Friday, December 10, 2010

Between Here and There: Passages in Contemporary Photography

One of photography's inherent and historical objectives has been to capture a slice of time and give it to us as proof of some sort of true, tangible existence. But how fixed is that existence, and can the photographs we've used as evidence of physical actuality work as a contradiction to this singular reality? This is not a new idea, but it's an idea explored in the show "Between Here and There: Passages in Contemporary Photography" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show attempts to convey the themes of dislocation and displacement in photography after the 1960s and brings together artists whose work demonstrates objects and people transcending singular moments of time and space and suggests a more complex idea of how things move in the world.

Black and white photographs from the 60s and 70s compose the majority of the first half of the show: a conversation via satellite television with President John F. Kennedy sitting in an armchair staring at the head of Ronald Reagan in a television screen, an eerie crop circle from Ireland and a 25-foot panorama of rolling negative-sized pictures detailing every building on the Sunset Strip are a few of the pieces.

In the center of the entrance space is On Kawara's 'I Got Up' (1970.) The work is a collection of 47 postcards stamped with the date, time and location from where Kawara "got up" that day. The pictures on the postcards are an assortment of images of Manhattan and are sent from various addresses and stamped with different times, so what seems like unvaried content on the surface is actually very manifold. The process however does seem obsessive, as if the artist is desperate to prove, to his friend, to himself, and to us, his existence in space. Kawara communicates he's alive and transcending geographic locations. A lot of Kawara's work has this existentialist theme of needing to impart the reality of his being; every post he's made on Twitter notes: "I AM STILL ALIVE #art." The machine-like routine it took to create this work, which in totality spans eleven years, gives way to a reflection about time and our shifts among it.

A large photograph of a mosquito trapped under a glass piercing pinkish flesh catches the eye with its seemingly unfitting abnormality among the other pieces. White text on a black background reads, "The mosquito is filling its body with material lying below the surface on which it stands. It then becomes airborne, thus creating a material displacement. The blood now conforms to the interior configuration of an insect, thereby placing part of you in a state of aerial displacement." This work, 'Material Interchange for Joe Stranard' (1970) by Dennis Oppenheim, allows you to imagine your blood, your DNA, floating above your physical body in the belly of a mosquito. Part of you has merged with the insides of an insect that's buzzed off to explore other parts of the world; part of you has been displaced. There is this thought that not only do we occupy the physical space we're in, but bits and pieces of us are left behind, are taken away, and move throughout the world without us even realizing.

The second half of the show displays work from more recent artists, those from the 80s and forward. An instant black and white photo by Felix Gonzalez-Torres shows a pure white sky, a body of water and the suggestion of mountains obscured by a chain-link fence and strings of barbed wire, implying a bodily inability to reach a desired area. Toward the back of the room, a large photograph by Doug Aitken taken from the window of an airplane, shows us a grape-blue sky topped with an orange band of sunrise pushing the dusk away. The bottom of the photo depicts the airplane's engine and far off in the distance, a tiny airplane suspended amid the misty expanse of sky. The photo invites a sort of self-reflection in identifying with the diminutive size of the opposite aircraft knowing you look the same from the other end.

Fitting very nicely amid the show's concepts of movement and inquiries into physical possibilities are Rineke Dijkstra's six large portraits of a Bosnian refugee named Almerisa. The works show the progression of a detached little girl's transition to adolescence over eight years. The succession of portraits begins with 6-year-old Almerisa in an oversized plaid uniform, a floppy bow under her neck and clashing turquoise socks. She sits on a red plastic chair with bowed shoes dangling above the floor and her hands quietly placed on her knees. There's a sincere indifference to her stare, which pervades among the photos. Two years later, in the next photo, she's on an upholstered dinner chair wearing a yellow summer dress. This time she attempts a smile, but there's fatigue yielded from her attempt and her indifference transcends. The portraits impart minute details of expression and emotion undergoing slight alterations over time. All photos have a sparse background showing an electrical outlet or the corner of a rug, but overall, Almerisa and her disposition dominate the composition. After the third photo when Almerisa enters adolescence, her nails bare traces of silver polish and her lips sparkle, but the innocent animation prevalent in most youth is still absent. The sequence of photos document a definite change in the physicality of this young girl, but the nature of her temperament seems to sway from a more rooted domain.

