Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Distance and the Gap; Four Photography Shows in NYC

You all know I love Columbus, but the wider range of interesting cultural stuff – especially visual art -  in New York isn’t even up for debate, right?

I’ll try to hit the highlights of my four days in NYC but in a few posts, this one’s grouped by medium.  Today’s it’s photographs – Catherine Opie, Robert Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson and a variety of other artists after the jump.

Catherine Opie was the biggest find I got from the Wexner Center’s recently closed Hard Targets, somehow she completely slipped under my radar until her photos of high school football players in action and at rest in that exhibit.  So I was excited to see a solo show, Girlfriends, at the Gladstone Gallery.

The Opie show is probably the best portrait photography show I’ve ever seen, it almost feels like a show of landscapes but the landscapes are people – sometimes within a natural landscape, sometimes not.  Her friends and her partners in a show combining new and archive photos, including k.d. lang, Kathleen Hanna, and women anonymous to the world but clearly not to their documenter.  There’s such love for the subjects in these paintings but not sentimentality, the focus is as sharp as a razor and every blemish or hard-won crease, every smirk or glint of the eyes doesn’t just come through, every one of these tiny details grabs you by the collar and makes you look at the photograph in a different way.

“Idexa”, with hiking boots, shorts and no shirt, on a rock formation in the woods, with this perfect look of acceptance and those tattoos lit just right by the filtered light through the trees.  “k.d. lang” in a gorgeous simple coat on a barren stretch of landscape, hair perfectly just out of place giving the impression that a strong wind whipped through but she’s still standing, still there.  Just as interesting are some of the photos’ names with a parenthetical like “Julie (play piercing)” face covered in the piercings of the title and running black (chocolate? paint? blood?)with her head tilted back in ecstasy or pain.  

There’s distance in these photographs, in some ways the distance of a journalist, but the distance isn’t there to keep you at an emotional arm’s-length, it’s there to let you take in everything and get to your emotional connection to the subject on your own terms, not the artist throwing her emotional connection at you.  The plethora of expressions, situations, ages, walks of life, with and without backgrounds, I could’ve seen this a dozen times and not gotten everything there was to get.

I also saw another archive-based photography show at Matthew Marks, Robert Adams’ “Summer Nights, Walking”, taken roughly thirty years ago.  This is also about landscapes seen through the tiniest details and it all looks wet, you can feel the humidity seeping through the slow glass of memory.  As a suburban kid who took a lot of these long walks, unaccompanied, this conjured memories of that feeling like anything could happen – good or bad – and like you were the only person in the world.  Not as much to think about as the Opie, but some indelible images that will last with me just as long, like the garage door being overtaken by a branch’s shadows like a creeping terror, or the gas station with a sickle moon hanging over it like a sword of Damocles.

The illusion of Adams’ work is that there’s no distance, you’re right in his eyes as he’s randomly walking around and choosing images.  But that’s deceptive, especially with the lush black and white, and the aggressively film noir compositions in about half the photographs, this feels like another world - not just gone but never to be seen again.  Like the kind of movie you secretly wish you’d come across on a flickering black and white motel TV but you buy the DVD anyway.

The Guggenheim’s main exhibit right now, Haunted is what on Star Trek or the West Wing they used to refer to as a bottle episode – no guest stars, using only existing sets – and this is almost entirely images from the collection.  It’s trying to be about the way past technologies, and the vagaries of memory, still inform modern photographs, which you could say about any art.  And for what it is, it’s a little bit of a mess, but there’s plenty of striking, moving work you should see if you haven’t already.

Walead Beshty’s damaged photographs of an abandoned East German embassy in Iraq are especially hurt by the odd, inconsistent lighting of this exhibit, looking like red blurs with reflections of everyone walking by until you saw them at just the right angle, which is a shame because they’re some of the most beautiful pieces in the exhibit.  Robert Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements, however, are an excellent example of what the Guggenheim does very well, several photos lined up horizontally of mirrors placed in Mexico breaking up and extending the landscape.  A panorama of attention grabbing images that beg you to come in the middle of them and slowly get what’s going on, striking enough to burst through the beautiful drone of the building but subtle enough you need to let it seep through your pores.

Also worthy of additional mention is the video of Merce Cunningham performing “Stillness” consisting of Cunningham performing the choreography to John Cage’s 4’33” (naturally, the dance is sitting still, fitting for a composition of silence).  Set up in four projectors that you gradually realize you can’t  walk around, you have to disrupt the image and everyone’s viewing experience, and it makes you not just nervous, but incredibly aware of how and where you move.  But the thing that seemed to sum this exhibit up for me was Idris Khan’s “Homage to Bernd Becher”, a compression of several Becher photographs into what looks like one half-finished image, entropy combined and turned in on itself, which got me thinking.  Is homage always a close cousin of elegy?  Does paying homage automatically mean the person tribute’s being paid to is dead to the person paying the tribute, that we’ve learned everything we can learn from them and now we need to reject those lessons?  And is it freed up from that serious, elegiac tone if the person being paid homage to is actually dead (I’ll address this in a music post about the same trip).

And of course, the elephant in the room, A. and I saw  Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern World at MoMA, And in those photographs you can see the birth of all modern art photography and photojournalism. The antecedents of the documentation of a movement you see in the Opie in Cartier-Bresson’s China and workplace photographs.  The rare beauty of a wave hitting a shore in Cartier-Bresson or the way streetlamps make shadows fall from trees in the Adams.  And a disregard for darkroom technique that you see show up but tweaked or aggressively played with in many of the works in Haunted.  I’m way too much a dilettante to even think I could say something new about this, but an exhibit completely worth seeing. 


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