Titled Film Stills

John Haber
in New York City

Photography Fall 2007 and Thomas Demand

Photography used to stand for documentary realism, commercial art, or extravagant displays of mass culture. Somehow, though, photographers are finding quieter and stranger possibilities. Several fall exhibitions could pass for staged photography, and some in fact were. They also could pass for Surrealism, cult film stills, or digital manipulation, but one would be hard pressed in each case to know which.

Thomas Demand makes his own reality out of cut and folded paper, but it reflects sordid political realities not of his making. Julie Blackmon and the French team of Clark and Pougnaud offer visions of childhood, but the adults may not share in the fun. Benjamin Fink and Alex Prager could almost alternate frames in the same movie, but they actually look at each other across a suburban divide. A related review looks at Donna Ferrato and iheartphotograph.com, and another more generally at staged photography. Together, they suggest how photography is breaking out of its niche. Thomas Demand's Embassy IV.a (303 Gallery, 2007)

A piece of cake

Thomas Demand relies on painstaking effort, but his images appear crushingly simple. This time, in fact, his subject is an infamous "slam dunk."

The first photograph in "Yellowcake" stands nearly seven feet high, not so very far from full scale. It also has a partition—or really an entryway—to itself. It shows a drab exterior, without ornamentation and not even particularly modernist. Demand then crops the wall and its windows arbitrarily, to make them that much more impenetrable. The only marker, a flag, looks just as familiar and just as inscrutable.

The flag belongs to Niger, at its embassy in Rome. If one wonders what it has to hide, the remaining photographs take one inside. Some show hallways, with nothing more noticeable than a banister, open doors, and light switches. Some show desks or floors strewn with paper, but without a word. If the disarray seems inhuman but barely under control, Demand's crisp, airless style imposes a temptingly incomplete geometry. It also excludes people, as if the offices had suffered a sudden forced evacuation or a neutron bomb.

The embassy looks oddly barren and oddly familiar for another reason, too: the more time one spends with it, the more it looks like the gallery. One starts to notice the electrical fixtures on actual walls, including the ones used to regulate precisely the climate and lighting for art. The installation, starting with that entry wall, reinforces the parallel between physical space and visual passage through another site, its scale placing it only barely out of reach. The photos even improve on reality. One might be looking through the gallery walls onto something glossier and cleaner than life.

If one knows Demand's work, one knows that it is also glossier and cleaner than Rome. He talks his way into a location, talks his way around it, builds cardboard and paper models, and photographs them. The artist, who began as a sculptor, in the past has simulated shapes and textures as uncanny as a forest's gleaming dampness or an escalator's rubber rail. Here he prefers a certain crudeness, as if to bring out the artifice and geometry. A fax machine has harsh edges to go with its box-like shape. Even then, all those piles of paper paper crammed with paper Post-Its are impressive.

If one knows Demand, one knows, too, that his sterile scenes have a back story—invariably laden with lies, cruelty, and history. His 2005 show at MoMA recreated the archives of Leni Riefenstahl and the failed Florida election recount. This installation places Niger's embassy on the trail of forged documents connecting Iraq to nuclear weapons. As the surest sign that one is dealing with conceptual art along with sculpture and photography, the images never offer the least clue to their disturbing past. That disconnect, in contrast to the visual density of staged photographs by Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson, often bothers me despite a fascinating defense by Johanna Drucker, like art as an inside joke. However, in context of the reality of the gallery as installation and the unreality of a run-up to war, it seems perfect.

Young and innocent

Picture a child alone, without adult supervision, in a very adult world. Anyone can picture it, because the image just will not go away. The old theme of innocence corrupted—or corrupting—has more than enough resonance even without CGI and anime. At the very origins of modern art, a child's gaze serves as a turning point for, appropriately enough, for Paul Cézanne a childhood friend. Émile Zola's Nana sees her parents copulating in squalor and, a novel or two later, lives out her life as a classy but tragic whore. Portraits of children by John Singer Sargent could exemplify what historians have called the invention of childhood, but Zola and others are describing the invention of adulthood as a sordid affair.

Long after princes posed as young adults, modern art made a point of debunking happy bourgeois families. It turned on a child's stare as readily as Manet's Olympia or Picasso's brothel turned on a viewer's. By now, consumerism has let out the child in everyone, and the image has become a cliché. Besides, one could sum up art today as whatever a three-year-old child can do, right? Mike Kelley has his stuffed animals and Baby IKKI, Paul McCarthy his Pinocchio and Bang Bang Room, Laurie Simmons her Barbies, and Nathalie Djurberg her sexed-up visions of childhood in claymation. Could that explain why I could not easily tell the photographers at one gallery apart?

Both for Julie Blackmon and for Clark and Pougnaud, kids run wild. Both, too, lean less to satire or celebration than to Surrealism and a sense of humor. Blackmon's boys strut and pout, and girls act cute, but none are having a very good time. The rare adult, head safely behind a newspaper or outside the picture frame, seems oblivious to the damage. Clark and Pougnaud select from their series on "Fairy Tales" and "Dorothy and Childhood," and they, too, give exteriors a dream-like light out of Wall or Crewdson. As Dorothy climbs a hill worthy of Sisyphus or falls from some unmentionable height, she could be clinging to the little innocence she has left.