For such stimulating ideas concerning movement, geography, spatial inquiries and somewhat fantastical conceptions about time and transcendence of space, 'Between Here and There' proves an unimaginative label for the pool of work. Not only has the method of showing photos moved beyond the traditional single photograph hung on a museum wall, but has also moved beyond its role of conveying a strict reality. This exhibit shows how contemporary photography has evolved into a multitude of forms and entered the realm of conceptualism.

Adrian Piper at Elizabeth Dee

Past Time: Selected Works 1973-1995, the two-decade survey of work by American Conceptual artist Adrian Piper, is currently on view at Elizabeth Dee. In this exhibition, Piper's work shows an incredible breadth of imagery with rarely viewed photo-text installations, sculptures and videos. Featuring some of her most confrontational images, the work seen here is gripping, focusing on her uncompromising political output during those twenty years.

As an African American female artist, working in a predominately white male art field, she looks at black history in the United States for much of her work. Motivated often by current news stories, Piper’s artistic pursuits are often associated with themes of race and racism. During the late 1960s she began combining Minimalist sculpture with deeply rooted political issues—race, gender and identity. Her developments, which were considered nontraditional at the time, gave way to the incorporation of political content in conceptual art. Piper’s influence on younger generations of artists is immeasurable. Contemporary artists, such as Mickalene Thomas, are the inheritors of Piper’s developments particularly the incorporation of gender and race into traditional art forms.

Piper uses permutation and seriation to investigate the themes of her work. By looking into the configurative possibilities of her images the variety of potential perceptions derived from her imagery can be better understood. This method of working, which also was nontraditional at the time, most likely came from her study of philosophy; Piper is also an analytic philosopher. The combination of art and philosophy, seen in her later work, resulted in a reconsideration of the defining limits of individuals often already established by uncontrollable variables like race and sex.

One of the earliest pieces in the exhibition, Mythic Being, 1973, shows Piper walking through Cambridge, Masssachusetts and New York City repeating a passage from her journal while wearing an Afro wig and a mustache. She takes on the identity of a black male and discards her identity as a young woman.

This is Not the Documentation of a Performance, 1976, is a newspaper article about the protest over a pending eviction of thirty Hispanic families in New York City with the headline, “Squatters Fight Eviction by Church.” Piper rephotographed the newspaper’s image with text applied to one of the demonstrator’s signs reading, “THIS IS NOT A PERFORMANCE.” A local church was trying to force the tenants out of their homes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Their intention was to tear down the existing tenements and build new high rise apartments for the elderly. The low-income residents who were picketing attended a church service there later that day. The minister, during his sermon, told the parishioners that the church was not to blame for the matter. He concluded the service with a prayer for the poor.

In the video, It’s Just Art, 1980, a dialogue is created between Piper and the viewer. Thought bubbles, superimposed by the artist, are paired with images from Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, taken from the news. One of the texts reads, “But they establish a physical intimacy between us nevertheless (hesitantly you agree wondering what this commits you to),” leaving an unsettling feeling for the viewer. This performance documentation includes fifteen black and white images with hand-lettered text and three paper collages. A video runs next to the images with circulating photos of Southeast Asian refugees. A track of Piper reading aloud a critical essay from The New York Review of Books along with Rufus and Chaka Khan singing “Do You Love What You Feel” plays with a less than serious chorus of “Do you love what you feel, Cause I love what you do to me.”

Vote/Emote, 1990, is made up of four voting cubicles with silk-screened light boxes behind window panes. Within each cubicle there is a notebook, a pen and preprinted paper on a wooden shelf. The light boxes each show a different photograph of Civil Rights protesters. Once inside the cubicle, Piper instructs the viewer to follow instructions like listing their fears. Here, the space generally reserved for democratic purposes is essentially turned into a confessional. Forgotten or eased anxieties become present and apparent again for the viewer.

