supplies, and his love of optical trickery must have seemed willfully anachronistic. But Taylor’s modus operandi now seems prescient: The works included in this show would dovetail nicely with those by younger artists in “Unmonumental,” the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s survey of recent assemblage, sculpture, and collage.

Two of the more rewarding constructions on view here served as bookends to the exhibition: Untitled (Latin Study), 1985, the first work one encountered upon entering the gallery, and Calligraphy Support, 1987–88, which hung in its final room. The former, several wooden slats mounted on particleboard projecting from the wall to create a three-dimensional spiral, and the latter, which looks like an elongated, rickety architectural model, both show that Taylor did not fully excise painting from his practice when he embarked upon this rewarding path. In Latin Study, applied washes of black and white enamel paint help give the work, from certain viewpoints, an artificial flatness. Something similar, but more complex, is achieved in Calligraphy Support, in which paint is applied to different sides of the work’s thin, vertically oriented wooden slats, such that moving from side to side creates an animated peek a boo effect, these dark slashes coalescing in ever-shifting compositions.

Daan van Golden

Published on Artforum.com on March 31, 2008. To see the review in context, click here.

Art historian Svetlana Alpers’s observation about golden-age painters, that “it is hard to trace stylistic development, as we are trained to call it, in the work of Dutch artists,” applies to reclusive septuagenarian artist Daan van Golden. This exhibition, his first US solo presentation despite his being greatly esteemed in Europe, surveys canvases made in the last fifteen years but is representative of an extremely focused practice that has lasted over four decades. In 1963, while in Japan, the artist abandoned Abstract Expressionist painting in favor of the meticulous rendition of patterns found in the world, such as on textiles or wrapping paper. Like his late-seventeenth-century forebears, his worshipful fidelity to observed reality admits little mechanical innovation. But the spoils he translates to canvas have expanded to include other artworks, a decision that adds a complex metaphysical dimension to his single-color silhouettes crisply outlined against white grounds. The paintings, tantalizingly aloof, hover between acknowledged artistic strategies. They are committed to neither Pop art nor appropriation nor Conceptual art, but rather only to mirroring fragments of the world.

Daan van Golden, installation view, Greene Naftali Gallery, 2008.

Daan van Golden, installation view, Greene Naftali Gallery, 2008.

One must calibrate minute variations across multiple works, and this elegantly installed show, organized by Anne Pontégnie, generously facilitates that process. On a long wall opposite the gallery’s entrance, four cadmium-red-on-white depictions of a berries-and-leaves pattern vary not only in size but also in perspectival distance, such that the images range from an allover field emphasizing the pattern’s repetition to a zoomed-in, nearly abstract accretion of organic shapes. Like rotating the lenses on a microscope, glancing from work to work discloses new information about van Golden’s source material. In a side room, Study H. M., 2004, isolates a bird from a canvas by Henri Matisse. On returning to the gallery’s main room, one is immediately confronted by the same image on a negligibly larger canvas, this time a white silhouette isolated against baby blue. (The artist allows himself to paint up to four iterations of the exact same painting, further complicating the already blurry distinction between real and copy hinted at here.) Other works depict a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti and details of Jackson Pollock paintings, and two photographs hint at a parallel practice that has commanded van Golden’s attention equally, sometimes to the exclusion of his superb, already unhurried painting output.

“Shaker Design: Out of This World”

Published on Artforum.com on March 24, 2008.

It is important to keep in mind that there is nothing purely decorative about the furniture, gift drawings, and retail products in this large survey of Shaker design at Bard College’s New York outpost for studies in the decorative arts, design, and culture. The objects created for use within Shaker communities, which at one point numbered nineteen and ranged from Maine to Kentucky, hew to the precepts of their religious devotion, in particular the aspiration to honesty, utility, and order. Those items created for “the World’s people,” the denomination’s catch-all term for anyone outside its communities, betray a savvy knowledge of what would possess commercial appeal. This latter point is particularly important to the exhibition’s organizer, Jean M. Burks, who aims to highlight links between members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing and wider American society, countering stereotypical notions of the Shakers as intentionally and thoroughly segregated.

Among the exemplary furniture presented in a ground-floor gallery are an enormous cherry-and-pine double trustees’ desk (used by family members responsible for dealings with the World) and a slender, comparatively small trestle table. Like classical civilizations, which come to mind now largely tethered to images of white marble artifacts, the Shaker world was not the stripped-down domain we imagine, but rather a polychrome environment. To that end, the gallery floor is painted yellow, a color common in Shaker rooms, and a few pieces bear other original hues. A second-floor gallery hosts a number of gift drawings, manifestations of divine revelation (often in the form of communications from past generations) that encompass decorative patterns; calligraphic text; and assemblies of doves of peace, trees, clocks, fruit, and musical instruments. (New Yorkers more familiar with modern art than nineteenth-century religious artifacts might recall the Drawing Center’s 2005 exhibition “3 x Abstraction.”) Although the exhibition does not present Hannah Cohoon’s Tree of Life, 1854, perhaps the movement’s most iconic image, it does include her A Little Basket Full of Beautiful Apples for the Ministry, 1846, a touching ink-and-watercolor drawing of fourteen apples arranged within the schematic outline of a basket. Another room teems with commercial products, from toothache pellets and sachets of cabbage seeds to “screwballs” (table-clamped pincushions) and oval-shaped boxes. For context, the exhibition presents early-nineteenth-century American Fancy furniture and objects, which the Shakers rejected because of their ornate designs, and examples of modern Scandinavian furniture and contemporary designs (by Roy McMakin and Antonio Citterio, among others) inspired by Shaker objects. A full slate of public programs further ensures that this exhibition is the most important New York presentation of Shaker design since the Whitney Museum’s 1986 survey.

Kris Martin

Published in Artforum, February 2008.

Kris Martin, installation view, P.S. 1, New York, 2007.

Kris Martin, installation view, P.S. 1, New York, 2007.

The work in Belgian artist Kris Martin’s New York solo debut engages quietly but directly with fundamental issues: death, entropy, the ravages of time. In a period characterized by a loss of faith in artists’ ability to communicate fundamental truths, Martin’s unswerving devotion to such grand topics is striking. His ambition also makes the success or failure of individual works relatively easy to quantify: Each tends either to resonate with the clarity of a tuning fork or else miss its mark entirely, ending up seeming garishly sentimental, even trite. Curator Neville Wakefield’s astute, compact selection of compelling sculptures and comparatively less engaging works on paper was installed elegantly in an institution not known for sensitive exhibition design, allowing each object ample space.

The work in the first gallery illustrated the strengths and pitfalls of Martin’s approach. On one wall hung Mandi III, 2003, a scale replica of a train-station signboard, its all-black placards cycling intermittently but conveying no information. With its intimation of futility, of departures and arrivals endlessly deferred, the work triggers a sobering unease; one imagines its staccato clacking as the unrelenting tick of a clock. Nearby were Golden Spike, 2005, a two-inch, eighteen-carat gold nail driven into the floor, its gleaming head virtually indistinguishable from its surroundings, and Plate with milk, 2005. The former work is too precious not only in its choice of materials, but also in its hide-and-seek placement; the latter seems little more than an arbitrary paean to Wolfgang Laib and the charms of pet ownership. Yet such missteps were rare here, and the logic of Mandi III and Golden Spike—that a simple, Conceptual art–inflected transfiguration of an everyday object can dramatically alter its meaning–underpinned several other sculptures in the show.

Vase, 2005, for example, is a seven-foot-tall replica of a Ming dynasty vase that, per the artist’s instructions, must be smashed and reassembled prior to being displayed. This process, repeated each time the work goes on view, is entropic, as attested by its hundreds of fragments, held together by plainly visible daubs of yellowing glue, which no longer fit together seamlessly. (This dust-to-dust aesthetic brought to mind Yoko Ono’s April 2006 performance at a memorial for Nam June Paik, during which she distributed 450 pieces of a similar vase and urged visitors to promise to think of the late artist.) In another room, 100 Years, 2004, a small steel sphere, rested on the floor, seeming to absorb the room’s energy like a black hole. Like Roni Horn’s subtly asyemmtrical “asphere” sculptures, 100 Years is not exactly what it seems: It is supposed to suffer “corrosive self-destruction” in 2104, a fact that charges it with questions about permanence-not only the type to worry art conservators, but also about how artworks and artists pass into history.

Mandi VIII, 2006, a plaster replica of the famous classical statue Laocoön and His Sons with the serpents removed from the composition, furthered this line of inquiry. Here, the material transformation (from durable marble to delicate plaster) and the erasure of a key element of the Greek myth comments on our endless capacity for forgetting. Also seeming to make a classical allusion, Mandi XV, 2007, a nearly twenty-two-foot-long sword that lay diagonally across the floor of another gallery, summoned the cautionary anecdote of Damocles. Imagining such an outsize blade dangling over one’s head—or, perhaps, over a head of state—was a final reminder in a stringent, demanding, but by no means bleak exhibition that everything shall pass.

Kris Martin, Mandi XI, 2007.

Kris Martin, Mandi XI, 2007.

Steve McQueen

Published on Artforum.con on October 22, 2007.

Steve McQueen’s Gravesend, 2007, which premiered at this year’s Venice Biennale and is currently on view at the Renaissance Society, charts a return of the repressed: Capitalist economies may have moved into an “information age,” but this seventeen-minute 35-mm film proves that their machinations still make demands on the earth and on the laborers who work it. Gravesend lyrically (if abstractly) shows that, whereas nineteenth-century colonial powers sought diamonds and other traditional resources, our current appetite is for coltan, a dull black mineral used in capacitors, which are vital components in mobile phones, laptops, and other electronics. What is to be inferred from the gorgeously composed, monumentally scaled high-definition projection is that greed for this material has contributed to the political instability and the military occupation of the Congo, an area that has seen uninterrupted conflict since well before its 1960 liberation from Belgian rule. Juxtaposing an animated fly-by of the Congo River with footage of workers sifting through dark earth and robots processing the procured material in a pristine, brightly lit laboratory, the film’s disjunctions allegorize the very real economic, social, and physical distance this material traverses as it moves from the third to the first world. Its final sequence, a time-lapse shot of a sun setting behind smokestacks, brings everything full circle, rendering visual a scene described at the outset of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Unexploded, 2007, shown on a nearby monitor, is a minute-long film documenting the damage wrought by an unexploded bomb that fell on a building in Basra, Iraq. It unexpectedly calls to mind Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect, 1975, which makes the viewer squeamish about drawing aesthetic connections in the face of real-world violence.

McQueen has two concurrent exhibitions in London. At the Imperial War Museum is Queen and Country, 2007, his much-discussed and critically acclaimed response to the war in Iraq. Commissioned by the museum and the Manchester International Festival, the work’s simple sculptural form—a cabinet with sliding drawers that contain mock-ups of stamp sheets bearing images, overlaid with a silhouette of the queen’s profile, of each British soldier who has died in the conflict and whose family agreed to participate—achieves the potent sobriety of other recent war memorials without lapsing into the abstraction that has marked most of them since the unveiling of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. The installation also contains a large painting by John Singer Sargent that dramatizes the distance between soldiers’ sacrifice and the barely interrupted nature of citizen life, a disconnect that has grown only wider in the ninety years since the canvas was painted.

Steve McQueen, still from Running Thunder, 2007.

Steve McQueen, still from Running Thunder, 2007.

At Thomas Dane Gallery, McQueen presents a new 16-mm film, Running Thunder, 2007. A horse with a somewhat distended belly lies on its side, its glassy, lifeless black eye pointed directly at the camera lens. It is an image of such transfixing stillness that only the point at which the film loops, returning to the scene the sunlight that has imperceptibly faded over the course of ten minutes, reminds one that time has not paused on the animal’s behalf. The fallen beast calls to mind the beatific donkey in Robert Bresson’s classic film Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and the quintessentially British canvases of late-eighteenth-century painter George Stubbs. Seen in the context of Unexploded and Queen and Country, one can’t help but think of this fallen beast as a foil to the heroism the animal’s presence in art frequently implies. McQueen’s seductive yet unflinching examinations of the complex, often contradictory impulses of our present moment are nearly unmatched and to be both savored and contemplated.

