Photo-Abstractions

John Haber
in New York City

Jason Tomme, Scott Lyall, and Sara VanDerBeek

So many photographers approach painting these days that it is only fair that painters return the favor. I do not mean photorealism, but something more like photo-abstraction. It keeps multiplying, not unlike the very nature of photography and digital media, to the point of driving out reality or abstraction. It has become this year's model for academic art, but it can be lovely to puzzle out all the same.

The fall of 2010 opened with Jason Tomme and Scott Lyall. Both artists let go, so that real and accidental gestures take over. In the process, they somehow end up with something plainer and closer still to conceptual art, and they are not alone. Then turn to the artists in "American ReConstruction," who behind the camera rely on some surprisingly old media after all. Last, step back to the whole problem of how media can transform art. Sara VanDerBeek's Foundation, Dorgenois Street (courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures/Altman Siegel, 2010)

I keep returning to hybrid art forms like these, because the trend is not going away. Perhaps the most heartfelt example, Sara VanDerBeek, has her first New York solo show in four years. "To Think of Time" is quite literally about matters of life and death. At the Whitney, the shifts between media and between her studio and New Orleans mimic layers of time. They also demand human responsibility for the choice between community and disaster.

Foundations of disaster

In the first edition of Leaves of Grass, "To Think of Time" came third. By Walt Whitman's death, it had become one poem among many, long after the passionate embrace of America and of himself. In my paperback edition, it starts on page 337, after the war poems, "Memories of President Lincoln," and the sad, hopeful return to peace in "Autumn Rivulets"—and before intimations of his own death and the extended, repeated farewells.

Clearly Whitman had trouble making up his mind, but he also cherished at once spontaneity and remaking—a layering of contexts and memories that he found in time, poetry, and America. "All good poetry," Wordsworth wrote, "is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." But the overflow remains on the page, for all to see. When Sara VanDerBeek calls an exhibition "To Think of Time" on her return from New Orleans, everything in the poem reads differently all over again. As in the moments before a natural disaster, "Have you feared the future would be nothing to you?" As in the moments after a thoughtless president's manmade disaster and later, after months of recovery, "To think that you and I did not see, feel, think, nor bear our part, / To think that we are now here and bear our part."

For VanDerBeek, bearing witness is not the same as addressing the camera, and none of her photographs has a speaker—apart from two plaster faces like death masks, facing apart. Tremé School Window turns almost 90 degrees, so that the open window holds out a trapdoor and reflects darkly in the next window below. The still-abandoned school, in black and white, creates a reality as disorienting as a maze and as treacherous as a pit. At the same time, it evokes an underground shelter from the storm—and perhaps, too, the storage basements that sustained Lower East Side tenements before the art boom or a studio like her own. The reflections are confusing, but also part of a reassuring architecture, and their grid has the clarity of Minimalist painting or sculpture. A solar eclipse appears like a crescent moon, which just goes to show that her scratched plate and frequent reprinting have disguised its subject.

VanDerBeek likes to mix things up, almost as much as her father, Stan VanDerBeek, but between abstraction and new media. The photos, in the Whitney's first-floor alcove, set constructions in her Baltimore studio beside the Lower Ninth Ward, not far from the devastation documented as well by Deborah Luster. Even there, where they look most like a city street or abstract visions, they record architecture. In those named Foundations, close-ups of the foundations of houses, "Slow moving and black lines go ceaselessly over the earth." Whitman in those words was speaking of coffins returning from war, but he was also speaking of the cycle of human life. After all this time, VanDerBeek insists, those houses lie empty, but she, too, invites a kind of reconciliation.

If so many built-in distancing devices tempt me to sentimentality, blame me. (A free handout by Tina Kukielski, a senior curatorial assistant, does better.) Or blame layering and the lure of disaster. In the past VanDerBeek has brought together portraits, mostly women, in three-dimensional assemblages like photo albums but fragmented and in your face. Elsewhere she has photographed shadowy constructions between Minimalism and memorials. Her work can look like something out of Robert Rauschenberg, but it appropriates little or nothing—unless one counts New Orleans itself.

Group shows have placed her among women photographers, art that crosses media, and photography that approaches abstraction. Here she seems almost traditional. "To think of time, of all that retrospection." A black disk suspended from a pole, much like a manhole cover, approaches early Modernism. So does the cracked, striated plaster of Blue Caryatid at Dusk. As with the Foundations, its streaks of color shine amid the black and white—but the dusk is real, while the architectural column implied by a caryatid is a fiction.