The autobiographical Ashes to Ashes, 1995, stands apart from the rest of the exhibition as it is incredibly personal to Piper, telling the story of the death of her parents. Four panels—three of photographs and one of text—comprise the work. The images of her mother and father are presented with their story, which begins, “Theirs was a marriage of passion rather than convenience.” The memoir-like work adds another dimension to the politically driven exhibition.

Additionally, throughout the gallery there are large cutouts of images from the Civil Rights movement and suit and tie businessmen. Across the cutouts is the word “Forget” in a red font. The word becomes both a command and a criticism for the viewer.

Within this show it becomes clear that definite changes occurred for Piper over the twenty-plus year span covered by this exhibition. Using Minimalism in her own way, the artist moves her focus from using herself in her work, as seen with Mythic Being, to others, This is Not the Documentation of a Performance. Her later work is primarily photo-text installations which seem to implicate the viewer in the historical and cultural themes explored. Overall, Past Time: Selected Works 1973-1995 is incredibly uncompromising in its political and personal messages. The viewer is left unsettled and speculative, thinking about the social and historical injustices poignantly brought to attention by Adrian Piper.


The implementation of the mechanical photographic process in the mid-nineteenth century granted humanity its first true opportunity for self-documentation. The advent of this technology, and all of its subsequent and continual advances and innovations, has markedly altered the way in which people perceive information. Walter Benjamin, in his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” first postulated this alteration in his argument that technological advances drastically affect sensory perceptions. He purported that when humanity is represented by means of a technical object, the mechanistic method of portrayal or reproduction can contribute to underlying motifs of self-alienation. The realm of the digital age and the onset of widespread availability of the Internet have increased the use of the artistic technique of reproduction through appropriation, which in turn contributes to the collaborative and vague authorship that convolutes the sense of self. The pieces in Free, on view at the New Museum, investigate this amplified use of the virtual domain as public space in which themes of technological documentation and themes of estrangement frequently converge.

In Seizure (2006), Los Angeles-based artist Amanda Ross-Ho organizes photographs borrowed from a police website of paraphernalia confiscated during drug-related arrests. The resulting clumps of like items resemble line-ups of mass-produced goods displayed for consumer purchase. The assembled materials are presented in structured categories strikingly reminiscent of aisles of products within a department store. Ross-Ho adopts these visual records to acknowledge the reproducibility both in commodity culture and in the ease of forthright appropriation of others’ images from the countless arrays available via the Internet. Even the display table’s surface is a replica of the original: Ross-Ho photographed the surface of her studio table and placed it atop an actual table, heightening the sense of duplicity through appropriation. This easy mimicry distances the photographed objects from the viewer, creating a conflictingly remote and innocuous spread of harmful tools upon a slapdash evidence table.

The estrangement manifested in Ross-Ho’s appropriated weapons and illegal substances invokes Eugène Atget’s early twentieth century documentation of Parisian streets. Atget’s incredibly extensive representations of Paris storefronts and alleyways produced an oeuvre of copious photographs that almost reversely establish the city as an aloof, intangible place. Likewise, Ross-Ho’s catalogue of confiscated items, though arranged in a straightforward and unapologetic manner, manages to distance itself through its accumulated layering of technological replications.

Google, in a similar vein to the documentation of Atget, has initiated an immense project to produce an interactive map of the world that is navigable online. In 9 Eyes of Google Street View (2010 series), Canadian artist Jon Rafman acts as modern-day flâneur, perambulating Google’s virtual flip-book of computerized street shots in search of the rare and unintended presence of people. Google’s accidental evidences of humanity are countered with intentionally blurred visages, an ironic attempt on behalf of the corporation to protect privacy while the company simultaneously strives to make the map of the world publicly available.

As Benjamin postulated, technological accessibility and reproduction drastically change our sensory perceptions of experiencing location. Google’s corporate documentary efforts to chronicle all of humanity’s lived-spaces in order to house the two-dimensional replications within the vast network of the world wide web yield images that have the appearance of a wasteland: fugitive, fleeting photos that are accentuated by the hauntingly indistinguishable faces of the people within them. Both Atget’s and Google’s treatment of documentary subject matter is suggestive of crime scenes to be preserved through technological representation, where, in their like-minded endeavors to capture renderings of the city, their mutual lack of figural imagery somewhat alienates humanity due to its distinct absence from the recorded image.