Babette Mangolte

Published in Artforum, October 2007.

For more than three decades filmmaker Babette Mangolte has documented, in still and moving images, the performances of artists and dancers, from her early chronicling of the work of Yvonne Rainer to her recording of Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2005. Considering that she is esteemed as a director of splintered, nonnarrative, highly subjective experimental films and of equally exploratory documentaries (about Robert Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket, for example), it is a wonder that this was Mangolte’s first US solo exhibition. Forty-five black-and-white photographs, most from the mid-to-late ’70s, inhabited a room, a hallway, and an office in this apartment gallery.

Yvonner Rainer, Cape Cod, 1972, one of the earliest images in this show, is a head shot of the choreographer facing away from the camera. Rainer’s dark bob sways in a slight breeze, wisps of cloud scud across the sky, and a small patch of distant land is discernible over her right shoulder. It is a striking image that refuses to conform to he conventions of portraiture. The photograph was commissioned by the editors of Avalanche magazine, a bible of postminimalism and Conceptual art, for a cover story on the dancer, yet for reasons left unexplained was never used—an exclusion that resonates with Mangolte’s own marginalization in the canon of 1970s art. Hung nearby was a production still, titled Roof, 1974, from Mangolte’s film What Maisie Knew (1975) that reprises the pose. Here, Rainer stands, again facing away from the viewer, on a rooftop alongside seven other figures, who outline a rectangle as they face each other.

These are two among several photographs populated by legends of the downtown scene, from Philip Glass to Trisha Brown, Simone Forti to Robert Whitman. Richard Serra, crowned by an eccentric shock of hair, stares down the lens. Many images show bodies in motion across the clearing made by an audience hunkered on the floor; all the shots are gracefully composed and highly evocative of their milieus. Mangolte, whose photographs have often been included in museum surveys of performance art and dance, is here shown once again to have played a major role in determining how we visualize the period, her modest reputation as an artist in her own right notwithstanding.

Babette Mangolte, Roof, 1974.

Babette Mangolte, Roof, 1974.

The exhibition also included “Composite Buildings,” 1978, a series of collages using multiple photographs depicting the same building or streetscape. These works, exhibited individually or in small groups, evidence Mangolte’s preoccupation with the artistic concerns prevalent in the late ’70s: seriality, logical permutation, documentary candor, the infrastructure of the urban environment, even metatextual commentary, as in a picture of “Composite Buildings” photographs scattered on the artist’s P.S. 1 studio floor. By seamlessly hinging two prints of a photo of one loft building; by running side by side minutely varied double portraits of the Western Union Building’s façade, sometimes creating an urban herringbone pattern; and by adjusting slightly the frame of her picture of some Canal Street buildings, Mangolte cleverly confuses positive and negative space, undermines the stolidity of the squat brick structures, and generally presents as strange that which is familiar.

As such, the appeal of these images is great, even without taking into consideration the nostalgia induced by looking at buildings that are no longer extant in a newly moneyed Tribeca. This cannily staged exhibition, presenting first a context in which to place the artist, then an introductory taste of her work, whetted the appetite for further material from this longtime downtown denizen.

Shirana Shahbazi

Published on Artforum.com, September 27, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Installation view, Swiss Institute, New York, 2007.

Installation view, Swiss Institute, New York, 2007.

This exhibition is the largest US presentation of Zurich-based Iranian artist Shirana Shahbazi’s photographs to date. It is an assembly of archetypes, offering still lifes, portraits, and landscapes rendered with a formal clarity that corresponds to received notions of Swiss precision or bracingly crisp Alpine air. The photographs, taken together, evoke the lyricism that suffuses Roe Ethridge’s landscape pictures and the variations-on-a-theme investigative depth associated with Christopher Williams. Whereas the cases made for the conceptual underpinnings of those two artists’ work are, respectively, plausible and sturdy, it can be frustrating to try teasing meaning from Shahbazi’s constellation of images. One wishes that the relationships between photographic archetypes, printing techniques, and the subjects’ geographic origins were more clearly articulated. (One vanitas wall painting, executed by an anonymous team of Iranian artists after a photograph by Shahbazi, seems not only out of place but also late to the game: Francis Alÿs, among others, has handed off work to local artisans to greater effect.) But what images: Black-and-white prints of butterflies; a fully abstract gradation, from pink to white, soft as cotton candy; an orange-pink orchid set against an azure backdrop; a flat Texas landscape where the depth of field stretches seemingly to the horizon: Like diamonds, each offers a glittering specificity. In years past, her photographs were both smaller and framed; Shahbazi is one of few artists whose work benefits from the increased scale to which success has allowed her access, as this ravishing if imperfect exhibition indicates.

Tacita Dean

Published in Paper Monument issue one, September 2007.

There is no establishing shot. Kodak begins with an image of four elegantly curved metal ducts, from which extend cables sheathed in accordion-fold sleeves. The film unfurls from there.

Ribbons of semitransparent blue film stock scroll left-to-right, fluttering like small waves or sheaves of wheat buffeted by wind. Men in white jumpsuits—part scientist, part mechanic—inhabit futuristic rooms, ensuring the smooth operation of the machinery that surrounds them. Black-and-white shots are punctuated with richly hued color images: blushes of pink, cobalt blue, receding lines of red fluorescent tubes like contrasting stitching on dark fabric. Rolls of film stock unspool and then coil around giant drums. At one point, test paper interrupts the smooth run of pinkish celluloid through the machines, blocking out the light that had passed so gracefully through the mutable stock . . .

* * *

In recent years, Tacita Dean has reduced her investigations to their most potent essence. The films made five to ten years ago—featuring lighthouses, dilapidated buildings, sunsets, antiquated or outsized military listening devices, or the city of Berlin seen from the rotating restaurant on top of its infamous TV tower—gave way first to simpler portraits of artists and writers and, finally, in Kodak, to a meditation on the material conditions of the double-sprocketed 16mm film stock she prizes so highly.

Yet Kodak does not impart a coherent sense of the processes involved in creating this cherished material. It is more ethnographic field recording than preservationist instruction sheet. Despite the objectivity implicit in the medium, the film’s insistent abstract compositions and other close-ups impair one’s ability to understand precisely what one is looking at. Important details—the factory’s location in Chalôn-sur-Soane, France; its role as one of the few producers of 16mm film stock; the crucial fact that it was soon to close forever—are only revealed through outside reading. While the film’s gradual crescendo and decrescendo of activity seems meant to narrate one day in the life of the factory, the document is not very documentary. Atmosphere reigns.

Tacita Dean, still from Kodak, 2006.

Tacita Dean, still from Kodak, 2006.

The nostalgia that gives rise to a meditation like Kodak has recently been given an extensive theoretical workout. Philosophers and critics from Avishai Margalit, Paul Ricoeur, and Andreas Huyssen to David Gross, Svetlana Boym, and Clive James have examined collective remembering. But there is nothing systematic, acutely penetrating, or overtly philosophical about Kodak. Dean chooses to show rather than to tell, and her film’s lyricism provides a sensuous counterpoint to the tenor of these writers’ investigations. With its sharp, deep focus and pools of luscious color, Kodak is a convincing if imperfect advertisement for the disappearing medium’s capabilities.

Perhaps the closest correlative to Kodak’s intended elegiac tenderness is to be found in William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops I-IV (2003). The five-hour audio composition was created with analog, reel-to-reel tapes that were never to be played again. Finding a trove of personal recordings made in the early ’80s, Basinski discovered that oxidization had set upon the tapes, and that as he created a digital copy of their contents, the corrosion, run across the magnetic tape heads of the player, ruined the originals. A faltering digital echo of the original material, which warbles and is compromised by patches of static and complete silence, is all that remains. Each playback is a performance of the sound source’s obliteration.

Dean only allows her films to be presented publicly in their original formats, and, just as the available reserve of her preferred film stock is now disappearing, so too will her films finally disintegrate, despite attempts at preservation. Dean’s ideally attentive audience members are likely to be haunted by this finality.

Noir et Blanc, a 16mm black-and-white film also presented at the Guggenheim, literalizes this sense of reaching an endpoint: The four-and-a-half-minute, fully abstract variation on Kodak‘s theme was created using the few remaining rolls of double-sprocketed black-and-white film the artist could source. There are now apparently none left in the world. This prompts the question: Where does Dean go from here?

* * *

Kodak‘s penultimate scene, depicting the broken furniture, unkempt wires, mangled signs, and trash-strewn surfaces of the abandoned film-packaging section of the plant, is more harshly lit, such that Kodak abruptly takes on the heavy-industry-in-ruins aesthetic of post-apocalyptic cinema. Lulled by the found, abstract beauty of the film’s first thirty-five minutes, the sudden melodrama of the factory’s disassembly comes as a surprise. Is this meant to provoke indignation over the eclipse of Dean’s preferred medium? Are we meant to intervene?

But nostalgia is more paralyzing than stirring, a kind of sentimental amber encasing the objects of its adoration. In Kodak, film is both the amber and the fossilized specimen. One could wish that, faced with the prospect of making the final film on this stock, an artist would simply aim for the most achingly perfect creation the medium allows, confident that its beauty was argument enough against its extinction.

* * *

The workers move with practiced precision, fulfilling their duties calmly. Only one Kodak logo appears—as a patch on the jumpsuit of an employee, reversed by reflection. Two of them wrap a roll of newly produced film in protective plastic sheeting, expertly taping down the excess material before moving it with a hydraulic lift to a staging ground. Upon completing their shifts, they are seen in silhouette at the end of a dimly lit long hallway as they prepare to exit the building.

Ricci Albenda

Published in Artforum, September 2007.

Ricci Albenda’s bifurcated practice encompasses architectural interventions and paintings of brightly colored words set against neutral grounds. His last solo exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery featured six of these text paintings, which, while attractive enough, have limited appeal beyond a simple linguistic and chromatic playfulness. In this show, however, the artist revisited the other aspect of his practice and successfully expanded it.

Ricci Albenda, Panoramic Portal to Another Dimension (Deanna), 2007.

Ricci Albenda, Panoramic Portal to Another Dimension (Deanna), 2007.

Panoramic Portal to Another Dimension (Deanna) (all works 2007) is a seamless distortion of the gallery’s north wall in wood, plaster, and white acrylic paint. At first glance it offers up a knotty horizontal band at the point where two undulating curves meet. But look closer, and the installation—a 540-degree panorama of the gallery’s architecture—oscillates between something one sees into (corridors whose rectangular walls have bowed) and something one simply sees (perhaps a candlestick resting on a cushion). Most of Albenda’s earlier interventions are sculptural rather than truly architectural: Small protrusions bulge from or are carved into the wall, the excisions occasionally accompanied by a “positive” form suspended from the ceiling to compliment the “negative” seemingly removed from the surface. Here, by enlarging the scale and making the work flush with the gallery’s architecture, the artist induces a more immersive, quasi-psychedelic push-pull effect without forsaking his typical visual restraint.

A video titled Panning Annex was projected onto the opposite wall. A digital variation on the trompe l’oeil murals Albenda created for the Museum of Modern Art in 2001 and the Hyatt Center in Chicago in 2005, it consists of a slowly rotating virtual “annex” that, like Panoramic Portal, seamlessly fills the surface on which it is presented. From time to time, this perambulatory space pauses briefly—notably when the perspective of the projection’s align with the walls to either side of it. At one moment it appears to depict a rectangular room; at another the two walls recede to a single vanishing point. These junctures offer viewers a chance to reconcile their expectation of a flat, vertical surface with the shifting tableau that they encounter—fleeting respite from the queasy spatial instability that characterizes the exhibition as a whole. In this work Albenda inherits the mantle of Dan Graham’s 1970s experiments with mirrors and live video feeds, employing fairly rudimentary techniques to orchestrate a complicated interplay of real and virtual space.

