Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bertien van Manen at Yancy Richardson

Gallery season is starting up again in Chelsea. On Thursday evening I went to the opening of Bertien van Manen's Let's sit down before we go, an exhibition of photographs taken over the past two decades in the former Soviet Union. The show will be up at the Yancy Richardson Gallery through February 11. In this work, van Manen combines the diaristic intensity of Nan Golden with the abjectness of  Boris Mikhailov. What is striking is the psychological nuance of Manen's portraits: how unguarded, open or vulnerable her subjects appear -- while at the same time seeming reserved, wary of outsiders, and not at ease with themselves.

This seemed especially so, as I had just been to the Joel Sternfield show at Luhring Augustine: the Americans of the 1970's in Sternfeld's pictures generally seemed so self-satisfied and uncomplicated while the 1990-2000's era Russians in Manen's were anything but. Van Manen on the top; Sternfeld below:

Where does that kind of complexity come from? Was there a sociological reason for it? Was it in the subject, or did it come from the photographer? Part of the answer may lie in van Manen's approach. She tries to become a part of whatever community she is photographing, to the extent of learning the language and developing personal relationships with her subjects. To the degree that she can, she becomes an insider. A few more from the show at Yancy Richardson:

For some background on van Manen, there is a short interview here in which she discusses a prior body work titled Give Me Your Image, featured at MoMA's 2005 New Photography exhibition.

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