Spray paint and digital prints

The convergence of genres, with photography as a model, surely owes something to a culture of second-hand images. It is the product of advertising, the Web, and the usual suspects since Pop Art. Conversely, it is born is dissatisfaction with that culture. It also adds conceptual layers to formalism's ideal of purity. It can in fact be deadening, aimless, or transforming. Sometimes, it is all at once.

Jason Tomme's Paper Lead Poem (Nicole Klagsbrun gallery, 2010)If all that makes no sense, at least in the abstract, take next Jason Tomme. His work sure looks like digital prints, the kind that machines can now turn out on practically any scale. Those in color have the intense chill of a photographic negative and the broad smears of random exposure to light. One can imagine the artist transferring a screen print to canvas by hand, with a brush or roller, like Tamar Halpern or Skyler Brickley this past winter and spring. Two other works have the imprecise monochrome of metal halides let to take their own course, much as with Jacob Kassay or Jacqueline Humphries, on large sheets that one could easily take for photographic paper. Tomme calls each one Paper Lead Poem, to give due weight to each side of the story—old-fashioned works on paper, metal machine music, and the imagination.

In reality, he is using spray paint. Where another show this year spoke of "Abstraction and the Ready-Made Gesture," he wants to leave his own mark, like graffiti, but in the tidy confines of art. To mix high and low that much further, he pins paper to the wall as obviously as Robert Ryman bolts aluminum or steel, but the paper is still peeling. In practice, the distinction between the ready-made and the gesture may itself have vanished, as simply two forms of surrender to the work. In different ways, Pollock and Andy Warhol and Warhol's influence already taught that. The danger of today's gen X art is turning their surrender to reality into a drift.

Scott Lyall may seem even closer to Ryman, but also even more of a control freak. His white canvas stands out from its supports, with the wood showing. Equally blank vinyl sheets press tightly against the wall, as if embedded into the Sheetrock. It puts a postmodern spin on the old accusation of "apocalyptic wallpaper." And in reality he has let things run a few times through today's outsize printers, fed with traces of color, and let things fall where they may. Asked if he intends the particular shades of white, the artist has trouble answering yes or no.

When Lyall speaks of "unique printouts," one knows already that opposites attract. Each cross between genres and media adds another layer of impurity. To confuse things all the more, he calls the show "An Immigrant Affection," an odd title for such austere works and short memories. It surely alludes to the history of the Lower East Side and the Tenement Museum barely a block away, but he explains using more abstract migrations and affections. Art has a sender and a receiver, he says, but also a physical and human connection between them, so that 1 plus 1 makes 3. And indeed if one gives the room enough time, the ten prints take on different colors after all.

Impurity never really undoes the formalist project of art as object, even if the artist clearly objects. Yet where Clement Greenberg demanded a medium's reflection on itself, here media reflect on one another. Erin Shirreff in fact takes a sculptural model as subject of abstract photography. Object means conceptual goal as well as physical presence anyway. The only question is whether either one can stand out amid the artifice. They can be both more and less than meets the eye.

After digital

In an age of digital manipulation, the six photographers in "American ReConstruction" start over. Curtis Mann bleaches his prints and then folds them like ink blots—or an experimental alternative to straight printing. Jeremy Kost slaps together Polaroids into a makeshift panorama, as if they were going out of style and not, as in reality, out of business. Matthew Lyon settles for the photo collage he can find, in the flat surfaces, banal images, and peculiar juxtapositions of upstate laundromats. The glimpses of hardscrabble landscape make them flatter, more banal, and more peculiar still. Who knew that Cubism or combine paintings would look so sophisticated again by comparison? Cara Phillips's Playboy Consultation Chair, Orange County (Winkleman gallery, 2010)

Matthew Albanese's only manipulation comes in the studio, with setups and deep-color prints that produce a delightfully cheesy and strangely convincing tornado, active volcano, and arctic ice floe. When people wrote off Jackson Pollock as apocalyptic wallpaper, they had no idea. Cara Phillips goes slightly more high tech with ultraviolet head shots, revealing every pore or blemish beneath the surface. Still, the close-ups have nothing on the pristine manipulation of actual cosmetician offices, which she shoots as she finds them. Jowhara AlSaud might well have achieved her erasures with the butt end of a pencil. In practice, she outlines her portraits of family and friends by etching, based on line drawings, and then prints the results in the darkroom.