Albenda’s exhibition required viewers to constantly recalibrate their relationship to objects around them, as the artworks seemed also to be in the process of refashioning themselves. The effect was of a phenomenological fun house-but one contrived without resort to the digital gimmickry that some argue characterizes, for example, “blob” architecture. In Albenda’s work, space is a fluid, dynamic construct. Still, both Panoramic Portal and Panning Annex are experienced frontally. Moving from this diorama-like presentation to a wraparound environment would seem to be Albenda’s logical next step.

Agnes Denes

Published in Artforum, May 2007.

Agnes Denes is perhaps best known for planting a two-acre wheat field at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1982, during the development of Battery Park City. An iconic photograph of the artist—waist-deep in golden sheaves, skyscrapers looming nearby—appears in many surveys of environmental art. But this work, of seemingly simple generosity (Denes harvested one thousand pounds of the crop that August and planted it around the globe), was pointedly titled Wheatfield—A Confrontation, and can be understood as one of the first occasions on which Denes worked on a scale large enough and in a public location central enough to suit her outsize ambition. The intervention represented, in the artist’s words, nothing less than “food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger, and ecological concerns.”

By the time the Public Art Fund commissioned Wheatfield, Denes had been creating drawings that married Conceptual art to philosophy, mathematics, and science for fifteen years. Two dozen drawings, alongside documentation of Wheatfield and a more recent, long-term environmental intervention in Finland, were included in this exhibition, the artist’s first solo show in New York since a touring retrospective of her public projects arrived at the Chelsea Art Museum in late 2004. Dating from 1970 to 2006 but primarily created in the late ’70s and in 1980, the works on paper often feature abstract shapes centered on white or graph-paper grounds. Their precision betrays a fiercely analytic mind and a steady hand; their refinement highlights a conventional wisdom in the non-artistic disciplines her practice engages: The best solution to a problem is the most elegant.

Arguably the loveliest drawing in the exhibition was Colorburst: The Egg (longitude lines), 1980, in which variously hued ribbons of watercolor nestle side by side, bounded by meridian lines—drawn in ink on an overlaid sheet of clear acetate—that demarcate an egg shape not much larger than those found at a grocery store. The equipoise between seemingly freeform and rule-bound marks is splendid; the delicate colors worthy of Faberge. Yet Denes would disdain a purely formal interpretation of her drawings, even when they succeed so well at pleasing the eye. For example, other, similarly shaped drawings—not included here—are meant as studies for utopian, self-contained urban dwellings.

One series, “Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space: Map Projections,” predominated. In these drawings, which project mathematical forms—the cube, the dodecahedron, the torus—onto representations of the world, Conceptual rigor rubs against the myriad imperfections of the spatial environment we inhabit, and the friction highlights the contingency of how we understand space. These playfully idiosyncratic maps, Denes’s unrelenting seriousness notwithstanding, exhibit a dry humor: Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space: Map Projections-The Hot Dog, 1976, for example, shows an Earth that has improbably morphed into the shape of a hot dog.

Perhaps entering the territory of so many other disciplines made Denes’s position somewhat marginal in the contemporary art world. Likewise her shift, in the early ’80s, into the realm of public, environmental art can be said to have uprooted Denes from the gallery system that feeds mainstream art institutions. Yet without impinging upon other artists’ signature styles, the works exhibited here furthered many artistic concerns prevalent in the late ’70s; Denes was entirely of her moment. Given that her current concern with the environment is one we all share (or ought to), the exhibition left one hoping her will soon re-enter mainstream circulation.

Liz Deschenes

Published on Artforum.com on April 16, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Liz Deschenes, Moiré #6 & #7 (diptych), 2007.

Liz Deschenes, Moiré #6 & #7 (diptych), 2007.

In contrast to the haphazard chic that characterizes neighboring art spaces and boutiques, nearly everything about this one-year-old Lower East Side gallery is rigorously composed, from its visual identity to its intriguing program of contemporary and historical exhibitions, avant-garde film screenings, and lectures on urban issues. This exhibition—Liz Deschenes’s first big New York outing since a delightful, restrained three-person show at Andrew Kreps in 2003—dovetails with the downtown venue’s consistent presentation of (for lack of a better term) brainy formalism.

For several years, Deschenes has teased apart the photographic process in compelling ways, mixing and matching its steps in an attempt to explain the camera’s magic without diminishing it and to remind viewers of the viral proliferation of screens in contemporary life. Here, seven new large-scale prints exploit the differences between the mechanical lens and the human eye, deploying moiré patterns to understated yet visually entrancing effect. (An earlier diptych, also included, illustrates an aspect of the dye-transfer process.) To create the works, Deschenes places perforated paper against a window and captures its image on an eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white negative, then duplicates the negative and superimposes two copies in an enlarger; a slight but deliberate misalignment creates the disorienting allover patterns that result. No two are alike; no system governs the misregistration. Deschenes has likewise printed the images in color, which adds subtle washes—typically of blue and green—that seem like the hallucinatory side effects of looking too hard. One can feel one’s eyes striving to accommodate these (nonreferential) images, to ascertain what is figure and what is ground as the fields of white dots blur and snap into focus. Apprehending their detail is a physical, temporally expansive, rewarding event.

Kevin Zucker

Published in Artforum, April 2007.

Between Kevin Zucker’s May 2001 debut at LFL Gallery and his second solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery in September 2003, his finely crafted paintings seemed to be everywhere. The artist created ambitious conceptual frameworks for his canvases, often having to do with the mistranslations inherent in the visual representation of objects, but their ubiquity and easy-to-swallow imagery—banal, derelict institutional interiors; limply decorative parlor rooms; and still lifes, all leached of color—produced a disconnect between the rhetoric surrounding his practice and its visual impact. This exhibition, titled “Search Within Results,” heralded the two elements’ unification. In attempting to represent the ways in which we archive information today, Zucker created a sequence of busy, fragmented compositions featuring images gathered largely from the Web’s nether regions. These were accompanied by fourteen small drawings and, for the first time in his career, photographs (depicting casual arrangements of the items found in three universities’ still-life prop storage closets).

What remains of the earlier work is the artist’s fastidious process—and its resultant sobriety. To create the medium- to large-scale paintings exhibited here, Zucker first draws a composition using CAD software, then transfers the image onto the work’s surface (employing a process that leaves patchy imperfections) and paints and sands the canvas after applying the image. To make the two paintings here, Red, Yellow, Blue (error type 108) and CMYK (error type 25) (both 2006), Zucker applied acrylic paste to sheets of plastic and transferred the computer-generated images onto the resultant surface. He then cut out the fragments and stuck them to the surface of the paintings, further shattering the cohesion of what he was ostensibly rendering. The result is smooth, uninflected surfaces in which the various steps taken to create them are individually intelligible (or, less charitably, disconnected).

Kevin Zucker, CMYK (error type 25), 2006.

Kevin Zucker, CMYK (error type 25), 2006.

All five paintings depict industrial metal shelving units, perhaps an attempt to symbolize the intangible archives that house our contemporary image bank (and increasingly bolster human memory). In one of these works, 404 Not Found, 2006, the shelves are arranged in inward-facing circles, an allusion, maybe, to feedback loops; elsewhere they form long rows that recede toward a vanishing point, indicating their endlessness, or are torn into fragments, perhaps a metaphor for the piecemeal way in which much of our information now comes to us. (The drawings depict similar shelves laden with images drawn from a Google image search for the word “tragedy.” One doesn’t realize the pathos of the phrase “Results 1-83 of about 110,000″ until one considers attempting to re-create each of those 110,000 images.)

CMYK (error type 25) was the most splintered composition on view. Its dozens of pieces, each printed with an image of shelves, are overpainted with a wash in wide, smoky brushstrokes and a series of broken rectangles in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—the inks used in the four-color printing process. Narrow slices of unprimed canvas run between these pieces like a street grid, calling to mind Gerhard Richter’s ash-gray cityscapes; the patches of bright color echo Mondrian. Gallery stablemate Benjamin Edwards, who often depicts streams of digital information interwoven with the built environment, is likewise contiguous with this tradition. But whereas the urban environment is a clear reference point for Mondrian and Edwards, in Zucker’s canvases, the agora is entirely virtual, endlessly proliferating, and, to use artist and catalogue essayist Daniel Lefcourt’s apt term, “anaesthetic.” There is no there there.

To communicate this complex gambit visually is a considerable step forward for an artist who, a few short years ago, made paintings that felt merely decorative. It’s possible that Zucker sees the literal display of fragmentation in “Search Within Results” as a concession to those who weren’t able or willing to divine the complexities he built into those earlier works. But the clarification is welcome.

Sabine Hornig

Published in Artforum, March 2007.

A room on a stage is typically missing one side, the virtual “fourth wall” through which the audience peers; the rooms depicted in the photographs Sabine Hornig included in this show are, unexpectedly, absent two sides. In each of the photos on view, the street-facing window of a Berlin storefront (there are two images of one of these storefronts and a third of another) is presented at roughly two-thirds scale, the casement marking the edges of the otherwise unframed image. The second missing division is more unsettling. In two shots, the floor has been demolished; in the third, behind the small rectangular gaps in a metal roll gate, one discovers that the rear wall has been dismantled, giving onto a view of a courtyard.

All three pictures slot neatly into a practice that has seen Hornig exploit the peculiarities of visual perception—in particular the eye’s comprehension of reflectiveness and slight changes in scale—to blur the boundaries between architecture, sculpture, and photography. But whereas the quirks of Hornig’s earlier images could be accounted for through patient looking, here the interference between what one expects and what one encounters is a result of what was photographed, not how it was captured. Fenster ohne Boden (Window with No Floor) I and II (all works 2006), hung on perpendicular walls in an otherwise empty room, are also an essay in the passage of time. The gray northern daylight illuminating the first image’s composition gives way to a darker picture seemingly taken in the evning; likewise, the trees reflected in the window shed their foliage from one photograph to the next.

Two sculptures were situated in the gallery’s larger room. Blechhütte (Tin Hut) is a narrow steel box, slightly shorter than six feet tall. A rectangular steel armature extends from one open end, framing a truck-windshield-size panel of glass. It evokes, obliquely, a bus stop shelter, a form Hornig used more directly for a 2001 sculpture, Bus Stop, also exhibited at this gallery. Everything about the object is slightly off: The box is too small to enter; the glass panel, on which is printed a thin vertical slice of an image, is too large to function as a door; deep inside the structures lightless interior, a small triangular ledge might imply seating were it not for a similar piece wedged a few inches below the ceiling. Stifling functionality, Blechhütte seems instead to embody the oft-recited claim that “all art is quite useless.”

Sabine Hornig, Landscape, 2006.

Sabine Hornig, Landscape, 2006.

That particular line belongs to Oscar Wilde, who prefaced it by announcing, “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.” Landscape, a five-panel steel-and-Plexiglas folding screen adorned with a photographic transparency depicting a landfill, is worthy of such admiration. It too repeals utility; the semitransparent image does not obstruct sight. Its ostensible message, reminding viewers of the proximity of luxury (the elegant folding screen) and waste, is banal when expressed didactically. Landscape, however, embodies its lesson in an interestingly literal manner. As one circumnavigates the sculpture, the panels—set at varying angles to one another—are reflected in the Plexiglas like phantom limbs. The object visually proliferates, and so does its image of waste. In this sparsely installed exhibition, more economical than Hornig’s previous three Bonakdar shows, one was tempted to view this lesson in relation to today’s art market, the many inessential objects it accommodates mere kindling on a pyre.

Scott Short

Published on Artforum.com on February 8, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Scott Short, installation view, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2007.

Scott Short, installation view, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2007.

