5.8.17 — The Mirror and the Lightning

More than sixty years ago, M. H. Abrams compared two metaphors for literature and art. Where classicists spoke of holding a mirror up to nature, he wrote, the Romantics saw an active mind illuminating nature as under a lamp. With Mark Steinmetz, make that a bolt of lightning.

In 1994 he photographed just that, descending from the clouds to strike a four-lane highway. It seems to draw the converging parallels together, set one side askew, and throw the trees to either side to the wind. Mark Steinmetz's Lightning Strike, Mississippi (Yancey Richardson, 1994)Its reflection in wet Tarmac extends all the way to the foreground, at Yancey Richardson through May 13, cutting across the stripes between lanes and casting an eerie shadow a few feet away.

Steinmetz captured a decisive moment, perhaps the ultimate decisive moment—but that ideal has long meant the pursuit of perfection, and his turf is anything but perfect. It is the South over more than twenty years, although he has also worked in Los Angeles along with Garry Winogrand, and it means enough to him that he titles every photograph with a place name. It is a world of trailer parks and gas stations at night. It is where a young woman lies on her back on a mattress on the floor or on the hood of a car, fast food by her side. That lightning strike took place in Mississippi, and it just barely missed a truck, which barrels ahead oblivious to danger. The bright headlamps and distant silhouette are the sole objects on the road apart from the water and the light.

He will have anyone looking for the smallest sign of life, like that truck—and it is not easy, not even when the life is right before one’s eyes. Someone lies half hidden in a pile of leaves, like Cindy Sherman in one of her ghoulish self-portraits. The subject’s legs are set in one direction and his torso, when it finally emerges, in another as if it belonged to another body entirely. A boy in the passenger seat almost obliterates the man behind the wheel. None of them look all that confident or composed, not even a man holding a boy to his chest. Women, with raised hands and restless eyes, look more imposing but only slightly more at ease.

Steinmetz brings them all close and lets them have their say, but at a distance that the camera can never fully overcome. He travels from state to state like Robert Frank before him or Lee Friedlander by car, but he does not set his subjects within the bustle of life. These are portraits and American landscapes, but neither idealized nor staged. Often, the gallery explains, he asks a stranger to repeat a gesture from a moment before. It is his way of treating them as neither models as for Irving Penn, nor types as for August Sanders, nor freaks as for Diane Arbus, but themselves. And still, the distance remains.

Much of the barrier lies in the light, which never just illuminates like a lamp. With the girls on their back, it lends their skin the pallor of a mask. It makes the ripples in a creek as hard as glass—and the struggles of a man wading even harder. It bathes each gas pump in a spherical glow. A black balloon at dusk rises above the neon advertising mobile homes. An airplane appears to fly right into a streetlight that has distended way beyond its proper size, but no doubt the bulb just happens to coincide with the moon.

Steinmetz relishes the contrast between his foreground clarity and the background, always in black and white, but one can never say for sure where one ends and the other begins. It takes a moment to realize that the ribbon on a dark panel belongs to the inside of a door—and the blur of a diner to the other side of the glass. Maybe he never has to look for beginnings and endings, because things just go on as they were. The photos belong for the most part to the mid-1990s, but nothing much seems to have changed since then. A girl still carries a cheap Kodak, as if to declare her independence of the photographer, and a weed appears trapped in a crack in the roadbed that may never get repaired. For all the felt isolation, these lightning strikes add up to a way of life.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

5.5.17 — Out of the Kitchen

Marisa Merz started out working in her kitchen, on the way to a retrospective at the Met Breuer. It could have come sooner, but never mind. Women often earn less than their share, in both money and recognition.

If Arte Povera means poor art, does that make Merz the poorest of the poor? Others often treated her that way, but she proves otherwise, from the coarse grandeur of her early sculpture to increasingly ethereal images of women, through May 7. Marisa Merz's Testa (Head) (photo by Renato Ghiazza, Fondazione Merz, undated)Along the way she brought to the Italian art movement something it dearly lacked—humor and introspection.

