Filmed with a high-speed video camera, James Nares’ “Street” is a completely captivating hour-long meditation on the throngs perambulating the streets of New York City. For 16 hours Nares’ camera, mounted in the side window of a van, was trained directly upon the view of sidewalk pedestrians. This particular video camera was designed to film high-speed movement such as rocket launches or explosions with the resulting footage being seen in slow motion. The use of high-speed cameras to create slow motion films can produce extraordinary, if predictable, results. In fact, a whole TV series was devoted to such footage: Discovery Channel’s “Time Warp”, whose viewers were regularly presented with slow motion videos of shaking wet dogs or bursting balloons.
Unlike the fast moving subjects filmed by the “Time Warp” program, the use of the high-speed camera to photograph pedestrian life was inspired. Movement on Manhattan sidewalks is often slow indeed and high-speed cinematography is certainly not required to record the action. And therein is the genius of this project: using slow motion cinematography to record slow movement. In this hour-long film, a streetscape of sidewalks, fire hydrants, no parking signs and storefronts glide past the camera, while the pedestrians appear to be moving extremely slowly or are almost frozen. The effect is of an endless procession of humanity passing across the screen with each figure appearing with startling three dimensionality. Sculptural friezes come to mind: figure upon figure exhibiting every imaginable pose, facial expression, and hand gesture. Some eyes look to the sky, others gaze downward or to something of in the distance. A man’s brow is furrowed, his face a rictus of suffering- or not. His expression frozen, his internal monologue is truly unknowable, but the viewer can imagine. As the camera moves relentlessly forward, new figures come into the frame as other figures pass from view. This procession of humanity is glacial, allowing our scrutiny of every body, but more to the point every face.
We viewers can stare at this spectacular array of human kind passing before our eyes, for what is more fascinating than staring at fellow New Yorkers? We can examine these faces, pondering what thoughts animate their expressions. Although the high-speed camera appears to have stopped people in mid stride, the camera records slowly changing expressions and moving eyes. In one comical interval a woman with large breasts moves across the frame while at the same time the eyes of a man sitting on a stoop behind her can be seen to follow her chest as she moves past him. The possible thoughts suggested by his gaze are few. A moment later both have vanished from our view to be replaced by other fascinating interrelationships.
The moving camera creates a few sublime moments. For an interval, the long procession of pedestrians is at a lull. Not for long: a Michelangelian index finger magically floats into view followed by the thumb and other digits, an arm, shoulder, a face and then a torso. Fixed mid gesture, a man is staring and pointing at something off camera. In another scene a young man in white tee shirt magically pops into view from behind a dark green light pole. The camera moves along with his progress for a moment until he disappears from the screen.
There are other delightful surprises: A man flicks a cigarette, the butt rapidly flies through the air in front of him, scribing an arc across the screen. Another scene shows a bumblebee flying in between statuesque figures. And in another, birds flutter and dart amongst inanimate humans.
“Street“ can be seen as a brilliant counterpoint to Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi, in which the camera was run at slow speed resulting in footage that was sped up. The film portrayed New York City as an intricate machine run amok. In Reggio’s film, the individuals are expressionless drones speeding across the screen. In “Street”, Nares’ high speed camera depicts slow emotion, offering for our scrutiny a panoply of complex facial expressions which animate the faces of pedestrians.
The selection of Ken Josephson’s photographs (circa 1960s-80s) on exhibit at Gitterman Gallery makes the case that his work furthered the genre of modernist photography pioneered by Minor White, Harry Callahan, and Aaron Siskind.
The photographs of Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind are considered by many to repesent the high point of modernist black and white photography. These artists refined the medium with their expressive, richly toned silver prints. Having both taught for years at Illinois Institute of Technology, their influence endured for several generations. Like Ray Metzker, Josephson studied at IIT, and some similarities can be seen in their work. Both made photographs of the patterns of light under Chicago’s elevated trains. In other Josephson prints, small details such as leaves or bent saplings are rendered as gleaming hightlights emerging from large areas of dark greys and blacks echoing the stark tonalities of Siskind and Callahan.
If there is one characteristic that ties all of these artists together, it is their vision for transformative qualities of black and white photography. Instead of making photographs to faithfully describe subject matter, these artists see the expressive potential of film for making subtle abstractions. With sensitive observation and superb technique, Josephson has built upon these traditions. Take Chicago, 1962: A glowing white bow bisects a rectangle of deep black. With close inspection, the viewer can make out the contour of a hip and an elbow and then realize that what looks like a very reductive line drawing is actually the back of a person wearing an apron.