Like a concept album or a marvel of structural engineering, this exhibition is greater than the sum of its parts; each canvas ineluctably reinforces all of the others. Elegantly installed in the Renaissance Society’s double-height galleries, it comprises a decade’s output by painter Scott Short, who has spent the majority of this time doggedly fleshing out a single, restrictive concept. The artist makes successive black-and-white photocopies of unmarked sheets of colored construction paper, until the final image—removed from the original by hundreds of generations and chosen for its visual properties—is an abstract field of marks. This image is then projected onto canvas and meticulously copied in oil paint. Some will feel impatient simply reading that description. But taken whole, this extreme constraint provides relative bounty: Spatters are arranged in divergent compositions—black on white or white on black, depending on their density and one’s inclination—and buttressed by the paradoxical dualities embedded in the artist’s process. The paintings are both abstract and pedantically representational; are made mechanically and, painstakingly, by hand; are black-and-white but generate cognitive friction with titles like Untitled (yellow) and Untitled (red). A few earlier “portraits” are thick, swirling scrawls of black paint that blot out any attempt at identification. To arrive at his working process, a frozen inversion of Abstract Expressionism’s messy heat, Short has likewise obliterated the traditional habits of a “painterly” practice. That these canvases still work precisely as paintings is evidence of the fundamental stability of his method.

Melanie Schiff

Published on Artforum.com on January 4, 2007. To see the review in context, click here.

Melanie Schiff, Emergency, 2006.

Melanie Schiff, Emergency, 2006.

Since her solo debut at this gallery, photographer Melanie Schiff has moved out of the studio and into the world, trading fussily arranged, evenly lit still lifes for more casual, serendipitous compositions of everyday objects. These photos are hymns to natural light, and the presence of rainbows, beer cans, and a Neil Young LP cover tempts one to characterize her gaze as a stoner’s glassy-eyed fixation. In Emergency, 2006, the sun, modulated by a porch screen, is a marble-size fireball resting atop a bottle of Jack Daniels. In another photograph, a single beam slices through a compact-disc jewel case, splitting into faint prisms that descend upon dull gray carpet. A third shows a green beer bottle balanced at the tip of a canoe, lit from within by two crisscrossed glow sticks; their angle continues the lines made by the edges of the thin-metal boat and is also found in the X composed of two arrows jutting from disused beer cans in a nearby picture. With sixteen photos and one unexpected (if not unwelcome) foray into video, the exhibition is a tad overhung, but even the oddball images—of the artist making Spit Rainbow, 2006, next to a backyard lemon tree, or a tapestry of drug bags plastered to a cracked window—add to the show’s drowsy-afternoon allure.

Helen Mirra

Published in Artforum, January 2007.

According to the press release for “Break Camp” (Helen Mirra’s second solo exhibition at Peter Freeman, Inc.), the artist’s practice “involves no power tools.” It’s a prosaic statement that nonetheless hints at two important aspects of Mirra’s reticent art, elucidating her devotion to the handmade while also suggesting her political conscience (she’s not on to wield power aggressively). Both of these qualities are often rendered subservient to form in critical interpretations of her exquisitely crafted works.

For those familiar with the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based artist’s modest oeuvre, this exhibition, which features sculptures made as she was about to “break camp” and return to the US from a yearlong residency in Berlin, will seem true to form. Viewers less accustomed to Mirra’s aesthetic might stop short upon encountering the eight ankle-height wood-and-pinecone sculptures spread across the floor of the gallery’s small main room. Like the wall-based sculptures that comprised the greater part of her last exhibition here, these low-slung compositions are made of planks from shipping pallets, this time mostly picked up on the streets around her Berlin studio. The weathered gray-brown timer bears evidence of its industrial past; the pinecones that nestle against it, taken from the nearby Grunewald forest, perhaps represent the opposite force, the pure potential embodied in their reproductive function.

Helen Mirra, Sarton, 2006.

Helen Mirra, Sarton, 2006.

At first glance, the sculptures are difficult to differentiate from one another. Up close, however, each reveals individual characteristics: Unirondack (all works 2006) is comprised of two squat stacks supporting a number of other wood pieces and a handful of cones, while Bartók is long and toothy, like one of Donald Judd’s lengthy, squared-off wall reliefs set on the floor. Star Route No. 5, partly brushed with the gray-green milk paint that featured prominently in Mirra’s last New York show, shields dozens of cones between its two horizontal slabs, one cut industrially and somewhat haphazardly, the other by the artist’s exacting handsaw.

These juxtapositions prompt consideration of the ends to which we direct elements of the natural environment, and the means by which we do so. A sense of time evoked by the past and (arrested) future lives of the materials calls to mind an early, atypically poetic 1967 Richard Serra sculpture, shown at this gallery in 2004, that features fifteen partially burned white candles spaced evenly along a wooden beam resting on the floor. And, as is almost always the case with Mirra’s works, those on view here evoke (through their titles) a peculiar mix of historical figures: not only the composer Béla Bartók, but also the prominent nineteenth-century American pacificist Adin Ballou, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the writer May Sarton. But whereas earlier exhibitions possessed a kind of intellectual site-specificity—works evoking Chicagoans John Dewey and Jane Addams made around the time that the artist lived in that city, for example—the relation of this constellation of influences to the site where she produced these sculptures remains oblique. The delicate equilibrium between place and conceptual underpinning seems slightly out of true.

A smaller room contains three of the narrow, hand-sewn cotton bands on which Mirra types a “subjective” index of books’ contents, a format she has previously used to offer veiled, self-reflexive investigations of her artistic process. Backbone, Crosshairs, and Downed, however, all drawn from a book about deer hunting, seem fixated on communicating content (BREASTBONE, 99 BUCKSAW, 128 BULLET ACTION, 37-8 reads part of Backbone). One upshot of balancing such bleak material with formal restraint is an emotional resonance—here, pathos—otherwise rare in Mirra’s cerebral oeuvre. The concerns about nonhuman life and the environment expressed in this exhibition are rarely addressed in contemporary art, and few artists are as well equipped to voice them as Mirra. But this newfound partisan clarity is not yet fully reconciled with the richly allusive ambiguity of her best works.

Yang Fudong

Published on Artforum.com on September 14, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Those who have seen this Chinese artist’s earlier films will find familiar imagery scattered throughout No Snow on the Broken Bridge, 2006: a freeze-frame tableau in which seven young men and women, dressed in a haberdasher’s finest, look outward from a rocky outcrop; boats slowly drifting across placid waters; lush, unpopulated landscapes dominated by mountains. This eleven-minute black-and-white work, which premiered last spring at Parasol Unit in London, is Fudong’s inaugural foray into multichannel presentation. A viewer’s slightly antic attempt to take in images from eight screens, here hung in a seamless semicircle, marginally diminishes the arrested-moment quality that characterizes all his films—it’s plain he trained as a painter—but Fudong aids the viewer by occasionally letting objects slide from one screen to the next or by nestling similar images side by side (ants threading through rivulets of bark; men hiking a narrow path up a hill). Like all of Fudong’s work, the narrative is loosely structured, favoring centripetal forces over linear paths. Here, glamorous young men and women are slowly pulled together as, alone or in pairs and quartets, they wend their way toward the eponymous bridge to catch a last glimpse of winter snow; the rabbits, parrots, and stubborn goats on leashes that accompany them hint at the dandyish excess of a bygone era. Some women make their way, in heels, along flat boulders set in a babbling brook; others wear suits and painted mustaches. A man in a trilby puffs contemplatively on a pipe while being conveyed across open water. Not much of significance transpires, but in a film this beautiful, this suffused with atmosphere, not much needs to.

Thomas Zipp

Published in Artforum, September 2006.

Installation view, Harris Lieberman, New York, 2006.

Installation view, Harris Lieberman, New York, 2006.

Thomas Zipp could never be called unambitious: The Berlin-based artist’s first major solo gallery show in New York, at Harris Liebermann, not only coincided with his second solo exhibition in Los Angeles, and with a room-size installation at the Berlin Biennale, but also tackled some complex subject matter. Zipp frequently interweaves aspects of art history, philosophy, and science. Here, in a show that comprised paintings, works on paper, and a sculptural installation, he sought out the residual value of early-twentieth-century Utopian thought in a nuclear age (nuclear war being the “Uranlicht” ["Uranium Light"] of the exhibition’s title). Given the scope and gravity of these concerns, Zipp sensibly, and adroitly, dispensed with didactic literalism in favor of suggestive indirectness.

All alone high up on a large wall near the gallery entrance, Harris (all works 2006), a letter-size mixed-media drawing depicting Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who orchestrated the Allied saturation bombing of Germany during WWII (and who is the great uncle of one of the gallery’s owners), served as the historical anchor for Zipp’s imaginative multimedia explorations. Other small drawings feature formal portraits of a rogues’ gallery of anonymous, well-heeled men and skeletons, all of whose eyes are variously punctured by nails and tacks (like victims of a voodoo ritual) or covered with coins (as if in preparation for the afterlife). Some also spout empty speech bubbles. Several large paintings, two propped up on leg-like wooden poles, depict imaginary plants sprouting out of denuded, postapocalyptic landscapes. In the gallery’s main room, a handmade organ—featuring on-off switches and volume dimmers in place of keys—stood sentinel with a small army of boxy black speakers. Those adventurous enough to play the instrument were treated to a grating mixture of synthesized sounds that, given the context, evoked air-raid sirens. (In fact, one of the speakers houses a repurposed GDR siren.) The late-Rothko palette—sooty grays, earthy browns, burnt ochre, eggplant, claret, and black—connected these otherwise disparate works and contributed to the exhibition’s doleful atmosphere.

Zipp’s syncretic approach to history, in which seemingly incompatible figures and events are brought together in the service of a romantic vision, evokes the work of Anselm Kiefer, though the younger artist generates meaning through constellations of objects rather than through the hubristic appropriation of real, cosmic constellations. The exhibition checklist demonstrated this accumulative strategy, as seemingly random groupings of objects—two mixed-media drawings and a painting; the organ sculpture, a drawing, and a wall text—constituted individual artworks; in Uranlicht drawn lines escaping one man’s mouth stretch onto a nearby canvas. Some might consider this interdependence a weakness, an indicator of discrete works’ inability to stand alone, but here it seemed a smart way to acknowledge that no single work could tell the whole story.

Despite the variety of mediums deployed in this exhibition, Zipp is primarily a painter, with a wan aesthetic that calls to mind the dour imaginings of Luc Tuymans. The netlike grids that arc across several of the canvases might be metaphorical representations of the way in which the artist’s reverence for modernist aesthetics undergirds his weighty archival investigations. (This is sometimes literally the case, as in an installation, presented last year at Art Basel Miami Beach, comprising small canvases and framed drawings hung atop a blown-up black-and-white reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting.) In this show, Zipp put forth a strong case for this holistic approach, deftly blending formalist concerns and the lessons of history while avoiding the bombast that often characterizes proponents of only one or the other.

“On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag”

Published on Artforum.com on June 21, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Susan Sontag, relentlessly curious, roamed widely across the cultural landscape, the specificity of her writing compensating for her occasional lack of specialist knowledge. This jewel-box exhibition, which draws its title from her thin, seminal book first published in 1977, acknowledges her contribution to our understanding of photography by pairing quotes drawn from her essays with clumps of photographs exhumed from the Metropolitan’s far-reaching collection. Encompassing portraits, street scenes, war photography, political propaganda, and travel snapshots, the pictures on view—spanning 150 years—interlace anonymous works with canonical images while maintaining an intimate sense of scale. Curator Mia Fineman serves both image and text well by leaving loose the connections between them—allusion should always supersede didacticism—and, in doing so, refreshes our understanding of both. (Those turned off by the playfulness of “AngloMania,” on view elsewhere in the museum, should appreciate this exhibition’s gentler revisions.) Peter Hujar’s cool 1975 portrait of Sontag, which catches her in thoughtful repose, greets the visitor at the entrance; forty-odd pictures later, Annie Liebovitz gives us Sontag as a shadowy, faraway figure, dwarfed by the walls of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. It’s a bit of a trick, but it works, and one leaves this exhibition hoping that Sontag’s words won’t likewise slip into the distance.