Merz outgrew the kitchen almost before she began, and she made art out of that, too, and (along with other recent reports of women from that era), it is the subject of a longer review and my latest upload. Others in Arte Povera were out to bring art down a notch, but with an unwavering solemnity befitting a higher calling. Alighiero Boetti did it by refusing to call his tapestries and monuments art objects—and Lucio Fontana by taking a knife to his canvas, like a tasteful act of murder. Merz’s husband, Mario (who died in 2003), made still life from real fruit, as if nothing less would provide nutrition for body and soul. Marisa found room in the kitchen for more, starting with her towering Living Sculpture from the mid-1960s. It brought a car wreck to sculpture, like John Chamberlain or Lynda Benglis in America, but with every sign of life.

Her massive aluminum, plain or with spray paint, can take the shape of an overstuffed armchair, a marionette or a monster, a forest canopy, or a doghouse. It looks even funnier in a photo, suspended over the stove of her cluttered apartment. It was not her last foray into shiny objects or homemaking either. She soon turned to woven grids of copper wire, inspired in part by knitting with her daughter—whose name she fashions in nylon thread. They build on small squares with concave sides, like potholders, but they grow quickly. The tacks holding them to the wall can spin off to complete an otherwise empty grid of their own, in much the same bright coppery hue.

Merz makes reconstructing her career difficult, even for the curators, Connie Butler of the Hammer Museum and Ian Alteveer of the Met. She reuses materials, repurposes older work, and leaves much of it undated and untitled, but allow me to help. Born as early as 1926 (depending on whom and when you ask), she took up wire in the mid-1970s, along with her first images of women. They include her first Teste, or heads, in wax and unfired clay. By the 1980s, they also include the graphite swirls of what could well be self-portraits, archetypes, or angels. Already she sacrifices some crudeness and comedy in search of a woman’s art.

They, too, start small but keep growing in scale and ambition—quite from the show’s cheesy title, from a poem of hers, “The Sky Is a Great Place.” They also leave ambiguous the line between a woman’s self-assertion and a woman acted on. In graphite, her subjects can seem thoughtful or otherworldly. By the 1990s they have taken on pastel, gold leaf, and hints of the Virgin Mary as a queen of the heavens. One of the latest and largest rests against the wall behind huge timbers. The wires grow, too, in the 1990s, coiling more tightly, staking out large triangles on the wall, or resting casually as what Merz calls scarpette (or small shoes) but look more house slippers.

She is stepping out, in comfort, but still at home. It appears in indoor fountains, one shaped like an earthen square from an ancient culture, another like a violin in wax. It appears most of all, though, in her sculpture. The heads may seem boastful or damaged, with the imprint of her hand and splotches of color like lipstick or blood. They may seem broken off from a more heroic or feminine body. They may share a steel table with one another or a tablecloth in lead.

Merz retains a sense of damage or incompletion from Arte Povera. One work consists simply of taped lines on a broken mirror, while others incorporate a binder clip, torn flowers, plastic caps, and a paint can. Both wire patterns and gray swirls may follow the Fibonacci series, an interest of Mario Merz and Renaissance mathematicians as well. The heads have ancestors in wax sculpture from an earlier Modernism by Medardo Rosso, too. The grandeur may become forced, cryptic, or self-defeating, like a painting that alludes to Ben-Hur. Never doubt, though, that this woman’s sculptures are alive.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

5.3.17 — From Social Media to Action

And here you thought the Woman’s March on Washington was a triumph. There and across the nation, it dwarfed the presidential inauguration only the day before and caught Donald J. Trump in yet another lie about his support. But so what? Big numbers come easily these days, a scholar objects—and they mean nothing without a follow-up to translate enthusiasm into votes.

Sergey Ponomarev's Migrants Escorted to Slovenian Registration Camp (New York Times, 2015)Disappointed? Blame it on the Internet. Sure, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina argues, it can pull people together fast—much as people came together at airports to protest Trump’s turning them and countless others away. By the same token, though, earlier demonstrations look that much more impressive. If marches of the civil rights era were smaller, they took months of planning and years of vision. No wonder they live on in memory and in legislation.

Maybe, or maybe Zeynep Tufekcim, writing in The New York Times this winter, has it backward. What if the numbers confirm that social media can direct action? What if technology can create a “perpetual revolution“? A show of that very name makes the case at the International Center of Photography, through May 7—and it is the subject of a longer review and my latest upload. With well over one hundred examples, almost all of which take watching, it proves as overwhelming and thought-provoking as its subject. It also has a discomforting lack of ICP’s heart in photojournalism and art. It feels less heart-rending, transformative, or even new media than photographs of refugees that I reviewed earlier, by Richard Mosse.

