8.2.17 — Uncritical Theory

Teju Cole does not settle for photographs. He makes magazine spreads, with or without the magazine.

Cole’s closeness to magazine spreads shows in the bright colors and perfect stillness—even with a woman walking the street or boats headed every which way at sea. It shows in clear skies and sunlit vistas, the kind you know even before you have seen them, perhaps from last weekend’s travel section. It shows in the certainty that each scene, however marvelous or however ordinary, is where you want to be. Teju Cole's Capri, June 2015 (Steven Kasher gallery, 2015)It shows, too, in the text facing each and every one, at Steven Kasher through August 11.

A pairing of photos and text has another history as well, in conceptual art, and Cole has big ideas. The woman and the boats make him think of sailing for Troy in the Iliad. (He leaves unsaid whether Agamemnon will have to sacrifice this young woman first, which is just as well.) This is not, though, the pairing in Barbara Kruger and the “Pictures generation,” with their insistence on politics and gender. Rather, it takes the critical out of critical theory. It leaves only the comforting certainty that something profound is going on.

Cole has made that certainty the subject of his essays for the Sunday New York Times Magazine. They deal in generalities, to reassure readers that this is serious art and that these are these are indeed universal truths. So, too, does the text accompanying his photos. “Regularity becomes invisible.” “Color is the sound an object makes in response to light.” “A stone contemplates a stone.”

A vent on shipboard makes him think of “the alphorn at the beginning of the final movement of Brahms’s First Symphony.” A ladder and its shadow are “crossing each other on the way to heaven.” No, make that “a shadow and its ladder,” as duly ineffable. “I think the Annunciation must have happened on a day like this one.” (And no, that fabric hanging from a ship’s railing is not the Virgin Mary’s robe or someone else’s exposed underwear.) “Photography means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Well, I made up that last one, but you get the picture. In at least one respect, Cole’s prominence is a triumph. He shows that an African American artist has every right not to speak to racism or identity, just as he has every right to speak frankly about them. Recent years have had major exhibitions of Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, William T. Williams, and black abstraction, with much the same insistence. When they bring their experience to their art, they may well speak to racism and identity after all—and Cole’s Times essays insist that photography must not paper over real lives. Yet he carries a far less provocative message as well.

It may sound odd to speak of his art as middlebrow. Surely that label belongs to a distant past, before Pop Art and street art, when highbrow art and popular culture faced off rather than intermingled, making even some with a college education feel left out. Back when, they found Modernism puzzling, the movies a guilty pleasure, and both as soulless as the threats from fascism and communism. Cole, though, is a throwback—just as he can photograph a woman from behind without anyone, including me, thinking of sexism. He still believes that Homer, the Bible, Capri, St. Moritz, and Brooklyn occupy the same space outside of time. Maybe it is about time that he all left that space behind him.

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

4.12.17 — nth-Generation Feminist

Marianna Rothen is an nth-generation feminist. I would fill in the n, but by now I have lost count.

Besides, to pick up from last time on images of women (and the subject of a longer report as my latest upload), her work is all about multiplicity. She and her friends pose in photographs that dare one to pin them down or to tell them apart. One has seen them, for certain, somewhere before. It might have been in a theater, a video stream, a gallery, or a museum. Marianna Rothen's Pins and Needles (from Shadows in Paradise) (Steven Kasher gallery, 2015)

If that sounds all too familiar, it should. Her Shadows in Paradise riffs on an industry that depends on both darkness and dreams, the movies. In particular, Rothen explains, she draws on Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Robert Altman’s Three Women, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, at Steven Kasher through April 15. Like them, she stages a woman’s dislocation, and the multiples add up. Altman himself, after all, drew for inspiration on Persona, and Lynch was remaking the glamour and melodrama of a Hollywood that had long gone. The psychological truth-telling and avant-garde stylization of Bergman in the 1960s and Altman in the 1970s, in fact, had done a great deal to chase it away.

Rothen moves in territory familiar from the 1980s as well—the “Pictures generation” of Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons. Sherman, of course, made her name by posing for Untitled Film Stills. And Simmons posed dolls for what could be a film perpetually in progress. Rothen, too, plays feminine roles, while looking so doll-like at times that I mistook her for a toy. Men, I suppose, do that sort of thing. So did Alfred Hitchcock and film noir.

Her technique, too, produces multiples while simulating a lost original. She works digitally in both color and black and white, before rephotographing prints as Polaroids for their pre-digital sheen—and then she scans them and prints them again. Her characters live in what her previous solo show called a “Pheromone Hotbox.” They stare out windows or into mirrors, pose against old-fashioned wallpaper, nurse whiskey, lie dead, or hold a gun, in dated costumes and curls. They favor close-ups, strong contrasts, shallow depth of field, and unsettling camera angles. They play to expectations for an independent woman as vulnerable, desirable, and above all a threat.

Those expectations extended to a woman not often known for her regrets. Rothen also appears in video, on facing screens, as Woman with the Crown. Once again, strong lighting and old hairstyles make her a living doll. She takes on various roles while speaking the same text slightly out of synch, so that it appears to echo itself—generally once with emotion, the other flatly. The text, about a woman as sex object, turns out to quote an interview with Lady Di. Who knew that Diana felt so at a distance from the idol that she had become?

Of course, a fascination with Lady Di also goes back a ways. Is Rothen just late for the party or keeping it going? Is she upping the ante or viewing even feminism through the filter of today’s hot fashion magazines? Is the nth degree a repetition or an extreme? Maybe both, but the seductions are real. Then, too, after the 2016 election, working out the generations of feminism matters as well.

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