Mary Weatherford

Published on Artforum.com on June 19, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Mary Weatherford, after Hodler, 2006, flashe on linen, 37 x 44"

Mary Weatherford, after Hodler, 2006, flashe on linen, 37 x 44"

The three midsize canvases in this Los Angeles–based artist’s exhibition, each a slightly different view of the same rocky outcrop, would be of little interest were they not so well executed; instead, they argue convincingly for the value of painting directly from life. Each skillfully fuses two currently unfashionable artistic traditions: Look at them from a few feet away, and the compositions are reminiscent of the kind of by-the-sea plein air painting that Courbet and Monet practiced in Normandy circa 1870; zoom in on almost any part of a canvas, and your field of vision is filled with a harmonious, semiabstract chromatic reverie that evokes early-twentieth-century practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic, from Sonia Delaunay and Franz Marc to Georgia O’Keeffe and Joseph Stella. Rendered in flashe, a vinyl-based paint that doesn’t lose the intensity of its color when diluted with water (as Weatherford has done here), these works register changes in sunlight upon the rock formation by altering the composition’s dominant hue: apparition, 2006, is reddish pink; after Hodler, 2006, is reddish orange; shadow, 2005, is bluish green. These colors have been applied with diaphanous, mostly vertical, soft-edged brushstrokes, and the shimmering effect grants the hulking mass dreamlike airiness and grace.

Luisa Lambri

Published in Artforum, summer 2006. For additional images from and information about the exhibition, click here.

Luisa Lambri, Untitled (Barragan House, #35), 2005

Luisa Lambri, Untitled (Barragan House, #35), 2005

For her New York solo debut, Italian photographer Luisa Lambri presented a four-year minisurvey consisting of just seventeen photographs, and the restrained selection underscored the importance of editing to her practice. Lambri spends considerable time in each of the modernist buildings—primarily private residences—that she photographs, taking hundreds of pictures. Yet only a few of these are ever printed and exhibited, and they are not conventional architectural photographs in the vein of, say, Julius Shulman’s glamorous images of Case Study Houses or Candida Höfer’s typological surveys of magnificent interiors (both of which would otherwise seem obvious precedents here). Lambri’s idiosyncratic documents, often depicting individual windows or glass-curtain walls, are more somatic than panoramic, attending closely to the phenomenology of the built environment. Most architectural photographs posit the viewer as disembodied voyeur, but Lambri’s images place the body in space. Her pictures register her slight shifts in position as well as subtle changes in light, and both characteristics give her grouped images a sense of the passage of time in a manner that recalls Jan Dibbets’s “Interior Light” studies.

The main gallery featured images of Luis Barragan’s Casa Barragan (1947), Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art (1966), and Konstantin Melnikov’s Melnikov House (1927), although only architecture buffs would recognize these buildings in Lambri’s shots. All six pictures of Barragan’s Mexico City home, taken in 2005, focus on one window, which is covered by a wooden shutter divided into four cabinet-like doors. Lambri treats this window like a camera lens, opening the doors to varying degrees in order to admit different amounts of light. In four pictures, a prolonged exposure blanches the image, and the light surges between the cracks with an otherworldly radiance. The possible permutations are seemingly infinite, and endlessly rewarding. In the other two, the surrounding wall reasserts its solidity, framing a garden view that incorporates some pink flowers, the only bright color in the exhibition.

Three photographs of a single window at the Melnikov House offer a similar opportunity for back-and-forth comparison. Here, however, the light remains more or less consistent, and it is Lambri’s movement—identified by a point of view that shifts slightly with each shot—that becomes apparent. Two diagonal wooden sashes crisscross the elongated hexagonal opening and fragment the picture’s composition into rectangles, trapezoids, and triangles that interlock like puzzle pieces. Nearby, a single image of a window at the Whitney Museum, taken at a slightly oblique angle to the wall, likewise emphasizes the complexities of the iconic, off-kilter aperture, with its deeply recessed, irregular trapezoidal windowpane, which angles away from the building instead of lying flush with the facade. Picture plane, gallery wall, window, and the gridded exterior of the building across the street create a series of optical twists and turns that slow the eye’s movement around the photographic space.

Three pictures of Edward Durell Stone’s Mandel House (1934), hung in a smaller room, created a spatially complex tableau reminiscent of Sabine Hornig’s photographs and sculptural installations. The images depict what looks like a twin-chambered dressing room in which two mirrors—one circular, one rectangular—rest against opposing walls while a floor-to-ceiling glass wall with a door spans the distance between them. The elegant photographs, which were here arranged like stand-ins for the mirrors and window, were taken from different oblique angles and amplify the disorientation caused by the room’s intricate play of light and reflections. One must work conscientiously to stitch together an understanding of the three-dimensional space fractured by this photographic hall of mirrors, but doing so offers one of this exhibition’s many pleasures.

Barbara Probst

Published in Artforum, May 2006.

Barbara Probst,  Exposure #1: N.Y.C., 545, 8 Avenue, 01.07.00, 10:37 p.m., 2000

Barbara Probst, Exposure #1: N.Y.C., 545, 8 Avenue, 01.07.00, 10:37 p.m., 2000

On January 7, 2000, at 10:37 PM, Munich- and New York-based photographer Barbara Probst first employed a technique that remains unique among contemporary artists. Using a remote-control device, she simultaneously triggered the shutters of twelve cameras strategically positioned around a New York City rooftop, and the resultant set of poster-size prints, in which Probst, her cameras and tripods, and the noirish urban scene all figure equally as subjects, anchored her last solo show at Murray Guy in 2004. The Rashomon-like multiplicity of perspectives synthetically prolongs the cameras’ “decisive moment,” and this clash of temporal registers was the exhibition’s most salient quality. For this exhibition, consisting of eleven photographs constituting four artworks, Probst added emotional nuance and referential complexity to that first multipart “exposure.”

Exposure #36: Studio Munich, 09.26.05., 2:34 p.m., a five-part work that alternates black-and-white and color prints, unsettles one’s sense not only of time but also of space. Viewing the photographs sequentially, one initially assumes that the young woman in a red sweater, her hands held up near the right side of her head, is standing outside, in or near a park. The second image, shot from behind the woman, exposes the artifice implied by inclusion of the word “studio” in the title: Here one sees, behind a camera on a tripod, the contours of a room with floor-to-ceiling windows. The third frame peels back yet another layer of the construction, revealing the greenery in the background of the first picture to be no more than a studio backdrop. The fourth shot plunges one back into a conceivably “realistic” space (the grain of the photograph merges seamlessly with that of the backdrop), once again giving the impression that the woman is outside, this time on a street in New York’s Chinatown. The final photograph is a close-up of the woman’s face.

But of course one doesn’t view these images consecutively. Instead, the successive revelations encourage the eye to Ping-Pong between the prints, picking out details overlooked on first pass. One gradually assembles a mental model of the depicted scene, pairing each camera with the images it has captured. But there remains an estranging detail, noticeable only because of the enlargements’ imposing size: The presence of a young boy lying on the studio floor, his head and an arm visible in the bottom-right corner of the third print. This returns one to the background of the first print: The park scene is naggingly familiar because it was lifted from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). (Exposure #37: N.Y.C. 249 W 34th Street, 11.07.05, 1:13 p.m., with its fashionably dressed, supine protagonist ogled by a plethora of lenses, evokes the studio scenes in that film, but to different effect.) Probst’s deconstruction of the photograph’s veracity—which, in these multi-panel works, evokes cinematic precedents in both atmosphere and presentation—literally encompasses a fragment of a classic film on the same subject.

The other photographs in the show, all diptychs, hint at the complexities, temporal and otherwise, lodged in Exposure #36. These photographs evoke Christopher Williams’s photographic deconstructions and Eadweard Muybridge’s time-lapse studies. But Probst’s fruitful investigation of photography’s characteristics (and the operations of human memory) distinguishes her from both precursors and peers.

Sze Tsung Leong

Published on Artforum.com on April 12, 2006. To see the review in context, click here.

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong, Beicheng Xin Cun, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, 2004

Sze Tsung Leong’s gorgeous, abundantly detailed, medium- to large-size photographs of Chinese cities undergoing cataclysmic change fuse Edward Burtynsky’s synoptic aerial views, Elger Esser’s blanched palette, and the patient attentiveness evident in underappreciated Japanese photographer Ryuji Miyamoto’s mid-’80s “Architectural Apocalypse” photographs. The works included here, from “History Images,” an ongoing series begun four years ago (and exhibited at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2004), were taken in Beijing and Pingyao, Xinjiekou and Xiamen, yet each tells roughly the same story, in which a rush to transform society—whether during the mid-century socialist revolution or more recent capitalist expansion—inevitably and irrevocably transforms the landscape. Low-slung, tile-roofed, imperial-era houses give way to drab, mid-rise, concrete apartment blocks, which are in turn supplanted by more-or-less shiny skyscrapers bearing corporate logos—sometimes all in the same picture. The nostalgic tint of the series title, which evinces a preservationist documentary impulse, is offset by Leong’s eminently rational compositions, in which new structures encircle old, or radiate outward symmetrically like a Rorschach blot. Two pictures in a second room lift the veil shrouding this hyperdevelopment: One depicts a construction site, curiously devoid of the machinery necessary to erect a tall building, in which workers stand in holes dug for concrete pylons; another shows horses, certainly anachronistic workers in an urban environment, carting trash bags on rickety wooden carts. Their inclusion adds an important counterpoint to the exhibition’s deceptively seductive force, reminding us that individual lives play out both in the crumbling shacks and behind the steel-and-glass façades.

Felix Schramm

Published in Artforum, March 2006. For more information about the exhibition, click here.

German artist Felix Schramm’s New York solo debut comprised primarily a single gallery-filling sculpture. Comber, 2005, was an impressive feat of intentional disarray. Set into—and seemingly bursting forth from—a raised platform, a lowered ceiling, and a specially built wall that slightly constricted the dimensions of the main room, it featured a structural armature made from splintered two-by-fours mostly covered by ripped sheets of painted drywall. These walls, jutting out at sharp angles, formed seductive, visually balanced planes of blue, orange, and gray that nicely counterbalanced the violence of the mangled materials themselves. Resting on just a few points, the work seemed simultaneously colossal and delicate, as if one false move might bring the whole thing crashing down.

This was a site-specific sculpture that overwhelmed its site. One couldn’t fully move around, much less through, the rough-and-tumble construction, a restriction that undermined the complexitiy of one’s relationship to the work. Because the viewer was forced to experience it from one side and one side only, Comber‘s muscular ’70s sculptural idiom—think of Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural fragments infused with the implicit menace of Richard Serra’s prop pieces—was nullified, essentially presented as a diorama. (Flatten out Schramm’s three-dimensional expanses of color and the result might look like a Cubist collage.) That this work, which made high drama of devastating the white cube, is nonetheless contained in this way significantly undercut what could have been a viscerally unsettling experience.

Beyond its title, derived from the term for continuously breaking waves, the work offered no narrative thrust or external references. To its credit, Comber‘s thorough abstractness left the door open to imaginative rumination on the precariousness of shelter, the untamable violence of nature (earthquakes, hurricanes), and destruction’s potential as a creative force. This kind of painting-sculpture-architecture hybrid (which nonetheless refuses the label of “installation”) is increasingly common, and one can imagine Schramm’s piece, which is perhaps three parts sculpture, one part architecture, and one part painting, as a counterpoint to the work of Brooklyn-based artist Lisa Sigal, who emphasizes painting above the other two media in her own site-specific interventions. Earlier precedents stretch from Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau to John Chamberlain. And the work also owes something to deconstructivist architectural projects like Daniel Libeskind’s proposed extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or Coop Himme(l)blau’s UFA Cinema Center in Dresden.

