3.10.17 — Feeling the Heat

Many on the right, in Europe and America, wish that refugees would just go away. Many would like to make their suffering invisible to human eyes as well.

from Richard Mosse's The Enclave (Jack Shainman gallery, 2013)No matter, for Richard Mosse has found a way to see what the naked eye cannot, at Jack Shainman through March 11. His last exhibition turned outdated infrared film into high-definition video that gave civil war in Africa a surreal color and supernatural beauty. Now he turns instead to the latest thing, in both his medium and world events. He adopts military technology to photographs of refugee camps.

They have none of the temptations of a seemingly untouched nature, in Africa’s waterfalls and trees. Here even the seas bordering on camps have the choppy grays of paving tar or hard stone. They have few, too, of the close encounters that gave civil warriors a brutal humanity. Mosse sees the camps from the air, in panoramas that seem constrained horizontally only by gallery walls. This film can capture detail at over thirty kilometers, or nearly twenty miles. By comparison, he points out, the horizon itself drops away far sooner.

The film can do so with an uncanny crispness, thanks to exposure times of up to forty minutes. The prints, which look much like photographic negatives in black and white, dare one to count the bodies or the fences. They give closely packed shelters, cars, and military vehicles a ghostly sheen. Early photography, too, needed long exposures, emptying Paris streets because people do not sit still. Here, as for Thomas Struth or Katherine Newbegin, film accentuates the masses and their immobility. It calls to mind, too, the obstacles barring movement in or of the camps, to safety or freedom.

Smaller accompanying photos allow for greater action, but only barely. All are displays of virtuosity since Mosse, after all, has only human eyes until he is done. (He says that he often has to discard the results, although he is getting the hang of the medium after two years.) He calls the work “Heat Maps,” after the film’s original purpose. That, too, calls attention to flesh and blood that others would rather forget, but almost everything here seems to give off heat. Humanity is itself in question.

Insecurities” at MoMA displayed the barest of comforts that international organizations can bring to the camps. So does “Perpetual Revolution” at the International Center of Photography, with a mix of photojournalism and social media. Julio Bittencourt has, more poignantly, applied ordinary photography to the South American dispossessed. Yoan Capote looks again across the Gulf from Cuba, also at Shainman, in paintings of sunlit crossings and stormy seas. Their surfaces of oil and black fishhooks pack a triple dose of native culture, photorealism, and treachery. His mix of hopes and fears emerges in title from Cold Memories to Luminous Future—and in the space between political art, landscape, and abstraction.

Each artist is recovering lives, while also questioning those who place lives in danger. For Mosse, the latest means do not require an indifference to the ordinary. Rather, he starts with the unseen and renders it unfamiliar. A print’s very distance from its subject adds to the presence and the chill. For now, Trump threatens to throw diplomacy and refugees to the winds. Art and technology are already feeling the heat.

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

12.9.16 — Racing, Swooning, and Dying

Close in on a runner—with the pain etched in his eyes, the sweat on his bare arms, his body close to collapse, and the finish line nowhere in sight. And then a supporting arm lays across his shoulder and a smile breaks across his face. He has given everything, and he has won.

Not everyone is so lucky in a film collage by Arthur Jafa, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise through December 17. Its seven terrifying and exhilarating minutes include repeated humiliation by police and at least one fatal shooting. They dare anyone, of any race, to stand apart from black America.

Here black lives do not just come to an untimely end. They also give it their all, create, and matter. Jafa cuts rapidly between athletes, musicians, community leaders, and celebrations. He lingers longest, though, on heavily armed troops running forward and on men and women reduced to holding up their hands, walking backward, pleading, or in fetal position on the ground. His very title commands respect but promises nothing: Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death.

You will not recognize them all, not at this pace, although you will almost certainly try. They bring joyful noises and silent presences. The very familiarity of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, James Brown, Martin Luther King, Jr., or President Obama makes the confrontations with police all the more painful and anonymous. Artful cuts turn on parallel poses and gestures not for their particular meaning or irony, but to unite them in their rhythm. On the soundtrack, Kanye West does much the same with his repeated lyrics: “we are an ultralight beam.”

Political art has a heavy burden. It has not just to keep up with the headlines, but also to match their impact. I felt mostly disappointment with paintings on the theme of black lives matter at the Studio Museum in Harlem—or even with Carrie Mae Weems in Chelsea. She overlays colored circles on the face of police victims to emphasize the erasure of their identities and their lives, at Jack Shainman through December 10, but I found the photos too polished and distancing. Still, most often the news, too, can evoke anger and outrage, but not anguish or fear. Jafa can and does.

He does so through the public face of African American experience. He relies on found footage of iconic figures, public places, and epic moments. He leaves intact TV station logos and countdown seconds. Exit the gallery’s new Harlem location, and ordinary people may come as a relief or a shock. One might even wonder whether Jafa is making a point of how the media reduce black lives to the equivalent of album covers for greatest hits. Perhaps, I thought for a moment, he sees something similar but more deadly in police profiling.

Still, these moments play out in public for good reason. They have become or will become part of your life as well. Musicians will bend close to the ground, the mike in their hands, and their audience will swoon. West will keep singing, “this is a bad dream,” but “I’m trying to keep my faith.” They do until the projection goes blank, as if they, like the runner, could no longer keep going. And then you have to decide who has won.

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