Stockholm, 1967 is another example of Josephson’s sensitively tuned powers of observation. The distinctive contour of a hump backed Volvo B18 is magically duplicated in white on the roadway in the photo’s foreground. It’s as if the tones of the car’s shadow (which would normally render in dark grey) were printed as a negative. But it’s more clever than some kind of technical manipulation, Josephson simply noticed that a dusting of snow on the roadway had, in effect, become a giant photogram. Likely made soon after the sun emerged from a light snow shower, the pavement warmed by the sun is clear, while the snow shaded by the car’s shadow remains on the ground outlining the contour of the car.
Josephson also adds a playful and experimental attitude to his photograph– as when he drops 4×5” Polaroid prints into the photograph. One such print of denuded trees lays upon the leaf strewn forest floor. Another print depicting the magnificent crown of a tree lays upon a newly sawn tree stump, creating a momento mori.
This practice was explored in a half dozen works hanging at the gallery, with the most sophisticated being Chicago, 1970. The photograph initially appears to be of gravel taken directly overhead. Within the image of gravel there are what appear to be two frames with gravel contained within. It’s quite perplexing; one struggles to make out just what this is– a mirror like those that Robert Smithson placed in the landscape or are these photograph of rocks?
Further examination of Chicago, 1970 reveals that within one of the frames is another frame, and within the other frame are two frames, both cluttered with heavy gravel stones. It soon becomes apparent that within these frames are three areas where the tones are reversed. It’s an enigma that the artist created by photographing the rocks with an 8×10” view camera, using printing paper instead of film. Processing that paper negative produced a life sized image of the stones rendered as a negative. That print was centrally placed on the gravel, rephotographed using another paper negative, yielding an image of both negative and positive renderings of the gravel. In turn, this print was placed flat on the gravel adjacent to the the first print which appears to be propped up perpendicular to the ground. Finally the two prints were photographed to produce this confounding image.
Josephson’s explorations of a “frame within a frame” can also be seen in Illinois, 1970, a conventional photograph of a wall covered with asphalt siding. The regular Mondrian-like grid pattern is set off by haphazardly placed patches of dissimilar materials. In a related image, a disembodied hand reaches into the frame placing a white card behind a insect ravaged leaf. The card, in effect, frames and isolates the leaf from the larger background of the forest floor.
There is an abundance of stimulating images to contemplate in this show. Josephson’s work reminds us of a time when photographers showing outside of art galleries were artists nonetheless. A time when a photograph was more than a document. A time before appropriation, a time before identity based art, and a time before colossal color prints. In their time these practitioners saw photographs as another form of print making where the medium could be exploited for expressive and abstractive results. Modest in size and jewel like in intensity, Josephson’s prints demonstrate a vision particular to this artist and to this period of photography.
As an artist, I’d like to think that I’m forward thinking enough to accept the many forms and ideas of contemporary art. However, upon walking into Eric Doeringer’s exhibit at Mulherin&Pollard my immediate thought was, “How could this hollow notion be served up again: an art work that is a copy of someone else’s work?
In this case, the artist has copied art that was already a copy of an artwork. A copy of a copy. Among other works, Doeringer’s was presenting his copies of Richard Prince copies of Marlboro cigarette advertisements. It’s the same conceit we saw for the first time in Sherrie Levine’s earliest work, but taken to the next level: if making a copy of art is art, then copying the copy could make another artwork. In a jocular moment, I had the same idea several years ago when viewing “After Rodchenko,” a work “by” Sherrie Levine, which was under consideration for purchase by a museum’s photography committee. In support of this possible purchase, the curator’s presentation pointed out the historical significance of these early appropriated works. Moreover, because the museum had not purchased the work when the prices were lower, she urged the group to buy the work at $80,000.00, before the work became even more expensive. As the group gathered around to examine Levine’s copies of 9 Rodchenko, I took out my pocket digital camera, and after photographing all the images, I mischievously quipped that I would provide copies of the copies for significantly less than $80K.
As I wrote in a previous blog entry, I find little interest in appropriative photography. While I can well appreciate the use of recycled elements of one art to make another art, presenting a direct copy of an artwork as an artwork is one of those art world ideas that seems like a joke to all but art world insiders. Observing the wealthy photography committee members toting their Hermes Kelly Bags, I couldn’t help thinking: Surely they would never purchase a knock off Hermes on Canal Street. Aside from the conceptual rubric, what is the difference between a copy of an artwork and the copy of a handbag?