Clues to Comber‘s making were on view in the gallery’s entrance space and office, where a series of fifteen letter-size drawings and a wall-mounted maquette emphasized that this was the product of much compositional deliberation. Some of these contained material shopping lists; a greater number presented schematic renderings of broken drywall panels surrounded by mathematical equations and other notes. The tension between our knowledge of the piece as premeditated and our experience of it as seemingly wrought by arbitrary, uncontrollable forces—whether genuinely natural or the “spontaneous” work of the artist—was a smart corollary to the equipoise between stasis and (implied) motion in Comber itself.

Schramm’s earlier large-scale sculptures—similar in form and in their use of Home Depot materials—seemed to have a less antagonistic relationship to the spaces in which they were shown, offering the viewer an opportunity to perambulate (and therefore more fully understand their complexity). Here, the integration with the surrounding architectural did not seem fully resolved: After several generations of artistic incursions into the formerly sacred white cube, simply crashing through the walls with bravado may not be enough. This exhibition proved that Schramm possesses an intuitive feel for materials and a keen formal eye, but has yet to reveal his conceptual underpinnings with clarity.

John Stezaker

Published on Artforum.com on February 8, 2006. For more information about the exhibition, click here; to see the review in context, click here.

John Stezaker, Film Portrait (She) VIII, 2005

John Stezaker, Film Portrait (She) VIII, 2005

One could easily recommend any of the small, sharply focused exhibitions now on view at White Columns; my favorite is John Stezaker’s show in one of the gallery’s “White Rooms.” Despite a thirty-five year exhibition history in London, where he lives and works, this is the artist’s New York solo debut. It features only eleven diminutive, near-seamless collages, yet reveals Stezaker’s wit and acuity; his “image fascination,” to use his preferred term, comes across as a preternatural ability to divine visual concordances across disparate source material. The “Film Portraits” on view appropriate hand-tinted headshots of mid-century silver screen luminaries, juxtaposing two smooth-skinned faces to create a perfectly formed hybrid. The best of these, Film Portrait (She) VIII, 2005, uses an off-center female-silhouette-shaped cutout to reveal the male half of a male-female composite, triangulating the implied relationship by introducing a third “character.” (The length of this description misrepresents the pleasingly intuitive economy of the artist’s gesture.) Three “Incisions,” each of which is marked by a V-shaped cut that stretches vertically across almost the entire work, are methodologically similar, but use elements—the shadow made by a crouching boy, a low-lying building in the distance—drawn from more varied sources to stitch together the image torn asunder by the cut. Many younger artists, from Angus Fairhurst to Christian Holstad, have adopted Stezaker’s technique, but they rarely achieve the balance of whimsy and fastidiousness that these works so casually display.

Sergej Jensen

Published in Artforum, January 2006. To learn more about the exhibition, click here.

Sergej Jensen, installation view, Anton Kern Gallery, New York, 2005

Sergej Jensen, installation view, Anton Kern Gallery, New York, 2005

Berlin-based artist Sergej Jensen’s works will disappoint viewers looking for visual bombast, but by avoiding heroic painterly gestures (and frequently even forsaking the use of paint) Jensen has nevertheless become one of the most interesting painters working today. His works are mostly medium-size panels of unprimed stretched canvas, linen, or wool, daubed with chlorine, bleach, and dye and/or adorned with bits of fabric. Jensen’s compositions would seem unresolved or even incomplete were it not for their intuitive elegance: That he often minimizes the physical work necessary to produce his paintings belies the mental effort it takes to create such apparently slapdash beauty. For his New York solo debut, Jensen even outsourced some of the labor to his mother.

Paint or no paint, however, the show was emphatically titled “Paintings,” and Jensen’s use of found materials, his low-key, washy palette, and his attempts to downplay his own role in the creative process all have a painterly pedigree: One might cite Michael Krebber, Rosemarie Trockel, Richard Tuttle, Blinky Palermo, or Sigmar Polke as precedents. The show’s subtitle, “I come from the computer,” printed three times on a letter-size piece of paper taped to a wall near the entrance, acted both as a biographical key (Jensen’s mother is a retired computer programmer) and, in its self-effacement, a declaration of principle.

Two works hanging near the gallery entrance nicely encapsulate many of Jensen’s key concerns. Untitled (Binary One) and Untitled (Binary Zero) (all works 2005) feature bills in various currencies (arrayed in the vertical bar and vertically oriented rectangle implied by the titles) affixed to two different types of raw canvas. (The checklist identifies the medium as “money on canvas,” perhaps a jab at the status of painting in an overheated market.) Here, economy (as in finance) is crossed with the economy of Jensen’s gesture. It is easy to envision these bills as creatively repurposed remnants of international travel and to imagine Jensen making money by selling it. The bills themselves are arranged visually, and the color combinations are surprisingly appealing, rescuing the works from being mere illustrations of an idea.

Some canvases in the show, such as one covered with pink-and-white star-shaped patches or two works made of dyed burlap, miss their mark and seem to have neither a clear animating impulse nor enough visual allure to distract us from the lack thereof. But when Jensen strikes the right balance and appeals to both eye and mind, he comes up with works like Untitled, in which a pale stain on an unaltered bolt of fabric becomes a motif repeated in five horizontal bands a ghostly conflation of Christopher Wool’s allover decorative patterning and Agnes Martin’s ethereal horizon lines. Wool is also a touchstone for Silver Laser Flowers, which uses four fragments of a floral-print fabric found on the artist’s last trip to New York; Jensen has affixed them to canvas like remnants unearthed at an archaeological dig, leaving the viewer to complete the pattern around them. These works, like the “Binary” paintings, encourage an appreciation of the finished object and a consideration of how it came into being. The most recent work in the show is made from the offcut residua of its companions in the gallery. The environmentalist mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle,” enlivened by the element of chance, describes not only this painting, but also Jensen’s humble yet expansive practice as a whole.

Harry Callahan

Published on Artforum.com on December 14, 2005. For more information about the exhibition, click here; to see the review in context, click here.

Harry Callahan, Untitled (#2), 1950

Harry Callahan, Untitled (#2), 1950

Had Richard Prince organized this show, he would’ve called it “Twenty Women Looking in Every Direction.” But Harry Callahan, an acclaimed though under-exhibited photographer perhaps best known for loving, often experimental portraits of his wife Eleanor, was out on the streets of Chicago in 1950, and this series, titled “Women Lost in Thought,” presages Garry Winogrand’s sidewalk snaps as much as it does Prince’s postmodern Conceptualism. To take these extreme close-ups of women out for a stroll, Callahan had to push the technological limits of his equipment (choosing a too-high shutter speed for the film he was using) and devise idiosyncratic shooting techniques (pre-focusing the camera and hoping his subjects were the proper distance from the lens). It’s hard not to view these women, completely isolated from their surroundings, as early examples of then-emerging theories about urban anomie; they could be the wives left behind in the morning by William H. Whyte’s “Organization Man.” They look alternately sullen, animated, and impassive, and the frisson of violence implied by the odd, sometimes harsh cropping adds yet more psychological portent to pictures whose fascination is belied by their seeming simplicity.

Ryan Gander

Published in Artforum, December 2005.

Both works in London-based artist Ryan Gander’s New York debut make productive use of a disconnect between sound and image. In The First Grand National, 2003, a small monitor facing the wall illuminates an empty, black-carpeted room. A color-bar test pattern on the screen casts a gently moving rainbow on the wall as an elderly Englishwoman holds forth on various methods of high-speed typing, perfume, and, predominantly, the BBC Radio 4 programming—plays, the news, the shipping forecast, Women’s Hour—that is her daily companion. A quaver in her voice, buttressed by our understanding that her preferred links to the outside world are showing their age as much as she is, gives the oration an elegiac tone. (Likewise the Grand National, England’s premier horse race, is one of only ten sporting events guaranteed live broadcast on network television, itself a dying technology now mostly replaced by satellite transmission.)

Gander, whose heterogeneous practice includes sound works, videos, posters, text pieces, photographs, and site-specific installations, and whose methodology sometimes seems more like that of an art director than an artist, doesn’t often use his formidable talents to provoke an emotional response. But by pairing The First Grand National‘s narration with an unconnected abstract image—as opposed to, say, a scene of a little old lady in her rundown flat—Gander encourages us to pay greater attention to her words and, by extension, to empathize with her plight.

Previously, Gander has created works that thematize their own production or the manner in which they are exhibited. In one example, Brown Corduroy Lounge, 2001, he presented a sequence of photographs inspired by a Serge Gainsbourg album cover, each taken with a different format camera (35 mm, 6 x 6 cm, and 6 x 7 cm), to show the varying amounts of visual information captured by each. The sound track of his 2005 installation at STORE in London described in detail the physical properties of the space itself.

Is this guilt in you too (The study of a car in a field), 2005, is in the same vein as the latter work. It is a video installation enclosed in a room slightly larger than the one housing The First Grand National, but with white walls and an ivory-color carpet. Originally created for Annet Gelink Gallery’s Art Statements booth at last summer’s Art Basel fair, the visual component of the piece is a minute-long video loop in which, after a fade from black to white, an airborne camera zooms in from above on a car idling in the middle of a snowy field near a stand of trees. But there are no tire tracks, and everything seems a bit too perfect. By placing the projector behind the wall, Gander makes his video loop an equally “impossible” apparition.

A ten-to-fifteen-minute audio track performs a pas de deux with this repeating scene, as an intelligent young girl responds to verbal prompts we cannot hear. She describes what we are seeing in real time, speculating on how the car got there; explains that “it’s going to be shown in the art fair, in Basel” and what exactly an art fair is; ruminates on whether or not the image is “real” before deciding it is digitally constructed; and even selects a track from a CD as part of a potential musical sound track for the video. As in Gander’s earlier pieces, everything is interrogated. The young girl’s gloss punctures the seamlessness of the artwork, but none of its power to fascinate slips through the cracks.

Kay Rosen

Published in Artforum, September 2005.

Kay Rosen, Blurred, 2004

Kay Rosen, Blurred, 2004

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Kay Rosen’s text-based art requires precisely this kind of doublethink, as almost all of the sly arrangements of words she has been making for the last twenty-five years reward concerted attention by revealing double and triple entendres. The “Aha!” moments often pack an emotional or political punch, but are always leavened by the artist’s sense of humor.

Trained as a linguist, Rosen has become a kind of visual rhetorician, manipulating words—via juxtaposition, scale, and color—in order to highlight their inherent fluidity and its complex implications. This exhibition, which featured one large wall painting and a selection of recent small-scale drawings and paintings, inaugurated Gray Kapernekas Gallery’s program and was the artist’s first New York solo exhibition in three years.

The mental gymnastics required to decode the wall painting, which dates from 2004 and covered a full wall of the small gallery, are perhaps the most strenuous of all those demanded by this show. Here, a seemingly random collection of Rosen’s favored blocky, sans-serif letters—PNUUMLDE—appear in alternating shades of charcoal and slate gray and in varying sizes (the smaller middle letters forming a valley between two outer peaks). Swing your eyes back and forth, though, reading from the outside in, and you eventually arrive at the painting’s title: Pendulum.

Formally, Pendulum echoes Big Talk, 1985, an early billboard exhibited in Chicago whose two words—JUMBO MUMBO—were stacked one atop the other and could be read from left to right or, as suggested by the alternating color scheme, by moving one’s eyes up and down from word to word. This back-and-forth motion is an apt metaphor for the state of heightened awareness one achieves when attempting to reconcile the “opposed ideas” in any of Rosen’s works. It also relates to the political implications that can be found in both pieces: The early billboard references the city’s bloviating politicians who earned Chicago the epithet the “Windy City,” and the later painting (given the artist’s known sensitivity to such matters), the metronomic swing from Bush to Clinton to Bush.

