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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Across the Miles: Winogrand, ICP Triennial, Turrell, Calder


Whatever else may be said of it, the year 2013 was a great year for art.  But then that’s pretty much true of every year.  Art’s not like wine, weather dependent.  Someone, somewhere is always making great art.  What does seem to change from time to time are the quality and variety of exhibits mounted my museums and galleries.  But that’s probably dumb too – there’s always a great show somewhere.  What seems to matter is having the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to see the great show or shows. 

I  was in New York City while the International Center of Photography’s Triennial survey show “A Different Kind of Order” was up. The press release labeled it “a global survey of contemporary photography and video.”  A tall order, to be sure.  There were some interesting images, and concepts on display – like Mikhael Subotzky / Patrick Waterhouse, Windows, Ponte City, 2008–2010.  It’s a series of photographs of a building that represents more than just a form of shelter for those that live there.

At 54 stories it’s reportedly the tallest building on the continent.  After the 1994 end of apartheid, wealthy residents fled the Johannesberg tower.  It was taken over by a cross-section of the disenfranchised, and began its entry into myth.  The artists visual representation is impressive and works on many levels – as interesting imagery, with an aspect of photo sculpture, as social commentary, and as straight documentary. 

As for the other photos, another interesting project exploring technology and the potential for including the  random element into art creation is the work of Andrea Longacre-White.  Her Pad Scan series was created by taking digital photographs which were then displayed on her iPad which she then scanned.  Several steps from the original image, and involving the unpredictable and random reaction of the scanner trying to process the iPad display of the digital photo.  The results are more conceptually interesting than visually arresting, and serve as a reminder that with each additional layer of technology we’re adding another mirror to what may become an inescapable visual warren.

[An image from the Pad Scan series, right, click to enlarge.]

Any kind of survey show is a big bite at the exhibition apple, and this one provided enough good bites to be memorable and provide visual nutrition. 

The show that was up when I visited San Francisco was one that had been on my radar since it was announced – a retrospective of Garry Winogrand’s work, organized jointly by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. 

This exhibition was epic, and breathtaking for its scope, and never before seen images, and the distinctive and amazing quality of the photographs.  Winogrand died at the age of 56 from gallbladder cancer.   He left behind an astonishing body of work – but also thousands of images he had taken, but had never printed.   Some rolls of film hadn’t even been developed at the time of his death, let alone made in to contact sheets.  In all, according to the exhibit, more than 250,000 images had never been seen by anyone presumably other than Winogrand himself, who only saw them when he took them, or in some cases, on their contact sheets. 

With the proliferation of image-making equipment – every cell phone is a camera, and pocket cameras have reached a level of technical quality such that it’s supremely easy to take a properly exposed photo – the photograph itself has become both devalued and magnified in importance.   Devalued because photographs are ubiquitous, and omnipresent in our lives.  Magnified in importance because the recognition and value of a really great photograph only grows as the number of images made daily grows. 

There’s very little formal discussion in the popular culture of what makes a photograph great.   What is it about a particular image that captures our eye, that excites us, that provokes feelings of a deep nature?   Is it the ability of the image to reach past our conscious brain into the deep seated root of our visual cortex, some secret combination of light and dark, of shapes, of things that resonate with our inherent human nature?  Or is the response triggered by cultural factors, by images we’ve ingested over a lifetime of exposure to advertising, to entertainment, to the plethora of processed images ever present in our daily sea of media consumption?  Most people answer the question of what makes a great photo the same way the Supreme Court thinks about pornography – I’ll know it when I see it. 

Seeing any of Garry Winogrand’s photographs is to know what a great photo is.  He was a photographer with an eye.  Which is to say he knew how to capture something significant with his camera.    He said “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.”  Which captures the complete magic of so many of his photographs. 

One of his iconic images – of which there are many – is of a woman at the El Morocco nightclub in New York in 1955.   Her mouth is open wide, her perfect teeth and lipstick on display, her dagger like fingernails of the hand on her dance partner’s back – it’s an image of uncertain emotion, unsettling – her mouth a rictus trapped between heaven and hell, between desire to be happy and happiness itself.   The photo is piercing, memorable, and easily lodges in one’s visual memory.

There’s another image, of a boy, and a sheep, from 1975, Fort Worth.  The boy is looking off camera, the sheep directly at the camera.   Winogrand has an unflinching directness with his images.  They’re capable of conveying a depth of emotional reality nearly impossible to capture or achieve outside of a full novel or play - exhibiting in each image the true power of that single frozen moment that reveals all.

A couple is kissing in a doorway in New York.  The woman is looking directly at the camera, as is the young girl standing next to them.  The man kissing the woman is either completely unaware of the photographer, or so engrossed in the moment as to not care.

The kissing woman’s gaze is challenging, full of attitude and brio.  The other’s with more of a hint of uncertainty as to how to feel about the moment, about what is happening – including the kiss itself, and the act of photographing the kiss.  In this way Winogrand’s directness questions the act of making photography itself, but clearly in completing the act, answers the question as well.  His most famous quote about photography speaks volumes about his attitude – “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”  What today might be called a very meta approach to image making.

He was also able to make arresting images without showing us any faces, any eyes – and yet invoke a deep sense of wonder, and humanity – as with the image of an elephant’s trunk and a person's hand.

The exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC March 2 – June 8, 2014; to the Metropolitan Museum of Art  in New York, June 27-September 21, 2014 to the Jeu de Paume, Paris, October 2014–January 2015;  and to Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid, March–June 2015.

While photography is often said to be all about the light – because that’s obviously what makes it possible to take a picture – artist James Turrell’s work really is all about the light – in many ways, the light IS the work.  He creates purely with light, and while this sounds conceptual and cold, the effect of seeing his work is full of emotion.  Often the emotions are those that the viewer brings to the piece – in many ways it seems as if Turrell’s art is one step forward from a tabula rasa.  It’s not blank, clearly, but more than in most any other art, what one takes away as a viewer is dependent on what one brings as a viewer.   The show is a sizable retrospective, and shows the considerable scope of his work. 

One piece is a room that the viewer walks in to.  When we were there, a museum guard was in the room, as they are in many rooms throughout the museum, in all museums.  I like to talk to the guards – they’re completely immersed in the art all day, every day, and sometimes they have interesting, insightful things to say about both the art, and the viewers of the art.  This particular guard in the blue room did not disappoint – he was interesting and provocative with his answers to my questions, and it added to the whole experience. 

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has a sizable retrospective of his work on view until April 6.

Another show on view at LACMA currently is Calder and Abstraction:  From Avant-Garde to Iconic

I was not particularly interested in seeing this show.  My wife wanted to see it, so I went along.  My impression of Calder was based on his later mobiles, like the red and black one hanging in the massive lobby of the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.  

A little bit interesting, mostly boring.  I expected his work to be all the same.
Okay, so I’m a dope sometimes.  The Calder exhibit was the perfect antidote to my ignorance, taking the viewer back to Calder’s early days, and bringing us forward to his later work.  There are beautiful examples of him exploring a new approach to sculpture, to creating ground-breaking work that was mesmerizing.  The exhibit itself is designed to show off the range and scope of Calder’s work effectively, and I came away with full acknowledgement of his talent, and my stupidity. 

The Calder exhibit is on view through July 27.  Installation photos can be found here.

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