Perpetual Revolution” still believes in marches. Its first room, devoted to climate change, includes images of the 2014 People’s Climate March, in a “timeline” by Rachel Schragis. It documents a clash with protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline, in footage from Democracy Now! Yet its real interest lies not in feet on the ground, but in changing minds online and off. Here the medium is indeed the message: new forms of “production, display, and distribution,” the show explains, “are simultaneously both reporting and producing . . . epic social and political transformations.”

Subtitled “The Image and Social Change,” the exhibition opens with a glorious example of both. Earthrise, from the Apollo 8 mission of 1968, shows the planet as a precious blue haven in a larger universe. It was no longer humanity’s alone to exploit or to lose. The room also includes videos of climate data, also from NASA, and of sea-level rise and methane leaks, both from activist groups. Even the show’s few artists mostly recycle the news. Apparently the revolution will be televised after all, and you can watch it on your cell phone.

But what revolution, apart from the digital? The show has rooms for six, each with its own curators in conjunction with Carol Squiers and Cynthia Young. The revolutions can change lives for the better and widen communities, as with gender issues and Black Lives Matter. They can also, be warned, narrow minds and do serious damage, as with the Islamic State and the “alt-right.” As for the first two rooms, for climate awareness and the refugee crisis, the revolution is still underway, and the jury on its success is still out. Within a room, the arrangement pays little attention to chronology, no more than the latest Twitter feed.

You say you want a revolution? Be careful what you wish for. You may find a greater autonomy—much as an interactive slideshow in the museum’s lobby lets you flip through over three thousand more images, as “Unwavering Vision.” Then again, you may find yourself trapped in a world of Facebook and Instagram, unable to look up from your phone. You may find yourself, too, judging by the show’s themes, a stereotypic East Coast liberal, too, caring more about identity politics than economic or political change. Then again, you may find yourself dying to set aside social media in order to march.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

5.1.17 — Straight in the Eye

“Whoever looks you straight in the eye is mad.” Roland Barthes was describing the power of photography to picture a life fully apart from our own.

For Geoff Dyer, though, the ultimate photograph captures someone who can never look you in the eye. It only seems that the person can, with the eerie stare of the blind. Would he care that an entire exhibition at MoMA refuses to look back? John Gossage's Monumentbrucke (Museum of Modern Art, 1982)Walker Evans hid his camera under his coat, because nothing else would allow his subjects to speak for themselves.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes confesses to his inability to approach photography that pictures anything but lives. For him, it is about the “enthusiastic commitment” to human society, or studium, as revealed in the punctum—a telling object, a passing glance, or a transient moment. It remembers “the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes.” Dyer might well agree, in The Ongoing Moment, but he finds its ultimate expression in a blind woman as seen by Paul Strand. Photographers keep returning to the blind, he argues, because they are always engaged in the encounter between the camera and its unwitting subject.

Neither Barthes nor Dyer has much patience for photography about anything other than people. Robert B. Menschel sure does, though, in the five hundred photos that he has donated to the Museum of Modern Art—well over a hundred in the last year alone. A selection as “The Shape of Things,” through May 7, has a special fondness for photographers out to catalog things in themselves. It includes Jules Janssen, with his sky atlas spanning seventeen years, through 1894. It includes Charles Marville in the 1870s, out to document every design of street lamps in Paris, and Bernd and Hilla Becher with their obsession with water towers one hundred years later. It includes Charles Harry Jones around 1900, with onions too pristine ever to eat.

People are surprisingly hard to come by and never quite themselves. Dora Maar photographs a worker, but with his head lost in a manhole, and Weegee a man cross-dressing—not because he is transgender, but because he cares too much for performing to worry about his authentic self. John Coplans treats his own back as an obstacle or a blank palimpsest, his fists raised above. Robert Frank turns to Times Square at night, but from a distance and in a blur. An-My Lê photographs the Mojave Desert as a site for combat exercises, with the emphasis on exercises rather the dangers of combat. David Leventhal goes the next step, to toy soldiers for his apparent scene of war.

They still testify to a sexual or cultural context, indirectly or not. Yet they largely avoid documentary or commercial photography, with the allure of politics, portraiture, and fashion. John Gossage sees the city from behind the support for a bridge, its lives cut off by a thick black cross. Hans Bellmer sees sex itself as akin to a mechanical ballet. Harry Callahan seems least at ease with his own wife. William Wegman may come closest to other genres, but with his dog—posing on a couch after Gustave Courbet or balancing a book on its head like an aspiring model.