As the gallery tells it, “(Doeringer’s) works in this exhibition are all based on pieces originally made by other artists. Doeringer chose to remake these artworks because the originals raise questions of authorship, authenticity, ownership, and the importance of the “hand” of the artist. The artist sees his works as extensions of the earlier works, building upon the conundrums they originally created.” 30 years on, the appropriation gambit, like the press release quote, has become academic. By now, I’d like to think that the art world would move on to newly invented movements. For some, the notion still satisfies: Ken Johnson of the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Doeringer is a late comer to the art-about-art game, a follower in the footsteps of Richard Pettibone and Sherrie Levine. His distinction is his focus is not on canonical works of Modernism but on famous conceptualist pieces that are themselves about art. He is a meta-meta artist.” We can only look forward to a future article praising the artist who replicates Doeringer’s oeuvre.
Not wanting to dismiss an artist based on the impressions of one show, I turned to Doeringer’s website and was amused by a number of the works found there. There is a playful quality in some of his efforts (his satirical Cremaster Fanatic site is very funny), but the “art-about-art game” has become a regular pursuit of graduate students. Of the various projects found on his site, I think one in particular lets us know where the bar has been set: “The Shit Stream.” The artist characterizes this series as “a blog documenting all of my bowel movements…. I was…interested in the idea that feces is like a little sculpture that we create every day.”
This is no more original than any of Doeringer’s other ideas. In Jules Feiffer’s 1967 darkly satirical play “Little Murders,” the main character [played in the movie version by Elliot Gould] is a photographer who takes pictures of shit. Feiffer was pointing out the art world will elevate just about anything into the high realm of Art, a barbed point which is just as true today as it was a half century ago.
Appropriative photography received the art world sanction in the late 1970s when works by Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince were shown for first time in galleries.
Anyone reading this knows that the use of images sourced from newspapers and magazines has long been a tenet of art. Marcel Duchamp is generally credited as the first artist to present as an art object ordinary manufactured objects. Calling things that he selected and signed “Readymades,” Duchamp tweaked the art establishment of his day by titling a urinal as “Fountain” and signing it with the pseudonymous R. Mutt.
As surprising as the notion of the “ready made” may have in its time, the aesthetic qualities of the chosen objects were sometimes quite manifest in their given forms. Although an assault on good taste, the shape of a urinal is not so shocking as a modernist form, and, presented in an art gallery, this object, unlike many other appropriated elements in art, was actually recontextualized. Although Duchamp claimed to have no interest in the visual form of art, back then, it was possible to see a urinal or a bottle rack as sculptural forms. Because of the functional aspect of these objects and the startling concept they posed at the time, these artworks simultaneously posed and answered the question of recontextualization: Could an ordinary object be seen as an art object? Presented as an object, within a gallery, yes, it can be seen as an art object.” Later, Warhol’s outright reuse of newspaper clippings and commercial imagery to make his paintings along with the comic book imagery of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings furthered the idea that the visual elements of an artwork did not have to originate with the artist.
So, seeing the work of Levine and Prince for the first time, I thought it easy to see it as a reprise of pop art sensibilities. Regarding their work, I’m not going to get very far arguing against an article of accepted faith. Widely exhibited in museums and acquired by powerful collectors, Levine and Prince’s work has been an inspiration to legions of artists. But the questioning of originality that is raised by Levine and Prince’s appropriated photographs is not particularly deep. Simply put, it goes to the idea, “Are there any truly original ideas in art?” Is this a question that really needs much thought? The problem with this question is that it can be answered in a few sentences. I am well aware that thousands of pages have been written about mediation and simulacra and other post modern jargon. For some it makes for good reading, and for others it’s the pro forma of many a gallery press release. To my mind, making art with the rationale that “there are no original ideas, so why not simply present a copy of another artwork?” can be expressed with the making of just one work. Take a photograph of another photograph and frame it- done. Is the idea further explicated by repeating the exercise of copying other works?
