Leaving an Impression

John Haber
in New York City

Photography: Chris Jordan, Vera Lutter, and Colour

Photography and modern art grew up together. Some theories even blame one on the other. After a photo's instant impression of realism, what could painting do but move on? Did the Museum of Modern Art make Modernism seem like a rendezvous with destiny? It also happens to have had a pioneering photography department.

Yet photography long had trouble gaining the status of fine art, not to mention the sales. Modernists had undermined the idea of authenticity. Still, collectors wanted a decent original. Could that explain an inferiority complex even now? Approaching summer 2007, photographers do everything they can to make an impression. Chris Jordan's Paper Bags (Von Lintel, 2007)

They may work large, and Chris Jordan uses big numbers for a portrait of America. Vera Lutter literally leaves an impression, with the direct impress of light and the German landscape. "The End Is Nigh" makes the case for traditional prints, but with intimations of an even greater displacement of earth and time. Last, with a show of "Colour Before Color," photographers get to make history. A related review will look at more subtle approaches, touching on gender and its strange magic.

Object lessons

Think about it: Americans go through 1.14 million paper bags every hour, and that is before environmentalists convince people to stop using plastic. On the grim side, do not forget the 2.3 million Americans in prison, the 3.6 million SUV sales in a year, or the 426,000 cell phones retired every day. God only knows how many artists have studios in Brooklyn.

Chris Jordan is here to help. Not only does he live in Seattle, but he is "Running the Numbers." That exhibition title notwithstanding, I cannot swear an image contains 2.3 million folded and stacked prison uniforms—not even in tall prints running the length of a wall. However, the challenge to count itself contributes to their interest. Somehow, Jordan has assembled thousands of photographs into digital prints. Together, he calls them "an American self-portrait," but much of its interest derives from artist's obsessive hand or mouse.

Jordan plays on the disconnect between what one knows and what one perceives. In this way, he harps on the limits of what Americans understand about themselves. Part of the disconnect comes in the raw numbers, part in the blandness or blankness of the image until one gets close. Part comes from the difficulty of pinning it down up close as well. I mistook the prison uniforms for cardboard sheets. Even with the title, it takes a while to associate the 29,569 overlapping, crane-like shapes in white and steel gray with handguns.

Each assemblage plays with representation, but of several kinds, only beginning with photography, text, and subtext. In Denali Denial, a SUV logo forms the unit for a photorealist landscape, with the coarse grid of later work by Chuck Close. A past work refers instead to Pointillism, simulating Georges Seurat and his Grande Jatte. I mistook others here for abstraction. The tall row of prints could pass for stained wood panels, while airlines and their jet trails trace a shallow space. With the prison uniforms, the shadows within the piles create another kind of illusion of depth, as if Jordan had personally wedged millions of cardboard slivers into the frame.

Monotony does not often recommend itself. I kept thinking where I had seen rows of stained wood like that, until I remembered that it was not as art, but in a hallway renovation in Dumbo. Nor does hectoring. Jordan is definitely serving up object lessons. The scale, repetition, and absence of human volition may recall the large photographs of Andreas Gursky or Thomas Ruff, with something of the same fatal grandiosity. They also make me think of elusive images of crowds by Wayne Gonzales, cheering and surging into anonymity, with the same punning on the blur before one's eyes.

One can reject this entirely as a portrait of America, although America surely bears responsibility for much of it, including tens of thousands of gun-related deaths each day. However, quite apart from the challenge of tracking so many levels of representation, the photographs add up to a mind-boggling technical feat. They could also sum up the gallery's esthetic. Mark Sheinkman, for example, outdoes in paint the weave of the flight paths, and Joseph Stashkevetch meticulously draws trash. Von Lintel clearly likes formalism, often in monochrome, but believes it has something to do with the American landscape. Jordan makes a case for just that.

First impressions

Vera Lutter tries ever so hard to make an impression. Dispensing with even a camera, Lutter looks back past photography's birth to the camera obscura. The direct imprint of light also leaves the look of a photographic negative. A technique that once aided painters in oil now turns black and white into white and black.

Like Rachel Whiteread with her casts, Lutter gives negatives an austere grandeur, in urban vistas that seem devoid of human life. She also has the same talent for overstatement that so often makes an artist a star. In 2003 she indeed showed alongside a Young British Artist, who shared her ostentation. Not unlike Lutter's empty landscapes, Jenny Saville's equally huge nudes acknowledge a suffering inflicted by the world rather than the artist. The big strokes, strong colors, and half-dead faces almost have me turning away in terror.

By contrast, Lutter's gray streets and factory yards seem bathed in a comforting blanket of snow. They do, that is, until one recognizes the inversion of black and white. Even to call these negatives misses something. Long exposures imprint each image right on the treated surfaces. Like Whiteread, Lutter's roots lie in Minimalism and after—in this case landscape photography. Lutter shares with Gursky, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Thomas Struth a scale, flirtation with symmetry, urban subject matter, and obsessive, documentary impulse. In her latest show, Germany's industrial infrastructure glow more starkly than the iron frame of a roller-coaster for Gary Simmons, while the shadows across San Marco aspire to Venetian light.