Harking back to Benjamin’s ideas regarding mechanistic methods of portrayal, the age of technological reproduction can make actors out of the masses: individuals, in recognizing the potential to be viewed by the gads of people that comprise the Internet population, might distort or disguise themselves in this exaggerated self-awareness. With the Internet becoming a vastly expanding locale for self-exhibition, these productions of self can be multifarious and shifting, resulting in numerous replications of varying correspondence to the original.

The constant self-awareness that plays into the technologically perpetuated act of self-exhibition is epitomized in Ryan Trecartin’s and David Karps’ real-time work, (2010). This new media piece allows users to upload ten-second videos with three attributed tags of key words or phrases that reflect the video’s content. Videos with similar tag words are then connected, yielding a never-ending film of merged random clips that reads as a hurried stream of collaborative consciousness via motion-picture. The folksonomic tagging, in which the contributor can include terms of his or her choosing, creates a bizarre chain of linked clips that contain both banal domesticities and alarmingly personal revelations. Phrases like “boys pretty pretty pink” and “at my girlfriend mad” encourage users to reflect on these digital reproductions of themselves, which strengthens the marketing enterprise of the individual identity as a product to be consumed.

The advent of digital technology has initiated a societal progression into a heightened performative, exhibitionist sensibility. Benjamin’s notion of the “overwhelming, indeed annihilating, effect of new apparatuses upon the human body and its senses” is evidenced in computer technology’s gradually increasing allowance for humanity’s aloofness in regard to its own privacy. The pieces in Free accentuate the distance that is amassed through this technological and unhindered self-propulsion and its easily-produced replications. The “productive use of the human being’s self-alienation” has evolved into a culture in which people have no qualms in ubiquitous self-display via the world wide web, which has become a veritable repository for the records of an increasingly uninhibited humanity.

Does the enhanced social connectedness brought about by the Internet induce a lack of sincerity stemming from an alienated sense of self? Does documenting and appropriating the minutiae of everyday existence disconnect society from its humanity? The works in Free, building upon the relatively young history of technology’s integration with the visual arts, lead the contemporary viewer into the interminable navigation through the tunnels and mazes of online information to ponder these very relevant questions.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Charles LeDray: workworkworkworkwork

Charles LeDray’s show workworkworkworkwork at the Whitney opens with a line of miniature hats hanging high on a white wall, immediately in front of you as you exit the elevators. The hats all seem familiar, ranging from flamboyant to boring, from a cheese hat to a plain summer sun hat, from a three-cornered hat to a D.A.R.E. baseball cap. The piece is titled Village People and serves as an excellent introduction to LeDray’s work. Charles LeDray creates miniatures: tiny suits, dresses, porcelain vases, flip-flops and an orrery. His work is delightful, profound, and very compelling but it took me much thought to figure out why I connect these particular adjectives with his work.

My first thought: I find LeDray’s work fascinating for the same reason I find dollhouse furniture fascinating. But this begs two questions. One: If LeDray’s work is equivalent to dollhouse furniture, then how does it merit a show at the Whitney? And two: What is so compelling about dollhouse furniture? To answer the second question first, the final piece in the show seems most illustrative of why small-scale objects are so fascinating. The piece is titled Men’s Suits. It consists of three miniature store settings, complete with ceiling (hung from the real ceiling), tile floor, racks and clothing. The first setting looks like a backroom; it has ladders, bins, boxes, an ironing board and piles of clothes. The second is pristine: a full suit, shirt and tie adorn a dressmaker’s dummy in one corner and a table with neatly laid out ties graces the other. The final scene has a rack of suits, a rack of casual men’s shirts and a table with folded clothing on it. The scenes are at ground level with the ceilings at chest level; so you have to bend down to see the commercial ceiling (the kind where the tiles pop up). The piece both enlarges and diminishes the viewer. It made me feel superior and protective, looking down on this vulnerable world with tiny buttons on tiny suit coats on a scuffed floor. But it also made me feel vulnerable, because this was my world shown as small, trivial and cute. The scale of this work forces us to view familiar scenes from an outsider’s perspective, because we simply don’t fit.