After a while, one really can tell these games apart. Blackmon likes the crisp outlines and daylight tones of American family pictures. Clark and Pougnaud prefer the smooth shadows and saturated color of old movies. Blackmon stages her scenes with more limited digital assistance, down to the ripe cherries, the trash on the floor, and the cat looking down in dismay. Clark and Pougnaud insert their actors into the scene, like the young woman as lonely traveler in a late Edward Hopper. I could almost sympathize with Blackmon's caped, overweight boy, clearly no happier for the chance to play superhero.

Lydia Venieri has a quiet sense of humor, too, behind the chill, and it keeps her from falling into sentimentality. Her children do not run wild at all, and it takes a second to notice the adults who do. Like Morton Bartlett, she photographs dolls, exaggerating the tired cartoon fashion for wide-eyed girls. The dolls can whisper or hold their nose, but they can never close their eyes on the "War Games" reflected in them (and not those of Aernout Mik). The shadowy activity adds to the depth and color of a plastic iris. Venieri plays with the heavy modeling of strong artificial light against plastic skin, and the graininess of inkjet prints on poly satin approaches photorealist painting.

Blackmon puts children at center stage, Clark and Pougnaud take women entering adulthood, and Venieri's only living actors are adults. In each case, however, adults do most of the real damage but occupy the margins. Even Venieri does not show much in the way of real violence. One can take it for granted easily enough, though—maybe even welcome it after the fixed foreground stare. I do not know if consumerism can cause real wars or who has corrupted whom. I enjoyed the photographs better anyway for not burdening me with a moral, beyond learning that, once again, I was staring too much at art.

Distant habitation

With her Untitled Film Stills, Cindy Sherman changed how one looks at photography. Its subject and even function changed—and not just toward artifice, role play, and gender studies. From that point on, a photograph's moment lost its privilege and became part of an equally inscrutable plot. With the growing appeal of video, even an artist as in your face as Nan Goldin can start to tell stories. What, however, if the plot belongs to two different narrators?

Benjamin Fink and Alex Prager work independently. They had never met before their gallery opening. Yet here, too, one may still need help figuring out who did what. And here, too, I could only blame myself for missing the obvious, even as together the work finds a space between social realism and Surrealism. Hollywood should be along any minute.

Fink and Prager, too, rely on strong lighting and studied arrangements to achieve crisp outlines, heightened colors, and the look of a sound stage. Both set their scenes in suburbia or beyond, with the camera often at a considered distance. With Fink, the light may come from street lamps or interiors at dusk, and it might expand communities into wilderness or reduce them to dollhouses, like the models for painting by Amy Bennett. With Prager, the spotlight may come from anywhere or nowhere at all, and her actors, mostly women, behave like what male Americans used to call living dolls. The camera's detachment and the viewer's implied involvement place both their work in the space of memory.

It helps to know that Prager is the one with people, young people. Someone might come up for breath while swimming, grab her chin beneath a spotlight, or swing erotically and precariously from a tree. The activity of pleasure seeking conveys anxiety and a broken connection to the viewer. Fink has hardly a person in sight, unless one counts the lights in a dormer window. They also claim distinct models—Prager in the 1950s and Fink in Hudson River School landscapes. Fink may even permit warmer colors amid the winter blues, and his inkjet prints can lend the softened texture of brushwork.

Still, I hope they do not mind sharing the movie. Even their titles, Fink's Shadow Realms and Prager's Polyester, could belong to the same David Lynch fantasy. Like John Kirchner or Brad Moore, both work in edge territory, between modern society and rural community, and they might well look at each other from across the edge. Fink would have the hills and autumn leaves, Prager the swimming pools and parking lots. After decades of urban freak shows, from Diane Arbus to Goldin, no wonder photography is catching up to Lisa Yuskavage or Hopper. Some Surrealists just want to have fun.

They might well share the film studio with Heimo Schmidt. Schmidt's characters come by their harsh light naturally, thanks to Iceland. Some pose in front of houses, like the pair from Grant Wood waiting through the long winter for space aliens to collect them. They may carry an actual cross, making Wood's formalism and Christian imagery all the more explicit. In an actual video, a man and woman could be slowly dancing, or he could be cradling her dead body to the ground, and the child laid among white flowers could equally well nestle in tufts of snow. Fortunately, America does not yet need extraterrestrials to get carried away.

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Thomas Demand ran at 303 Gallery through December 22, 2008, Julie Blackmon along with Clark and Pougnaud at Claire Oliver through October 6, Lydia Venieri at Stux through October 13, Benjamin Fink and Alex Prager at Sara Tecchia through December 1, and Heimo Schmidt at Point of View through November 15. A related review looks at Donna Ferrato and iheartphotograph.com.


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