Yes, a photograph is an impression—once of chemical changes on a copper plate, then of light onto paper, and now of pixels onto almost anything. One may wish to forget that it is also a reproduction and an overlay, as much a mask as a mirror. One may wish to forget, too, that prints made it into mainstream galleries in the 1980s on a tide of irony and appropriation. One hardly knows now whether to prefer the digital to the real.

Maybe that explains why photography is trying so hard. James Welling makes an impression, too—by placing flowers on sensitized paper. Where Man Ray used photograms for lyrical silhouettes, he manages full-color prints. When it comes to an impression, however, do not expect too much depth.

In sheer scale, Lutter outdoes her fellow Germans, Jeff Wall, or even Abstract Expressionism. And with Welling, a technique that inspired Dada now produces little more than tony greeting cards. Both are playing to the crowd. Their high style may say more about Chelsea's most expensive galleries than about photography. Still, one starts to wonder whether anyone can still look through a camera and find stories left to tell.

Living colour

One new gallery thinks so. For its very first show, Higher Pictures packs fifty photographs into a two small rooms above Madison Avenue. "The End Is Nigh" supplies a concise and informed history of the medium, from Jacob Riis's New York to, presumably, almost the end. Moreover, this history sticks to what photography used to demand, something between journalism and fine art. Laurel Nakadate echoes Cindy Sherman with her early Untitled Film Still. Yet even her staged scene—of a young woman watching smoke as it billows, one imagines, from the Twin Towers—depends on its illusion of a living history.

It may not, however, match the history you think you know. I spotted the geek in a straw hat at a pro-war march, by Diane Arbus. I might have anticipated the tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square, troops capturing the Reichstag, celebration at the Brandenburg Gate, veiled women with guns in Tehran, and other historic images by photographers I shall probably never remember. I admired once more the elegance of Harry Callahan's bare tit, the detachment of Robert Capa on the very eve of his death in a war zone, the sailor's privileged moment on the subway as seen by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the shadows that preoccupied André Kertész, or Peter Hujar. More often, however, I faced names that I felt sure I should know and images I should learn to place. Photography, they insist, carries with it a considerable history as it enters the art world.

"The End Is Nigh" also refuses the obvious associations with its title. It has no shortage of rifles and bayonets but few if any corpses, a man carrying a cross to Daytona Beach but no signs of the second coming, and no vigils for extraterrestrials. I cannot promise that the title really means much, even in this anxious age. However, at least it permits fresh encounters, on the wall or across the rooms. One can compare the staged version of 9/11 to a real one, with people on that sunny day strangely happy and indifferent. One can compare Riis's opium den in Chinatown to Larry Fink's wasted smoker or to slum clearing in China, the last so formally clean that I mistook it for black and white. At these moments, the promise of an ending appears not so much hopeful, fearful, or brutal as almost tender.

For once then, group shows have featured photography—and unabashedly so, not as collage, appropriation, or a display with other media. Hasted Hunt even claims to have recovered for photography a historic moment. Perhaps I should say, "an historic moment," for "Colour Before Color" takes a curiously strong British point of view. " Perhaps that is why, despite also Luigi Ghirri's Italian work suggestive of abstraction and Keld Helmer-Petersen's Danish work suggestive of collage, Martin Parr does not call the show, say, "Colore Before Color" or "Kulør Before Color." He has in mind the relatively artless style of British photography from the 1970s.

It comes down to more than spelling. The curator, himself a photographer, is staking a claim to priority. In what he calls the "dysfunctional history of colour photography," the "serious" stuff came only with MoMA's 1976 exhibition of William Eggleston or with Raghubir Singh in India. He argues that this falsely relegates pioneering Europeans to the status of amateur or commercial photography. It may even have erased them from memory, and his exhibition hopes to recover them for history. Three of the six—at least in their color work—appear for the first time in the United States.

Reviews have swallowed the polemic, not even offering to edit the spelling for American readers. Yet almost any history will trace color photography to the 1930s and 1940s, and revisionist accounts have revived autochromes, patented by the Lumière brothers in 1903, along with hand-colored prints from the nineteenth century. Besides, given how slowly photography, period, gained acceptance as fine art, Eggleston's showing did not necessarily deny him a context. I see Parr as using the decade before 1976 to claim priority in a different sense, not in time but for a sensibility. He includes the bleak cityscapes of two English photographers, John Hinde and Peter Mitchell, and one could easily mistake Ed van der Elsken's Dutch street scenes or Carlos Pérez Siquier's sunbathers for the disaffected or vapid subjects of the British "angry young men. Perhaps they have given up making an impression.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Chris Jordan ran at Von Lintel through July 31, 2007, Andreas Gursky at Matthew Marks through June 30, Wayne Gonzales at Paula Cooper through June 29, Vera Lutter at Gagosian through April 21, James Welling at David Zwirner through April 28, "The End Is Nigh" at Higher Pictures through May 19, and "Colour Before Color" at Hasted Hunt through July 20. Lutter previously appeared with Jenny Saville through May 3, 2003.

 

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