The second fascinating facet of LeDray’s work is the process. It took me a while to come to this conclusion; I associate process-oriented work with Jackson Pollock or Andy Goldsworthy, but LeDray’s painstaking process is one of the strongest elements of his work. I picture too large thumbs and fingers working on miniscule stitches. I can’t imagine figuring out how to delicately mold porcelain into an elegant vessel as big as the thumb that shapes it. LeDray’s clothing shows the process in the stitches, but his porcelain and carved bone baffle the viewer. Wheat, is the first piece made from human bone that the viewer encounters in the exhibit. As the title implies, it is a carving of one life size (one of a few pieces that are not scaled down) shaft of wheat, about the length of a human arm bone with detail so exquisite, it seems that a real shaft of wheat has been petrified into a marble like substance.

The title of the show workworkworkworkwork (also the title of one of the pieces) suggests the importance of process. The title suggests the unending labor of humanity and the laborious task of making the objects. LeDray adds to this sense of labor/work by informing the viewer of the number of objects in a piece. The piece workworkworkworkwork is made up of “588 objects” and Milk and Honey consists of “2000 vessels.” Many of the pieces include this numeric catalog of the small objects that make up the whole piece.

Finally, to answer why it is worth the Whitney’s time, I feel that LeDray makes each piece more than just a diminution of a larger object (more than dollhouse furniture). He is an artist, not an artisan. Each piece is worth attention. Each piece has a significant meaning, narrative, and quirk that makes it worth my time, and worth the Whitney’s time.

The show includes four porcelain pieces, Milk and Honey, Oasis, Untitled and Throwing Shadows. Each piece consists of rows upon rows of tiny porcelain vessels in either a vertical glass case with shelves, or in the case of Throwing Shadows a low horizontal glass case, both similar to museum display cases. Each piece could be seen simply as a manifestation of the artist’s obsessive-compulsive desire to make thousands of tiny objects, but the pieces serve a much greater meaning, especially in conjunction with their titles. Vessels hold food and water, essentials for human existence, so shelves of thousands of vessels imply a lot of food, and a lot of work. The title Milk and Honey partially describes the milky white of all the vessels in this piece, but also is a metaphor for “plenty” used to describe the Promised Land sought by the Israelites of the Old Testament. Oasis, in which the pieces are glazed with bright colors, also implies a similar abundance of food. These pieces also speak about human history and archeology. Most of the artifacts we have from past civilizations are vessels. The “museum cases” imply a display of the history of humanity and its constant search for sustenance. Throwing Shadows particularly recalls this meaning. While the title refers to the act of “throwing” on a potter’s wheel and to the color of the pieces (black), it also refers to the “shadows” that humans leave behind: their vessels.

Other pieces are less weighty and more witty. Lace/Underwear consists of a framed piece of blue fabric with dainty lace embroidered to it, under which is attached a tine pare of men’s briefs. The contrast is humorous, but upon contemplation we realize that the underwear probably took as long to make and is no less intricate than the lace. LeDray’s work brings into perspective the habits of humanity: the styles of clothing, the things we find pretty and the artifacts we choose to remember.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Charles LeDray: workworkworkworkwork At the Whitney Museum of American Art (Nov. 2010 - Feb. 2011)

workworkworkworkwork is a retrospective exhibition that brings together numerous bodies of work by New York artist Charles LeDray. Master miniaturist, LeDray, has spent the last two decades creating an arsenal of intricately crafted, everyday objects on a very small scale. The title of the show refers to an earlier project. In 1991, after creating a trove of handmade miniature items like clothing, magazines, books and many other household items, LeDray displayed the work on a Manhattan sidewalk. He presented the items randomly, like someone’s possessions in a sidewalk sale. The work on view at the Whitney Museum also includes hand-stitched clothing, paperback books, and daily objects, as well as wheel-thrown tiny ceramics and meticulously carved human bone sculptures such as buttons or furniture. The feature presentation of the exhibition is the artist’s most recent work, Men’s Suits, (2006-2009), an installation of three vignettes of second hand shops.

