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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

“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

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

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.

September Artforum now online

Selected articles from the September issue of Artforum have been posted to the magazine’s website (of which I am Editor at Large). I haven’t read the entire issue, but among the pieces that are available I can recommend Barry Schwabsky’s article on Richard Hell, Joshua Kit Clayton’s eccentric and sometimes funny top ten list, and the “1000 Words” interview with Norwegian artist Matias Faldbakken, who is not only a talented visual artist but also a commercially successful novelist and a genuinely nice guy. One of the exhibitions I’m most looking forward to this autumn is the Roni Horn survey arriving at the Whitney on November 6, so I was happy, too, to encounter Mignon Nixon’s thoughtful review of its presentation at Tate Modern. For more information about the issue and quotations from the articles, click here to see the magazine’s e-flux advertisement.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

Interview: Anthony Huberman

Published as “Parallel Worlds” in Artforum, May 2008.

Curators at contemporary art institutions must not only engage with the question of how best to distill today’s broad realm of artistic activity but also ensure that their solution pleases a bifurcated audience: the general public and the art experts; the local community and the biennial-hoppers. Founded in 1980 to bring art to the city’s downtown, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis has navigated this situation adroitly, particularly since reopening in a new, larger building in 2003. Director Paul Ha has overseen a mix of solo surveys (William Pope.L, Alexander Ross, Janaina Tschäpe), group exhibitions (African artists working outside Africa, women artists engaged with identity), and project shows with younger practitioners; located in a city more than half of whose population is black, the museum has featured numerous African and African-American artists. Four years ago, the Contemporary—which has no permanent collection—launched the Great Rivers Biennial, which gives awards and exhibition opportunities to local artists; the institution also sponsors community initiatives such as citywide open-studio events and a visiting critic and curator series.

Now, a year after Anthony Huberman left the Palais de Tokyo in Paris to join the Contemporary as chief curator, the institution is inaugurating a completely overhauled program. What marks this endeavor as unique is its attempt to address the two-audience dilemma explicitly, by placing exhibitions and programs in collagelike juxtaposition rather than subsuming them within a seamless projection of the museum’s identity. Huberman, who was also a curator at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and SculptureCenter, both in New york, has divided the exhibition plan into two streams that operate at different speeds. A gallery just inside the museum’s entrance, newly christened the Front Room, will present “independent voices from around the world” in a rapid-fire and improvised series of exhibitions, performances, screenings, and events; it has already featured seven shows in three months. “The Front Room should be flexible, responsive,” explains Huberman. “I want to be able to see something in Chelsea and present it in Saint Louis the very next month.” Earlier this year, while the Great Rivers Biennial featured three local artists chosen by a jury of curators from around the country, an array of other regional endeavors were given carte blanche in the Front Room: White Flag Projects, an alternative space in the city’s Grove neighborhood, allowed visitors to be photographed while being slapped; Snowflake/Citystock, an arts venue and design shop, installed a fitness center for artists; Maps Contemporary Art Space, located in nearby Belleville, Illinois, presented four-day-long previews of its upcoming solo exhibitions; and Apop Records, a local independent record shop, created a merchandise booth featuring “oddities from the fringes of underground culture.”

This month, Huberman’s plan for the main galleries launches with an exhibition of work by John Armleder and Olivier Mosset, eminent Swiss artists who are less known in the United States (where Mosset now lives). The duo will present a jointly conceived exhibition blending old and new artworks; at the outset of the show, the Front Room will feature artists affiliated with Cinema Zero, a collective that takes its logo from Mosset’s signature motif, the circle. Huberman intends artist pairings to form a basic structure for the bigger exhibitions, although the ways in which the participants relate to one another will vary: For example, there might be two unrelated solo shows, as in the autumn 2008 presentations of single-channel videos by Aïda Ruilova (curated by Ha) and artworks by Lutz Bacher (curated by Huberman), or a two-artist exhibition with a curatorial conceit.

The key, according to Huberman, is adjacency: “Not a equals b, but a alongside b,” he says. “I want the institution to be characterized by its lightness of touch, by its ability to encourage associative links among what’s on view, and then by its willingness to stand aside and let attention shine upon the artists.” He emphasizes that repeat visits to the exhibitions in the main galleries will nearly always offer new experiences, by virtue of their changing relationship with what’s in the Front Room.

Rules are, of course, made to be broken, and in a little more than a year Huberman plans to present a larger group exhibition. But by that time, he hopes that the structure conceit of artist-focused “pairs and parallels” will have become a kind of calling card for the museum, one that distinguishes it in the minds of art-world denizens and fits neatly into the visual-art landscape of Saint Louis: The city boasts an encyclopedia institution, the Saint Louis Art Museum; a privately funded blue-chip museum, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts; a university gallery, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University; and numerous smaller artist-run spaces of the kind featured in the inaugural Front Room presentations. Taking its place among them, the Contemporary is positioning itself as a kunsthalle that is relevant to both local and larger audiences.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.