Recently, University of Michigan professors created US maps that prove most of the country is politically neither red nor blue, but rather violet, countering reductive notions of our electoral affinities. Rosen’s Blurred, 2004, is a perfect distillation of this condition: The letters BLU are drawn in blue colored pencil, and RED in red; in the middle, there is a lone purple R. To her credit, Rosen uses language to show rather than tell, and Blurred expresses not generalization but oft-overlooked specificity.

The other works in the exhibition offer smaller, more personal epiphanies. In Bluish, 2002, a cerulean I stands surrounded by rosy letters spelling BLUSH, while in Your Eyes Say Yes, 2004, the initial E in the word EYES is rendered in a lighter shade than its neighbors. Rosen sidesteps accusations of creating one-liners by treating language visually, supplementing its normal task of signification to reveal, through the smallest of interventions, an infinitely varied and playful world.

Banks Violette

Banks Violette, untitled, 2005

Banks Violette, untitled, 2005

New Yorkers are uniquely positioned to assess the recent development of Banks Violette’s art. While his star is everywhere on the rise, it is already incandescent in this town, evidenced by his recent omnipresence in group exhibitions and the commission he received from the Whitney for his first-ever solo museum exhibition. The artworks he has exhibited in New York—sculptures, drawings, paintings, and installations comprised of works from more than one of his preferred mediums—have, with amazing consistency and increasingly eloquent concision, probed the fluid borders of the American cultural psyche. Violette understands that fictional worlds—the private, personal fantasies engendered by, for example, adolescent subcultures or obsessive music fandom—can and have pierced the fabric of reality, often horrifically. He works like a cultural forensic pathologist, tracing backward from these punctums—the ritualised murder of a teenage girl in Arroyo Grande, California, in 1995; the 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain; a plethora of suicides that have occurred in his hometown of Ithaca, New York—to elucidate the corrosive influences that lead to such denouements. As is pointed out by the curator Shamim Momin in her catalog essay, Violette does this not by offering didactic lessons—’Kids, don’t listen to Nirvana, or else …’—but by accumulating peripheral details from which meaning is accrued. This ‘content’ is wedded to a material repertoire and formal vocabulary redolent of minimalist and postminimalist influences, and a reductive color palette that rarely wavers from black, white, and the gleaming silver of steel.

Violette’s untitled sculptural installation at the Whitney, which consists of the wood-beam framework of a ruined church cast in salt and set upon a low plinth of black epoxy-covered panels, and which is accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Norwegian musician Snorre Ruch, is too large for the first-floor gallery in which it is housed, forcing upon the viewer a constant, somewhat menacing proximity. This adds to the theatricality implied by the plinth’s formal affinities with a typical rock club stage, the black-painted walls, and the dramatic lighting. It is an altogether enveloping environment, implicating even an idle or distracted viewer as a participant in its showiness. The interaction of the soundtrack and its environment metaphorically transubstantiates Ruch’s ninety-eight minutes of ‘white noise,’ which oscillates between a low bass rumble that evokes wind and a blender’s whirl of processed guitars, into ‘the white stuff,’ thereby placing this church in a wintry Norwegian landscape. (And, by extension, into the tradition of Romantic landscape paintings.)

But this is a distinctly dystopian sublime. In the early 1990s, Ruch, the leader of a band called Blackthorn, was party to a series of church burnings and at least one murder allegedly perpetrated by other members of the Black Metal community, most notably Varg Vikernes (aka Count Grisnackh) of the band Burzum; Ruch has only recently been released from jail. An image of the Fantoft church, the first to be burned, in June 1992, appeared on the cover of a Burzum EP titled Aske (Ashes) that was recorded only two months later, in August. This record cover could very well be the loaded image Violette is working from, in a sense extruding the ruin depicted in the photograph into three dimensions.

I can’t help but see this installation as a step away from the trend that most excited me in Violette’s recent works. The move toward total visual abstraction—an arc that can be traced from Twin-Screen (american murder anthem) (2003) to Untitled (Black Screen) (2004) to untitled (disappear) (2004), for example—forced the viewer to embark upon an imaginative reconstruction of events ever more glancingly depicted. The latter work is nothing more than four black epoxy panels fitted together, in a two-by-two arrangement, and supported by a steel framework. It was exhibited opposite anthem (to future suicide) (2004), which consists of five horizontal bars of bright white fluorescent bulbs arranged in decreasing widths as they approach the floor. The formal austerity of these works—a mute onyx mirror and a synthetic sunset—suppresses the ‘content,’ just like the culture at large does, and the tension was palpable, the effect haunting.

By contrast, the Whitney installation seems more like an illustration, a version of ashen and bloody events somewhat sanitised by Violette’s visual translation. Perhaps he felt what the novelist Michael Cunningham, writing in an altogether different context, described as ‘the fundamental human obligation to try to do at least a little more than one is technically able to,’ and attempted to make available to viewers too much information from a source too far removed from our own experience. That Violette has failed, albeit only by the high standards set by his own recent installations, does little to reduce the nobleness of the effort.

Joan Mitchell

Published on Artforum.com on June 10, 2005. To see the review in context, click here.

Installation view, Cheim & Read, 2005

Installation view, Cheim & Read, 2005

The highlight of the Whitney’s intermittently brilliant 2002 Joan Mitchell retrospective was the second gallery, where six paintings from the late ’50s and early ’60s were installed. Each was a cacophonous swirl of oils that you could easily imagine freeing itself from the canvas and surrounding you like a cocoon. This new exhibition, titled “Frémicourt Paintings” after the Parisian street in which Mitchell’s studio was located, presents over a dozen works made between 1960 and 1962 that possess the same vibrancy, urgency, and energy. The paint is applied liberally and with varied means (brushes, palette knives, pours, and fingers). The not-quite-allover compositions often radiate outward, like bursts of fireworks, from a dark mass near the center of the canvas. The net result definitely looks like the work of an American in Paris: Brash first-generation Abstract Expressionism married to the color palette of late Matisse and the scrambled surfaces of Dubuffet or Jean Paul Riopelle, her longtime companion. Mitchell would continue to make extraordinary paintings until the end of her life, but never again with the consistency exemplified by this exhibition.

Mark Lewis

Published in Artforum, May 2005. For more information, visit the artist’s website.

London-based artist Mark Lewis distills complex ruminations—on film as a medium; on the social and economic character of specific places; on the relationship between observer and observed—into deceptively simple films that marry Hollywood’s high-end production values to Andy Warhol’s dazed gaze. These reflexive works—unedited, often silent, and never more than ten minutes long—usually pair an isolated cinematic or technical convention with some sort of outwardly unexceptional activity. In the three 35-mm films (transferred to DVD) in this exhibition (Lewis’s first solo outing in New York), the artist employs a slow zoom, a slower pan, and a static shot, respectively, to document scenes in Toronto and Algonquin Park, in eastern Ontario.

The majority of Algonquin Park: September, 2001, consists of a static view of a grove of evergreens on an island seen across a mist-covered lake. The heroic scale (each projection is approximately ten by fifteen feet), promontory viewpoint, and lack of movement give the work the aura of a Hudson River School canvas. Yet Lewis soon undermines this impression of a static structure by reintroducing film’s inherent temporal dimension: A canoe, propelled by two figures, emerges from the mist and slowly moves from right to left across the water’s surface. Before it reaches the left-hand edge of the frame, the film ends abruptly and the loop begins again. Algonquin Park: Early March, 2002, achieves an even greater sense of destabilization, playing a cat-and-mouse game with our cognitive abilities by pitting the eye against the mind. The film opens with a pure white screen that appears to be the sky, an intuition confirmed by the appearance of two treetops that eventually pierce the bottom edge of the frame. As they push slowly upward, it appears that Lewis is panning downward, until another stand of trees appears from the upper right as if floating in the sky. Finally it becomes clear that the two belong to the same visual field, and we realize that Lewis has not been panning but rather zooming out from a snow-covered patch of frozen lake. The last, blandly pretty shot is of a group of skaters gliding across a rectangular section of ice. Again, almost as soon as we understand what has transpired, the film stops and begins again.

Thus it seems that nothing should be taken for granted in these two pastoral scenes, which is precisely why the seemingly innocuous Off Leash, 2004, is odd to the point of being uncanny. A straight description of the action couldn’t be simpler: The roughly four-minute film depicts people, seen from above through bare tree branches, playing with their dogs in what appears to be the “off-leash” section of a park. But small details belie the apparent realism of what at first appears to be a happened-upon scene. The vantage point seems impossible, the mechanically smooth panning complicates our natural tendency to equate the camera and the human eye, and the fact that no one on screen acknowledges that the camera must be mounted on a crane (they are actors hired by Lewis) introduces an unavoidable staginess. The overall effect is akin to the famous “Hitchcock zoom,” used in Vertigo (1958), wherein the camera’s role in the construction of an image is temporarily made visible. (The tree, acting as a screen through which we view the scene, is an instance of this mediation in the film itself.) Mainstream narrative cinema strives to hide these effects; without sacrificing beauty, Lewis’s absorbing films about film successfully update the critical engagement that characterized ’60s Structuralism and regain some of the wonderment of the Lumière Brothers’ early-twentieth-century vignettes.

Jim Lambie

Published on Artforum.com on April 27, 2005. To see the review in context, click here; for more information, click here.

After seeing several Jim Lambie exhibitions conceived as installations—”Paradise Garage” in Venice in 2003, “Mental Oyster” in New York last year—it’s a pleasure to once again be reminded of his proficiency as a sculptor, a maker of oddly enchanting objects. The five discrete works in this small show give us Lambie the nonchalant appropriator and glam formalist. Whether or not the sculptures incorporate direct musical references—Sweet Exorcist (all works 2005), an oversized psychedelic God’s eye, includes a 12″ record at its center—one can’t help but see sonically. He even works like a DJ: The small wooden cubes covered in aluminum tape affixed to the black-tape-covered jeans in Blacktronic are a remix of the mirror shards decorating handbags and pleather pants at Anton Kern last year. Split Endz (wig mix) is a Swiss cheese minimalist cube painted pink; the glittering belts that festoon the holes excised from its upper reaches could have been taken from the Friday night visitors to the local discotheque. The mirrors and glitter and the colorful paint (applied liberally) make the case for Lambie as a Kandinsky (or synesthete Nabokov) for the DJ-and-mash-up generation.

Rob Fischer

Published on Artforum.com on February 25, 2005. To see the review in context, click here.

In his first solo show with this gallery, Minnesota native Rob Fischer presents wonderful sculptures, pretty good painted photographs, and just-OK paintings that all up the ante on his peculiar blend of high plains anomie and rural ecology. He combines the whiteout alienation of Fargo with the psychological dislocation of Bruce Nauman’s early corridor sculptures. Fischer calls his version of those freestanding drywall pressure chambers “chapters,” and they are simultaneously linked and bisected (at head height) by a copper pipe carrying the water that feeds the “cultivated swamp” of Summery (Goodyear Ecology), 2004–05. The “rural ecology” comes to the fore not only in the tall grasses that accompany that work’s non-site tire-track transposition or Greenhouse No. 4 (Repetitive Cycles), 2004-05, but also in his predilection for recycling. Tucked into the corner of the room is Abstract Sculpture, 2004-05, which contains elements of the large glass-walled dumpster he exhibited at last year’s Whitney Biennial; near the front door is an upended, hand-made dumpster that, last summer, was similarly lined in glass and sat, diagonally, at Mary Goldman Gallery in Los Angeles. Now, rusty and fitted with mirrors, it greets viewers with fragmented pictures of themselves and is the proscenium arch through which you must pass to enter Fischer’s world, which is at once entropic and creatively regenerative.

Louise Lawler

Published in Untitled Magazine.

