Surfaces: Review of Chisel and The Ubiquitous Image at NYPH
Deer Beds, Katherine Wolkoff in “Chisel”
“Chisel”, one of the four main exhibitions at the New York Photo Festival, presents contemporary photography that “converses with painters and sculptors”. The curator Kathy Ryan, who is the photo editor of the New York Times Magazine, has assembled several groups of pictures that reference, resound with, or resemble techniques and tropes used in painting and sculpture, in particular referencing surrealism and expressionism. All of the photographers in this exhibition have been published in the NYT Magazine, and walking through the gallery, I get the sense that Ryan has enjoyed this opportunity to foreground these works as art that produces visceral aesthetic reactions, untethered to publication/ design/ journalistic mandates or obligations.
Ryan’s approach is anecdotal rather than comprehensive, circumstantial rather than systematic. Horacio Salinas’ large high contrast prints of blown out tires against stark white backgrounds look like swaths of black paint, reminiscent of the work of Bernard Cohen or Franz Kline in the 1950s. Roger Ballen’s tense dream-like images are made powerful by the dense layering of gestures and lines; Cy Twombly is frequently invoked when Ballen is discussed. Katherine Wolkoff’s deer beds are simultaneously explorations of texture and volume, both working in contradiction to the smooth contained surfaces of the prints. Stephen Gill’s found discarded betting slips, A Series of Disappointments, are photographed in a way that highlights their crumpled mass and suggest Duchamp’s readymades.
Simon Norfolk’s project about rocket launches stands out in this group. First, the content of the pictures really matter- Norfolk’s work marries the political and the aesthetic. This marriage lives in the contradictions between the awesome images of missile flight and the pictures of banal environments, where missiles and what they do are explained and where Norfolk describes them as part of an institutional legacy.
Simon Norfolk discusses his work at NYPH
Second, the materiality of the pictures themselves matters. Before seeing the exhibition, I had inferred, from the description, that the show would be in some way about the plasticity of photographic prints, and was expecting to see Stephen Gill’s Buried series, in which unique photographs were buried and recovered, the scratches and moisture on their surfaces producing striking visual effects. I was wrong; despite being a meditation on the material characteristics of painting and sculpture as media, all of the work shown in “Chisel” is unapologetically flat.
But two of Norfolk’s pictures reference Barnet Newman’s Zip paintings, in which the image of a rocket launching is presented as a horizontal diptych, the beautiful arc of flight interrupted by a space between the prints. The space of the wall itself is the feature that organizes the meaningful space of the photograph, heavens above and earth below. By making the space between pictures part of the piece, by drawing attention to the physicality of the prints, the photographs become significant as objects..
The other group that stands out for me is Lars Tunbjork’s work which appears to be in dialogue with Walker Evans and Stephen Shore (both photographers influenced by other media), and much in between and after, but which gathers its energy from Tunbjork’s own insistent looking at his environment.
Photographs have borrowed strategies from the plastic arts for a long time. What does it mean for these pictures to reference painting or sculpture? As a group, this exhibit offers a number of discrete conversations about similar themes but at the end of the day, none of the pictures are only or necessarily “about” painting or sculpture. Their grouping here is by virtue of a series of parallel but unrelated conversations. They may be speaking to or about other media, but they are not speaking to one another. While there is a pleasant looseness to this exhibit that allows for the works to share a space, I found myself looking for a more rigorous overall argument. As contemporary art photography of the present day, they are different responses to similar questions. But by drawing attention to the ways that they speak to the past, the patterns of the present become harder to discern.
Group Descending (2007), Curtis Mann in “The Ubiquitous Image”
“The Ubiquitous Image” occupies a unique position among the four curated shows at NYPH. The work is conceptual and sits squarely in the art world, and there is no suggestion of a desire to document in any traditional authored sense. Of all the pieces, only Claudia Angelmaier’s pictures of illustrations in books and the back of a postcard are photographs made in camera by the artist. The images are cropped, cut, photoshopped, remixed, remade, and remodeled with a free hand, but at the core of the exhibit is an acknowledgement that what makes photographic images “useful,” knowable and manageable is the careful, regular management of how they appear and circulate. The pieces in this show suggest that this kind of managed context is very fragile, that pictures have enormous power that can be unleashed by changing the rules by which they circulate or are seen. The exhibition, curated by Lesley Martin, who is the publisher of Aperture’s book program, attends to the interplay between photography as a way that a society makes sense of itself, and the need to question the kinds of sense that photographs make.
The exhibit is dominated by three works by Penelope Umbrico not only because they are large pieces but also because they immediately and articulately raise issues that are then echoed and developed through the rest of the show. Umbrico’s Suns from Flickr, Tvs, and Views from the Internet, all reorganize the patterns and routes through which we expect to see certain kinds of images. Views from the Internet consists of idealized views through windows onto gardens and forests found online, in which the views have been cut out of the window frames and fixed to the windows of the gallery. Tvs similarly separates the television screen from the television set; the array of disembodied screens were all excised from televisions on sale on classified advertising website Craigslist. (Umbrico is selling each original print for the same price as the television was sold for in the ad.) Suns from Flickr is a 40 foot long wall of 4 x 6 inch prints of sunsets found on Flickr. The repetition of similar images reinforces the banality of the cliché even as the wall is beautiful and intense.
By subtracting text from advertisements directed towards African American consumers, Hank Willis Thomas allows the pictures to take on an insidious tone. Similarly, Curtis Mann’s bleached found photographs are tense landscapes in which small pockets of detail are isolated in a sea of white, the photographic field interrupted by non-space. The power of both artists’ works is in the recognition that a comforting familiarity that should be there has been lost, that a picture has been made unknowable.
Natalie Czech creates collages that have a similar, if more delirious effect by multiplying the familiar. Air Show, Win or Lose, and Sea of Flowers are digitally produced, seamlessly blended collages of images from newspapers of air shows, sports celebrations, and memorial wreaths, respectively. Across the Universe is a series of densely combined messages lifted from protest rally posters. Robert Bowen’s postcards are surreal mash-ups of mid-twentieth century American postcards. Also on display are copies of Useful Photography, the book series of themed found images drawn from everyday life: missing persons photos, amateur pictures used for online ads, etc.
Across the Universe (2005), Natalie Czech in “The Ubiquitous Image”
These projects offer both answers and questions; they are both situated social critiques and explorations of photography as social practice. Like the “Various Photographs” exhibition, they acknowledge a volume and variety of imagery, and the importance of new media in creating new photographic practices. But where the pictures that Barber has chosen are formal, deliberate, and often intentionally surreal or mysterious, the pictures that have been appropriated for the works in “The Ubiquitous Image” begin as mundane and are charged with possibility by stripping them from their context. Like the “New Typologies” these works represent an artistic experiment through which the artist picks apart the subject, isolating and delineating it in order to make sense of it. The subjects of “New Typologies” are people and things in the world, and the subjects of this show are pictures in the world. The manipulations employed are mostly digital, but the effect, especially of work such as Czech’s is (as in the work shown in “Chisel)” to allow the photograph to evoke other media while preserving its “photo-ness”.