All of these thoughts were stimulated after visiting the Douglas Rickard exhibit at Yossi Milo. Born in 1968, Rickard could be seen as the progeny of Levine and Prince had they produced a child together. Similar to Prince’s early work which were copied from the pages of magazines he perused when working for Time Life Publications, Rickard finds his imagery at one source, Google Street View. The gallery press release describes his methodology: “Rickard took advantage of Google’s massive image archive to virtually explore the roads of America…. After locating and composing scenes of urban and rural decay, Rickard re-photographed the images on his computer screen with a tripod- mounted camera…”
On the first count, the work conforms to Post Modern orthodoxy:his subject is mediated rather than actual. The work also conforms to established traditions of straight documentary photography as pointed out by the press release: “Rickard’s work evokes a connection to the tradition of American street photography, with knowing (italics mine) references to Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore.”
Here, I think, are a few question that have unwittingly been raised by the project:
If a camera mounted on a car can automatically make works so similar to those made by the masters of documentary photography, what does that tell us about the documentary practice? Is there an audience already primed with an interest in “forgotten, economically devastated, and largely abandoned places.” As Shore followed Evans, so too, do many photographers still roam America, searching for ramshackle buildings and dusty roads. For us living in more refined locales this kind of imagery is at once strange and familiar. Such works have become canonical art photographs. By panning through the endless panorama comprising Google Street view, Rickard has picked out photographs that conform to what have become the clichés of documentary photography.
Is Doug Rickard making art or acting as a curator of found art? Is this practice of selecting these images akin to the collector of unusual vintage snap shots found at flea markets? Connoisseurs of found photographs have indeed managed to find extraordinary images that have accidentally achieved some ineffable power. It has long been known that the camera can make a compelling image as much by mistake as by deliberation. Rickard has certainly chosen well and these images generate interest in that the images have the look of documentary art photography.
At first viewing, the project seems like a clever idea: “Mining” Google Street view for art. But somehow it quickly becomes formulaic. “Knowing” references, connections to the tradition of American Street photography and appropriation, add water, stir, voila- a recipe for today’s art.
Barney Kulok’s new photographs ably straddle the two camps in which the medium finds itself these days:
- Photography seen at art galleries- created by artists using photography.
- Photography as seen at photography galleries- created by photographers.
The distinctions between the camps are in many cases fluid, and one can find documentary, straight photography in both precincts. Kulok’s crisp, tonally brilliant black and white prints hearken back to the kind of issues explored by the great modernist photographers- say Minor White or Aaron Siskind. Although their photographs, when first made, were not seen in art galleries, their works were both respected by and influential to abstract painters that were practicing in the day. To this day, though, the finely made black and white print is usually found at photography galleries and these works typically follow the traditions and conventions of black and white photography- typically nudes, landscapes or documentary works.
Kulok’s work continues the kind of photography that demonstrates a particular way of seeing. By that, I mean, a photographer whose investigations reveal the hidden within the visible. Not so much overturning a stone to reveal what is beneath, but for seeing the stone as no one else has seen it. And Kulok has literally photographed stone in his own way. Working at the construction site of the Lois Kahn’s Four Freedoms’ Park on Roosevelt Island, Kulok has made striking, formally rigorous images of architectural granite
The stark contrasts of traditional black and white photography are employed by Kulok to render his selected elements as reductive compositions. For example a cube of granite poised caddy corner on the demarcation between light and dark that neatly bisects the image. With sensitivity to the expressive qualities of black and white silver print imagery, Kulok sees that light can transform the insignificant. A brick hanging from a string as an improvised plumb bob, when seen in the full color of our vision, would likely have drawn little notice that day. Encapsulated by Kulok’s photograph, the sunlit brick intensely glows in contrast to the shadowed wall it hangs against. With bold shadows and highlights, Hammer and Chisel, avoids the preciousness of a still life composition about humble worker’s tools. To my eyes, Kulok’s pared down and reductive images are more successful than those with greater detail. Images with more content become more descriptive and less transcendent. The subject of “Corner” could not be any more insignificant: an L shaped piece of plastic perforated with six holes set upon a granite surface. Photographed as found, the image demonstrates how photography can elevate the mundane. When rendered in rich black and white tones, substance and shadow invert and the dark grey silhouette cast on the granite creates the illusion of a sheet of dark grey paper bent into a ‘v’ formation floating in space. It’s a puzzling illusion that refers more to painted space than photographed space.
In addition to noticing the subtle, Kulok’s admixture of minimalist sensibilities with black and white photography assures the relevance of his work to the precincts of art galleries. These conceptual underpinnings find little currency in photography galleries, where outside of the work of Ray Metzker (see blog) such minimal imagery is seldom seen.