Obviously the choices comment directly on digital culture. That includes both slick advertising and the clumsier DIY ethos of the Web. Their retro technique aside, the artists have a clear fondness for both. AlSaud's characters, in her native Saudi Arabia, are in rebellion against state censorship of both western imagery and western clothing for women. They end up in the style of hip comic strips. Mann starts with prints found on Flickr, of the Golan Heights.

The show parallels another not always digital trend, toward photography that blurs the distinction between abstraction, conceptual art, and illusion. Shirreff and VanDerBeek both shoot from handmade objects, Shirreff using compressed ash that Albanese's volcano might have emitted. When Kassay lets light tarnish silver salts in the course of an exhibition, like a darkroom protracted over the course of a lifetime, he conducts a chemistry experiment quite as elemental as Mann's. Phillips also has lab work in mind. Her subcutaneous women glisten under their ultraviolet close-up like divas.

Unlike abstraction, however, all six shoot for the obvious, only starting with technique. With Albanese the obvious still has some magic left, but Lyon's rural America cannot quite get over a certain urban condescension, no more than Sally Mann. One might charitably describe Kost's setting as a drag-queen trailer park. Even the show's title lays it on a bit thick. "American ReConstruction" would make more sense if reconstruction did not already make clear its roots—or if Reconstruction did not have serious historical connotations of its own in America. The curator, Michel Hoeh, cheats a little anyway, given that two of six American reconstructions focus on the Mideast.

Still, group shows are generally too close to holding patterns, and Hoeh, a collector, is exposing something interesting. The photographic manipulation works best when it brings out cultural manipulation as well. In mimicking censorship, AlSaud allows her young actors to break traditional codes—a move that sounds rather like DeConstruction. Mann's Rorschach test and broken symmetries mirror responses to the actual Golan Heights. Phillips combines male fears of female divas, not to mention of a setting that I mistook for a dentist's office, with female anxieties about appearance. In art, reconstruction is at least skin deep.

The promise of new media

New media promised to transform art. It has had to settle for transforming artists.

It never could change the nature of contemporary art. For one thing, that would imply that art still knows where it is going, in a hotly divided, contested, and often drifting art scene. It also implies an essence of its art, which Modernism and Postmodernism alike relegated to myth. Just as obviously, it implies a technological determinancy—a clear understanding that the media governs the message. That sounded reasonable in the early days of television, but it never did make sense. And it makes even less sense now that artists slip from abstraction to conceptual art to photography to sculpture, often fooling the eye as to which is which.

Yet new media has been a game changer by its very existence. People love it or hate it, just as they love Tweeter or blame it for a generation's supposed short attention spans. Not that it necessarily stands for an elimination of meaning after all, any more than for human liberation. Nor does it imply an art of sign as opposed to an analog art of objects. Analog sign systems have existed, too, like writing. More than a few philosophers since Derrida have called art a kind of writing, too.

New media changed things not by supplanting old media, but by supplementing them. Derrida himself spoke of the logic of the supplement. What was formally simply art, is now older media. In the language of structuralism, what was formerly unmarked becomes marked. Analog becomes opposed to digital, which in part explains why some artists have associated "old-fashioned" forms with nostalgia or decay. They do so in "American ReConstruction," photography that relies on little more than bleach, scraps, and scale models.

The logic of the supplement is never logical, except maybe to French philosophers. Those very photographs take pains to look Photoshopped. Indicators of analog and digital color and penetrate each other. Increasingly, they penetrate every medium of contemporary art. Anyone can try them, and no one can entirely escape them.

And that announces the real change after digital, when anyone can play, and more than ever art becomes amateur hour. One sees it everywhere in the arts—in "do it yourself" shows and online. One sees it with me as a critic. It is frustrating, no question, and it only enlarges the divisions, contest, and drift. But the growing number of participants reflects nontechnological changes as well, with art's growing market and growing audiences. Who can ever know which came first, the digital chicken or the financial goose egg?

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Jason Tomme ran at Nicole Klagsbrun through October 23, 2010, Scott Lyall at Miguel Abreu through October 24, "American ReConstruction" at Winkleman gallery through June 1, and Sara VanDerBeek at The Whitney Museum of American Art through December 5.

 

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