The show falls in three sections, but their stated chronology quickly falls apart. “Truthful Representation” begins with William Fox Talbot in 1843, with a street as Pencil of Nature, and ostensibly ends in 1930. “Directorial Modes” turns to the recent past, with truth or representation now in scare quotes. In between come “Personal Expressions,” but a photograph from any date can appear anywhere. The collection’s heroes fall in the middle section—with decades of blank facades from Callahan, sidewalk smears from Aaron Siskind, and torn posters from Lee Friedlander. The curators, Quentin Bajac with Katerina Stathopoulou, do not hesitate to note the parallel shift in painting from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art.

They supply a history of photography for all that, although almost without color. Even a still life by Jan Groover appears in black and white, while a glass of water from Neil Winokur is downright shocking in its blue. They also tell a human story after all, but one of the passage of time—like buildings new to Paris in the 1890s, but now as picturesque as can be, or the George Washington Bridge for Berenice Abbott in 1936, when it was still the shock of the new. The show’s title derives from paired photos by Carrie Mae Weems of African forts. One has its gate facing front, promising an entry or a haven in the present, while the other stands as mud pillars, like totems from an ancient civilization. Ultimately, the title derives from The Shape of Things to Come, by H. G. Wells, but without its last two words. In a photograph, what was to come is already the past.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

4.28.17 — The Challenge of Photography

To wrap up this week’s report on the March art fairs, you know the challenge of pier 94. You know it from the first weekend of that month, when the pace is blistering and even the VIP lounge is a madhouse.

Big, bright images from instantly recognizable artists assault you from every side, all of it for sale and spilling out onto the adjacent piers as well. And then, after that long journey west of the theater district, competing fairs demand your attention all over town. Mark Lyon's Defunct (Summer), Newburgh, NY, 2013 (Elizabeth Houston Projects, 2016)Well, guess what? If you have any energy left four weeks later, the challenge of the AIPAD Photography Show is that none of this is true.

Photography is bound to be a challenge for a big fair, given a medium that does not often reward a distant view. With its move from the Park Avenue armory to the Hudson, this fair has expanded to well over a hundred exhibitors, every one of them asking you to get up close, to take your time, and to look around. They include more than two dozen nonmembers of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, many of them smaller galleries in rows of smaller booths, as “Discoveries.” They also include Lucien Samaha, who makes his booth his studio, where those with appointments can sit for portraits with (he swears) the world’s first digital camera. They do not pack the pier anywhere near as densely as the Armory Show—all the better to suck you in. They share the pier with a spacious area for publishers and three private collections as well.

For all that, they are notably traditional. They reach back to Gustave Le Gray and the 1850s with Hans P. Kraus and to what another dealer dares to call a history of printing. They include such well-deserved staples as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with Robert Koch, Man Ray and André Kertész with Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, Margaret Bourke-White with Howard Greenberg, and Robert Frank or Richard Misrach more than once. Contemporary photographers, too, reach back to the Bauhaus or Surrealism—like abstract landscapes with von Lintel, the view down a spiral staircase by Luciano Romano with Sabina Raffaghello, and an interior overlaid with UTOPIA by George Rousse with Sous les Etoiles. Steven Kasher boasts of twenty-one photographers but just one straight white male. That sounds ever so millennial, but it spans the years from Diane Arbus to Mickalene Thomas.

In short, this is photography as art. It includes several dealers that do not specialize in photography (and omits at least two in New York that do), but new media are rare apart from cascading blue pixels by Clifford Ross with Ryan Lee and a projection on the pier’s glass entryway outside by Colleen Plumb. So are abstraction and other crossings of genre and media, apart from Niko Luoma with Bryce Wolkowitz. So is anything resembling photojournalism, apart from classics of street photography on film in a “screening room.” So, too, is fashion or even portraiture—apart from Samaha and the Walther collection, with photographers who examine people as types, or “Structures of Identity.” That surely flatters August Sanders, but maybe not Richard Avedon, and both look the better for it.