Louise Lawler, Big, 2002/2003

Louise Lawler, Big, 2002/2003

Louise Lawler would be the first to admit that an exhibition of her work is a product of forces beyond her control. For twenty-five years, most often with the aid of a camera, she has demonstrated that an artwork on the wall in front of a viewer—hers included—is a nodal point in a dense network of social and financial coordinates. With a matter-of-fact tone, Lawler’s editorial slant (to use Robert Storr’s phrase) has illuminated the tendrils of that network as they reach outward from art objects across both time and space. This is perhaps why her exhibitions have often been installations—’Arrangements of Pictures,’ as she terms them—that lay bare the contingencies of an artwork’s ‘uniqueness’ and the authorial stamp that deems it so. ‘Looking Forward,’ Lawler’s first solo exhibition since her appropriately titled mid-career survey ‘Louise Lawler and Others,’ held this summer at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, comprises many of her trademark gestures: the photographs depict other artworks in contexts unfamiliar to a casual art viewer (being handled, in transit, behind closed doors); multiple prints from a given photographic edition are on view simultaneously; the arrangement is not uniform (some works hang close to the floor while, elsewhere, spot-lit expanses of wall were devoid of their pictures). These signals, along with Lawler’s noted self-effacement and occasionally disarming sense of humor, can make it difficult for viewers and critics to see beyond the well-rehearsed tropes, mostly intellectual, that surround her work: that it is an act of ‘institutional critique,’ that it illustrates Walter Benjamin’s maxim about the loss of an artwork’s aura in an age of mechanical reproduction, that Lawler in effect exercises the powers of the collector in her meticulous acquisition of images of collections.

The photographs, shot on location at the ArtBasel and ArtBasel Miami Beach art fairs, the Museum of Modern Art, Christie’s auction house, and elsewhere, work admirably as transmitters of this intellectual content. But something comes through on a different wavelength in this exhibition, a parallel signal that, in harmony with the cerebral meaning of her pictures, amplifies what Lawler calls the ‘poignancy’ of her images. Several of the photographs in the two larger galleries feature artworks that depict bodies; in the flux of transition, those bodies experience upheaval or are torn asunder. Take, for instance, down (2002/2004), which portrays the mannequin used in John Millers’ sculpture Mannequin Love (2002) lying in pieces amid bubble wrap on the floor; Nude (2002/2003), which features Gerhard Richter’s Ema (Nude on a Staircase) (1966) lying unceremoniously on its side during the de-installation of the painter’s MoMA retrospective; and 2 Heads (2004), which shows Richter’s Two Sculptures for a Room by Palermo (1971) seen from the side in a packing crate, minus their pedestals. Lawler outlines for us how the artworks lose their aura in another way, as a kind of violence (rooted in neglect) is visited upon them when not on display. As impassive as her eye may be, it’s hard not to imagine that Lawler laments the loss. This thread is most complicated and explicit in Big (2002/2003), a photograph of Maurizio Cattelan’s caricature sculpture of Picasso lying decapitated on the floor of an art fair booth; behind it, on the wall, is a Thomas Struth photograph of museum visitors admiring a classical statue, also headless. Lawler’s mastery of form comes into play: the decapitated body stretches from the left edge of the frame, as if Lawler’s crop had sliced off its head, while the audience viewing her photograph ostensibly becomes a mirror image of the one in the Struth picture. The photograph implicates all of us—Lawler included—in the confluence of events that led to the scene her lens found.

In this view, the austerity of Lawler’s vision becomes a kind of defense mechanism, as the work’s conceptual and formal rigor offsets a latent emotional content. As Jack Bankowsky asks in a recent essay, aptly playing on two of the artist’s titles: Does Louise Lawler make you cry? It is possible to retroactively apply this contrapuntal reading to Lawler’s output, bringing forth a richer understanding of her practice. It may have taken two decades and a survey exhibition, but, having caught up to Lawler, we are all now ‘Looking Forward’ at what is to come.

Spencer Finch

Published on Artforum.com on October 27, 2004. To see the review in context, click here.

Spencer Finch has pursued the boundaries of perception doggedly and imaginatively for the better part of a decade, and his longstanding interest in transposition (often involving installations in which he recreates the qualities of natural light found at a culturally or historically charged site) is paired in this show with examples of text-to-image translation. Without downplaying his emphasis on bright light and brighter color, Finch predicates several works here on an eclectic group of texts: an excerpt from Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a passage from Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, a 16th-century proto-haiku by Arakida Moritake, and a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. He applies Nabokov’s synesthetic theory of the alphabet to a section of Heisenberg’s tract, representing it in a thirty-six-panel mural-scale rainbow of watercolor dots, each corresponding to a particular letter. Stare for too long and the splotches dilate, approximating the look of the ten watercolors, hung on the opposite wall, that Finch made by copying images of butterflies glimpsed via his peripheral vision. (Nabokov was a lepidopterist as well as a synaesthete.) Finch uses photography only rarely, but the best work in the show is an unassuming series of seven small pictures, taken from the same vantage point seven minutes apart, cataloging a windowpane’s shift from transparency (the landscape outside) to reflective opacity (a simple interior) at dusk.

David Wojnarowicz

Published on Artforum.com on October 25, 2004. To see the review in context, click here.

Like the two slim poetry volumes Rimbaud published by age 20, David Wojnarowicz’s “Rimbaud in New York” photos, shot in his early twenties, are a fully realized aesthetic statement. The forty-four small black-and-white photographs in this show (accompanied by a selection of the artist’s journals) depict an anonymous young man outfitted with a simple paper mask bearing the visage of Arthur Rimbaud, adrift in a New York no longer extant. Mostly alone, he wanders through derelict buildings, the Meatpacking District, the subway, and other liminal sites. In some ways, the photos, shot during 1978 and 1979 and first exhibited in 1990, could be considered the inverse of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills,” 1977-80. Whereas Sherman constructed elaborate scenarios but rarely masked her face—we almost always know it’s her—Wojnarowicz fully obscures his protagonist’s identity. To this day, we do not know if the artist is the (or is the only) flâneur depicted. Likewise the cinematic, imaginary space Sherman conjured counters the peripheral yet nonetheless very real locations (Hudson River piers, Coney Island) portrayed in Wojnarowicz’s pictures. Perhaps inevitably, time has added a filmic sheen to the drugs, sex, and graffiti of the rough-and-tumble 1970s New York seen here. For a fuller understanding of the era as Wojnarowicz saw it, an exhibition of his later works incorporating text is on view at PPOW Gallery in Chelsea through November 13.

Helen Mirra

Published in Untitled Magazine. For more information about the exhibition, click here.

Helen Mirra, Third clover, Third acorn, Third smoldering, Third gap, Grounded third, all works 2003

Helen Mirra, Third clover, Third acorn, Third smoldering, Third gap, Grounded third, all works 2003

Over the last five years, Chicago-based artist Helen Mirra has established herself as one of the foremost practitioners of what Benjamin Buchloch once called “dense minimalism.” Her art is in synch with the formal qualities of 1960s Minimalist forebears yet inverts the ‘muteness’ of those artists’ works—with their resolute push of meaning outward onto the environment and viewer—by her use of materials and processes which load each of her objects with internal value. Mirra imbues her forms with notions of handicraft and labor, landscape, the body, and language; what results are restrained, formally elegant, and highly allusive fabric sculptures, drawings, text works, and films. They reward extended deliberation by acting as a prism through which to comprehend abstract concepts and disparate inferences. Skywreck (2001) is a telling example: it is an unfolded polyhedral form, with 110 triangular patches of fabric laid on the floor, each richly hand-dyed with indigo ink. The work folds together references to Dr. Bonner (inventor of the eponymous soap) and Paul Celan, R. Buckminster Fuller’s dymaxion maps and geodesic domes, and Carl Andre’s sculpture Mons Veneris (1975). Occasionally the complexity (or obscurity) of her allusion is too tough a nut to crack, as in the abstruse philosophical references—here rendered in two languages as disjointed concrete poetry—of her recent typewriter ink-on-cotton works, but for the most part Mirra ably weds form and content. Her spare works are suffused with but not weighted down by their symbolic meaning.

For her first solo exhibition in New York since a 2002 Whitney Museum installation, Mirra reinterpreted 65 Instants, an artwork that debuted this past winter at the Berkeley Art Museum. At that museum, sixty-five wooden planks made of reclaimed shipping pallets—each cut to the length from Mirra’s elbow to fingertip and to the width of her hand, then laboriously painted varying shades of green-gray with milk paint—were arranged in an unbroken row around the gallery walls. The uniform arrangement, which called to mind the horizon line between sea and sky not far from the site of the exhibition, suppressed concerns with the presentation and instead allowed for other aspects of the work—notably process and material—to resonate. The title 65 Instants refers to a Buddhist concept of time wherein sixty-five instants (only discernable through heightened attentiveness) occur every moment. Mirra’s symbiotically monastic, laborious process was symbolically significant: she extended those instants, making one work a day for just over two months, thereby turning her studio practice into a semi-sacred ritual. Nature’s imperfections, time’s markings, and the inability of human hands to exactly recreate their own gestures lead to a pleasurable variation from work to work. The planks ranged within a narrow palette of greens and grays; the putty that filled holes and cracks was in different locations on each; the wood’s grain ran in different directions; and the natural warp of each pallet gave each a slightly different relationship to the wall.

Reconfiguring the installation and placing it in another context necessarily altered part of the work’s meaning. Not all sixty-five planks were shown in New York, breaking the evenness of the West Coast presentation; here, individual planks and groups were spread around the room, interspersed with horizontally oriented thin cotton strips dyed with watercolor and imprinted with typewritten words. The proximity to her language works highlighted another aspect of 65 Instants. Almost all of the planks have a two-word title, ‘third’ being one of them (a reference to Pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce’s concept of ‘thirdness’, analogous to the Buddhist concept of the middle way). Strung together, titles like Third clover, Third acorn, Third smoldering, Third gap, Grounded third (2003) or Marsh, Sentient third, Beneficial third, Relational third, Non-thought third (2003) have an incantatory repetitiveness. On the wall, the horizontal space between each plank assumes importance—not unlike the vertical space between units of a Donald Judd stack or the pause for breath in speech—and the staccato placement read as a visual Morse code. A third type of work, a small rectangle of knitted undyed wool approximately the same size as the planks and laid on a ledge between two windows in the gallery, connected this exhibition to the fabric pieces that thread through her career. Yet it seemed unnecessary given the conceptual rigor of her new project. In light of Mirra’s repeated use of specific materials from one exhibition to the next—a bench the artist installed at the Whitney two years ago was made of wooden pallets—perhaps it is less anomalous than harbinger of what is to come.

Matthew Buckingham

Published on Artforum.com on November 25, 2003. To see the review in context, click here.

Matthew Buckingham’s A Man of the Crowd, 2003, is a formally elegant, conceptually rich 16 mm film installation that mimics the structure of Edgar Allan Poe’s similarly titled short story of 1840. Poe’s London is now contemporary Vienna; Buckingham’s camera tracks a young man obsessively trailing a slightly shabby older fellow through the city streets. The camera itself, ducking behind a tree or column as if to avoid being seen, unaccountably yet delightfully becomes a third protagonist. The noirish black-and-white film, shot in dramatic natural light, is projected through a small hole in the wall that separates the gallery from the office and onto a semitransparent two-way mirror in the middle of the room. The result is a set of twin projections—often rigorously symmetrical—“bookending” an almost empty gallery. Viewers are brought into the space of the film as their own reflections on the mirror mingle with the images of pursuer and pursued. Like Buckingham’s other works, A Man of the Crowd is filled with subtle cultural references. The nameless protagonists lead the camera down a street traveled by Orson Welles in The Third Man and through arcades described in Walter Benjamin’s book-length study. Poe’s story is central to much scholarship on the flaneur, including Benjamin’s; and Buckingham’s film is both an engaging visual corollary to this written corpus and a deftly realized project of its own.