Upon entry into the exhibition the viewer confronts Village People (2003-2006), little hats of all kinds lining the length of the wall, high above eye level. All kinds of hats in miniature are represented such as the sombrero, cowboy, safari, or Indian headdress. These hats obviously refer to the different roles we play in our lives. Our identities become presented through such roles, developed through our professions, interests, or responsibilities.

Not all, but most of LeDray’s works are experiments with men’s clothing. Lining the gallery walls are miniature outfits, suits, and uniforms, tailored to perfection. But this is not a fashion show. Surprisingly, LeDray never had formal training. He learned to sew from his mother as a child. The work he creates is scaled down, perhaps so the objects are not mistaken for commodities, but are subjects for introspection. The clothing we wear is the way in which we present and protects ourselves in the world. These works serve as substitutes for human presence, almost breathing on their own. Clothes that have been through life do not stay pristine. LeDray’s articles of clothing show such signs of life as tatters, stains, holes, missing buttons, and patched denim. Much of the work is quite literal, while other clothes are wittily or humorously abstracted or altered.

The series Men’s Suits (2006-2009), is a presentation of three small-scale scenes of second-hand clothing shops. One scene presents what looks like the back room of a store with hangers, laundry bags, a ladder and piles of clothes in disarray. The second is a public second hand or vintage shop, fully stocked, with coats, jackets, pants, shirts, gloves, belts and more. The third is a specialty section of a men’s shop, featuring an array of tiny ties, each a different pattern, from paisley to plaid. For this project LeDray spent three years painstakingly hand sewing miniature suits, shirts, and accessories, as well as crafting furniture, clothes hangers, laundry bags and shopping carts. The work is astounding in its realism. The miniature adult clothes are small - too small for any real person to wear - but they are not so small to seem like toys. The fabrics are not cheap and flimsy like doll’s clothes. One can tell that the materials have been carefully chosen, cut from real clothes. Small and wonderful, the work is delightful, but not necessarily cute. Blue jeans and jackets look worn, as if real life had been carried out in them. The vignettes are startlingly believable, causing a suspension of disbelief. One wonders about the lives of people who might have worn these clothes or who might choose to purchase them. This sensation is reminiscent of visiting preserved historical places, such as Versailles, Monticello, or the Anne Frank house, as they manage to transport the viewer to the environment and give a realistic sense of the lives that were lived there. This sensation, however, is momentary. The viewer is not completely enveloped, but towers above the scenes. One quickly returns to reality and the vignettes begin to feel like oversized dioramas.

These installations give an eerie perspective into human experience and our everyday lives. First, the scale (about one–third the scale of actual life) evokes the loneliness of knowing how small our lives are in comparison to the immensity of the universe. Second, one cannot help but feel a sense of futility. These coats, gloves, pants and collared shirts are so perfectly made, but no one will ever actually get the pleasure of wearing them. One thinks of the hours spent toiling away - planning, cutting, folding, ironing, and stitching…stitching…stitching. It brings to mind the hours and hours we all spend at work, or school, or on hobbies or projects - the labors of love and necessity. But when a task is complete, then what? It’s done – on to the next thing. One cannot help but sometimes wonder, what is it all for?

Wonder and disbelief are heightened when viewing Charles LeDray’s intricate ceramics. Presented in 6-7 ft. tall multi-tiered vitrines Throwing Shadows and Milk and Honey show thousands of delicate, porcelain vessels. The shapes of the vessels vary greatly and no form is spared. There are amphoras, urns, decanters, carafes, jugs, bowls, etc. One wonders what these tiny containers hold. Are they vessels for the hopes and dreams of the living or little reliquaries for something lost?

Lastly, there are the sculptures, such as an ivory finger bone with a gold wedding band or stacked furniture, carved from human bone. Again these inspire feelings of loss or futility. These types of objects may be the most morbid in his oeuvre, yet they do not fail to fascinate.

Witty and humorous, though often melancholy, the work is a delight. Though we are mortal, the gift of life is for living. Each person finds meaning in their own way, through how they choose to live and spend their time. One must do something to keep busy and Charles LeDray’s hands have not been idle. He has created an entire tiny universe of objects that manages to give grand insight into real human experience.