In their scale alone, many of the photos call attention to themselves as art objects. Ahmet Ertug’s library interiors with Ellipsis Projects and Christian Vogt’s museum galleries with Unix adopt the large format, sharp focus, and subject matter of Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer. Jefferson Hayman with Michael Shapiro goes to the opposite extreme, with small photographs in thick frames like forgotten family treasures. Strictly conceptual art hardly appears, as do overlays of text. I might have glimpsed both in a booth empty but for text high on the wall, but no: its statement that an Iranian dealer had withdrawn in the face of Donald J. Trump’s travel ban is all too true.

Elsewhere politics stands at a distinct remove. The Madeleine P. Plonsker collection captures “The Light in Cuban Eyes,” but with an eye more to the light than to the regime. The third private collection, from Martin Z. Margulies, presents international artists—but the brute facts of concentration camps, Mideast photography, and the refugee crisis get along peaceably with the allure of the exotic. A fair with few solo shows obliges you to pick your own favorites. They might include towering industrial landscapes by Edward Burtynsky with Koch and, among Discoveries, garage interiors wide open to the light by Mark Lyon or walls as visual collage by Andy Mattern, both with Elizabeth Houston. The challenge comes in slowing down long enough to take them in.

4.27.17 — Moving On

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To continue my report from last time, not every cool kid has a trust fund. At least two exhibitors at NADA have galleries about as small as their booths—and those are members of the New Art Dealers Alliance.

Meanwhile nonmembers line the former High Line terminal, well west of Soho, with displays the size of closets. For all that, the show runs to packed group exhibitions, and painting, the dominant medium, runs to messy or out of control. Not surprisingly, it does not look anywhere near its best either, although chaos has its own rewards. AES+F, a collective with Transfer + Mobius, indeed translates modern office life into a carnival, in slow motion. Casey Reas's Process 4 (Bitforms, 2005)

Speaking of new media, Moving Image has moved. No, its twenty-eight artists still occupy the comforting Tunnel warehouse west of Chelsea, but with a strikingly global cast. More to the point, they are able to return home, thanks to virtual reality, with you as their guest. For Jakob Kudsk Steensen, home is a tropical island, only partly of his imagining. For Rebecca Allen, it is a space apart shared with a nude cyborg, green mountains, and the interior of the brain climaxing in a burst of light. They and others ask you to put on a headset and to explore, if you dare.

I was mostly too terrified of falling, especially when Christopher Manzione and Seth Cluett placed me high above a ravine and a studio interior. Whatever else, this art is vivid. So, too, are equally bold but less immersive media. John Craig Freeman offers an app that overlays Saint Petersburg onto Chelsea as you walk, including the High Line. Yet even the predominant single-channel videos tend to focus on single actors with their own challenging environments. They include an African woman warrior from Robert Hodge, burn victims from Damir Očko, a man ascending a high rise open to the weather from Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani, the displaced in an internment camp from Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand, and a man out for a walk on a shifting slope in Rio from Marcus Bonisson and Khalil Charif.

Not that the fair entirely neglects its old staple in pulsing abstract, natural, and fractal images, most notably from Casey Reas. Its altered reality may also seem at times more a demonstration of the media’s power than of art. With a biker held close to the picture plane in the rain, from Alexandre Mazza, it returns to Bill Viola territory, overstatement intact. Still, the emphasis has shifted to the subject’s or viewer’s eye, and that eye is now global and gendered. Arda Yalkin, in turn, captures a moment in a job interview, with a demand on the candidate to surrender privacy forever. And when Yalkin places you in the center, between employer and candidate, the demand may come from or extend to you.

Whatever the future, it will not be Scope. It has in its superheroes and its pop stars. It has enough gold leaf for Kehinde Wiley, Zarina Hashmi, Barkley L. Hendricks, and then some. It has only token presence from New York galleries, if at that. Just on the way in, at Soho Arts Council, oversized museum wall labels by Brian Blocks face abstract tokens in the negative hues of a photogram by Harry Buzman—as the twin markers of conceptual and sensory overload. Even so, intellect and visual acuity will be few and far between.

So are the fairs any less oppressive—or any more essential to the future of the galleries and of art? After a week devoted to the art market, is it any clearer what they bode for art or for business? I have my doubts, but it plainly depends where you stand. Someone high on the food chain may be struggling to care, and someone low on the food chain may be struggling to survive. Yet both may feel the pressure to stand on the side of glitz and not art. The question is who is left in between, and I wrap up my report on the March art fairs next time, with photography.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

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