Friday, December 30, 2011

Pierre Gonnard at Hasted Kraeutler

Pierre Gonnard is a photographer obsessed with light and the tradition of painting. References to Caravaggio, Ribera, Vermeer, and other old masters abound. In fact several of his large-scale portraits at the Hasted Kraeutler gallery look more like copy photographs of paintings than likenesses of the sitters themselves. His subjects are chosen from those whom Gonnard considers existing on the fringes of society: Gypsies, the blind, punks, immigrants, circus performers, and monks.

The intent behind photographing his subjects in this old master style is to both ennoble the individual and to reference the universality and timelessness of suffering.  The work is visually striking, and Gonnard’s technique masterful, but there is something very wrong with these pictures.

There is an absence of discovery in the work, which suggests a lack of attentiveness to the sitter. Through the formalized posing, his subjects often seem homogenized.  And for work that purports to celebrate the dignity of each person, forcing them into a simulation of a prior era’s style has the opposite effect; people are turned into art historical references and types. It might be easier to consume images this way, but ultimately it is less illuminating and less truthful.

So how does a photographer express a universal social concern and honor the uniqueness of each individual?  Part of it is treating your subject as a person, rather than as an object. Another part is maintaining an open mind about who or what your subject actually is.

You can see Walker Evans’ engagement with his subjects.  As viewers, we are aware of Evans’ process of looking through the lens; we see how he frames and composes. And we see a fluidity in how he does that – he is actively responding to what is in front of him using a visual language that is fully of the moment. There is modesty in the best sense in his work, and dignity for the people he photographs.

Both Evans and Gonnard are telling stories about their subjects' lives, stories that are intended to elicit an empathetic response in the viewer. Evans invites the viewer to share in his process of discovering the story; for Gonnard, the story already exists prior to his taking the picture. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Adam Fuss, Man Ray, Anna Atkins, Wim Delvoye

What is a photogram?

Seems worth mentioning now that many people start their photographic education without stepping foot inside a darkroom. Photograms are photographic images made with objects typically in direct contact with a light-sensitive paper. The simplest way to make a photogram is to place an object, a piece of lace or a leaf, for example, on top of paper coated with a light-sensitive emulsion in a darkroom, expose it to light and then process the paper in the appropriate chemistry. The resulting image will be a stencil of the object. Early uses of this technique included catalogs of botanical subjects. Photograms were preferred over drawings because they were considered to be more accurate. Prior to the development of continuous tone reproduction techniques, botanical taxonomies were produced by tipping in actual photograms of the species cataloged. Thus each book was illustrated with original and unique photograms. Below is an example by Anna Atkins from the 1840's followed by a contemporary approach to a similar subject, by Adam Fuss.

As many of the technical problems associated with photographic reproduction were solved, making photograms became superseded by methods more descriptive of surfaces and corresponding more closely to human vision. Almost eighty years later, the technique was revived by artists and photographers, like Man Ray, who wished to go beyond surface description to get at a physical or psychological essence, combining the realism offered by photography with results which are open and allusive. A Man Ray, followed again by an Adam Fuss:

One final comparison, this one between a Man Ray photogram and a Wim Delvoye photograph derived from an x-ray:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Adam McEwen at Marianne Boesky

One of the more interesting shows I've seen recently was the work of Adam McEwen at the Marianne Boesky Gallery. McEwen showed a series of life sized sculptures of everyday objects -- a water fountain, mirror, air conditioner, safe -- fabricated out of graphite. The work seems to be a form of ironic perfectionism in which the details of the objects are rendered flawlessly although somewhat abstractly, as if the object had no history. But what I found most compelling is the surface itself, as the graphite oddly mimics the form of the original while being simultaneously suggestive of a heavy layer of pencil on paper. A very clever idea: sculptures made out of the implement of drawings.

The show is up through December 17. 118 E. 64th St.

As an aside, thinking about the surface of these sculptures reminds me of another artist who takes advantage of the materiality of graphite. In the mid 90's, I saw a series of brilliant drawings by Quentin Morris at Larry Becker Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The pencil drawings were built up of layers of marks until the paper surface develops the sheen of polished metal. There's really no way to describe this well in a photograph, as it has to be seen in person the get the full effect.

Cathode Rayograms

As a graduate student studying painting, I became interested in exploring ways of making an image without the direct use of my hand. I wanted the image to function in the way that a painting does: using abstract qualities of light, color, and shape to convey meaning. I also thought it was important to find ways of making a mark that were fully contemporary in that the process acknowledge the role of technological mediation in our lives.

As I pursued this goal in multiple ways, my studio began to look more like a laboratory and less like an artist’s workspace. I turned to photography to give me both the distance from the hand and the connection to technology I had been seeking. One body of work that came out of this investigation is the Cathode Rayograms.

CR 2002-085

detail of CR 2002-085

The images in this series are enlarged photograms, ranging in size from about 40 x 30 to 60 x 48 inches. The photograms are generated by the light a TV set emits as it is turned off. Abstract and ambiguous, yet based in the factuality of the photographic process, I am interested in the connection between the mechanical basis of the image's creation and the images’ metaphorical and psychological possibilities. This mechanical “gesture” connects our culture’s obsessive involvement with technology to what have been enduring concerns in the history of art: the nature of light as metaphor and abstraction as archetypal form.

CR 1994-005