Mark Grotjahn: Nine Faces was one of the more memorable painting shows I saw last year, so I was certainly eager to see another Grotjahn exhibit. But arriving at the top floor of Gagosian was disappointing.
Presented on chest high pedestals was an array of what appeared to be crudely fashioned masks of corrugated cartons made by an art class of six year olds. Knowing that they were made by an adult and fashioned of bronze would of course invite more consideration, but aside from the verisimilitude that the cast metal and finish had to actual cardboard and paint, what was the point? All of the works were of similar scale, and while the colors were applied with thick impasto and requisite expressive gusto, the paint seemed to lack the qualities evident in Grotjahn’s works on canvas. At the lower level gallery was another selection of comparable works except that when illuminated by the large skylight, these had a vivid intensity beyond what could be seen under gallery lights alone.
The problem I found in all of the works was that they did not seem to justify the effort. Simulating cardboard with cast bronze doesn’t have much of the transformative frisson that it might have had 30 or 40 years earlier. There was also little satisfaction from circling these objects. Trying to read the painted surfaces left me feeling only the color and gesture. As three dimensional constructs, there was no relationship to the space in which they sat and little spatial interest generated within.
For the most part, the paint remained flat, lacking the velocity and depth of Grotjahn’s canvases. The title of his 2011 show at Anton Kern Gallery, “Nine Faces” invites comparison, if just for the titular implications. The much larger surfaces on his paintings with their muscle like striations and intense colors propelled the eye over the entire canvas. In the gallery press release, the painter, Carroll Dunham, was able to characterize the work of “Nine Faces” far better than I might:
“[They] are readable to varying degrees from painting to painting in the torrents of colored lines that are the basic unit of activity. […] They weave complex spaces that may really be the subject of the work. Faces are the nominal subject, but the lines seem to pass around and through them, almost as though the faces are already physically present and the lines cascade over them like fast water over rocks, revealing their contours by inference.”
In contrast, the Mask Sculptures seem unable to transcend their nominal subject matter.
Part 4. My afternoon on 57th St. got me to thinking: In art, one can ask, “at what point does the art breaks free from the baseline character of technique?” “What is it that makes one painting an illustration and another art?” I would imagine that the question “is it art?” would not have been asked of prior to the advent of photography. Before photography, only artists could render images. Then came photography and suddenly artists were asking of this machine, which could easily do their laborious work, “Is photography art?” (Many in the 19th century thought not.)
Prior to the marketing of roll film, the technical demands and operational costs of the photography limited its practice to a relative few professionals and serious amateurs. As roll film cameras became more popular, more people could make photographs. From those cameras came a wide range of photographic results: from impulsive, carelessly made “snap shots”of family members and travel to more deliberate, carefully crafted, technically skilled prints.
Those who purchased sophisticated equipment and were ready to devote time, effort and expense might master the techniques and at the very least produce superior quality photographs to those using basic cameras. For some the expertly made photograph might be accorded respect over the ineptly made photograph, but of course technique alone does not make art. More often, though, the many undistinguished images from 150 years of photographic practice may have been equally the results of poor technique and aesthetic failings, whatever they might be. The sophistication of cameras is now so advanced that smart phones can easily produce vivid high quality images under all manner of technically challenging circumstances. As a result, many more individuals are making many more photographs. In addition, there are all sorts of filters to make images more “artistic” by using APPS such as Hipstamatic. As painters asked, “is photography art,” so long ago, today, with the ubiquity of digital cameras, the question arises, “Are all of these photographs, being made with so many cameras, art?”
Are photographs of unfamiliar scenes art, simply because they describe that which we haven’t seen with our own eyes? For example, are the extraordinary photographs taken on Mars by Curiosity Rover art or are they technical reports conveying only the nature of the Martian Landscape as seen in the way characteristic of its camera? That photographic hardware has evolved to the degree that it no longer needs human control to make imagery suggests that human judgment will be very necessary for distinctive results.
Getting back to the artists that prompted these musings: In the shows of Metzker, Mann and Sheikh, their choice of technique and the particular way in which they use it can clearly be seen to have been integrated by their art. Their techniques were hard won. But difficulty does not automatically elevate one’s efforts to art. Fazal Sheikh makes digital prints- a simple technique, but the results are richly engaging images. The conscious decisions that these artists make are clearly manifest in their results. It’s great art when the artist’s sensibility takes primacy over technique and their art reveals a particular vision.