Wolfgang Tillmans Instagram?

Is it just me? Try as I might, I just don’t see the genius that is uniformly attributed to the work of Wolfgang Tillmans. In an online search, I thought I might find a dissenting opinion- none were to be found. So here are mine.

Considering the entirety of his installations, I can recognize the artist’s rejection of the conventions of gallery photograph shows ,i.e., framed prints of uniform sizes. This show appears to adopt what has become another gallery convention, that of contemporary installation art. At its most successful, installation art fills a space with purposely selected and placed objects that direct viewers’ vision to the whole gallery environment as the work rather than to individual objects to be appreciated separately. At worst, an artist densely packs the gallery floor with a jumble of objects, the result: reverse synergy where the sum of the parts is less than the whole. With its motley assortment of variously sized prints, some framed some not, and of no consistent subject matter, a Tillmans’ show is very much in this vein. Respecting the adage about consistency and little minds, I’ll let that go, but what is lacking in Tillmans’ work is the connective tissue, the individual sensibility that a visual artist imprints upon their work. How does one know that an artist has anything to say if the oeuvre shows no particular vision?plantimage from http://tillmans.co.uk/

Cameras can faithfully record that which is in front of their lenses, and by virtue of their ubiquity, are going to generate infinitely varied, yet basically descriptive photographs. Cell phone cameras can now make photographs with quality comparable to that of the most technically accomplished and expensively equipped photographer.

Now consider the trope, photography is a language. Spoken language, intelligible to virtually every human for perhaps 60,000 years is rarely the stuff of poetry and literature. By one estimate there are 2.5 billion cameras capable of making technically sufficient images. With assured results and cost free, there are no constraints against making photographs of every g-d thing. The subjects: selfies, genitalia, cats, parties, pranks and the tragedies of war. As do words spoken everyday in conversations, photographs, made of every and anything spill out of cameras incessantly. Utterances may be prosaic or profound- it depends on the minds operating the mouths. On the other hand, cameras are capable of rendering an image of the greatest power and profundity as much by accident as by intention. This is borne out by simply scrolling through instagram where one can find images of genius or drivel from the same user. On occasion, photographs comparable to the most revered images of all time may be seen, but on the whole, the instagram feed is rather humdrum. A user’s brilliant post is likely followed by another banal and unrelated image. With cameras as common as mouths we might do well to distinguish their utterances with the same criteria applied to words, elevating literature from chatter.

Which brings the discussion back to Wolfgang Tillmans: What makes his work special?
Roberta Smith remarked in her review of the show, “Each says what a photograph inevitably says: I was here. And here. And also here.” Exactly the same insights are found on instagram. Smith should be asking, “Why don’t Tillmans’ photographs tell viewers more than the inevitable.” Found at the show are affectless snapshot portraits, pictures of clouds taken from an airplane window, pictures of political gatherings and so many unremarkable photographs of ordinary subjects.humdrum image from http://tillmans.co.uk/

Like an instagram feed, some of the photographs in the show intrigue, but most fatigue. Unlike some of the works made without a camera, where Tillman’s inventiveness is evident, the individual photographs, removed from the context of the installation show no particular sensibility or authorship.

The vast, sprawling scale of the presentation might seem impressive, and for a moment I consider if the show could be considered a single work. But the agglomeration seems gratuitous: why is one photograph small, another large, one framed, another not? Why the spindly wood vitrines?vitrines image from http://tillmans.co.uk/
Because the show is comprised largely of photographs, I look at each photograph with an expectation that some visual or conceptual idea is to be found therein. Were the individual images recombined through collage or other technique, their individual importance might be subsumed in the aggregate, but that is not the case here. As with so much installation art seen in galleries: Nothing exceeds like excess!

If any image would be selected to represent Tillmans’ opus it would be “nackt, 2, 2014,” an immense photograph of a man’s buttocks and testicles, to my mind “that taint art.”Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 4.36.40 PMimage from Instagram user @tzyychinnloh

Photo credit

Bob Mizer at 80WSE Gallery

I had not been aware of Bob Mizer’s photography until coming across two reviews. After reading them, I headed over to see DEVOTION: Excavating Bob Mizer exhibit at 80WSE Gallery. The press materials notes he was a pioneer in the Beefcake genre of photography. An internet search reveals that these sexually suggestive male nude photographs were distributed primarily through the mail and in the publication Physique Pictorial. While “cheesecake” risque’ nude photographs of women had long been available to stoke the heterosexual male libido, male homosexual desire, being suppressed by cultural intolerance, would have difficulty finding a ready source for homoerotic art and photography.  Bob Mizer’s photography catered to those desires.

The industry of Bob Mizer is inarguable. He is credited with making 3000 films, and the full depth of his still photo archives has have yet to be fully plumbed.  The press release would have us believe that Mizer is an “enigmatic American photographer; arguably one of the most compellingly prolific cultural documentarians of the 20th century”. To my mind, the work hanging in the gallery is neither documentary nor compelling. There’s no enigma, either: the male models pose to reveal as much of their anatomy as permissible by obscenity laws, their genitalia concealed by a g string. Intended to fully reveal the musculature of the body builder models, poses range from stilted to laughable. A recurring motif are buff hunks wearing nothing but cowboy boots and/ or cowboy hats. A variation are two bare chested cowboy-hatted models, self consciously posing face to face while at the same time licking the muzzles of toy cap guns.

Beefcake vs Cheesecake

Beefcake vs Cheesecake

The same sorts of props and poses can be found in cheesecake imagery.  At 80 WSE galleries, a few ‘conventional’ portraits can be found– and they are simply conventional. Also hanging is  a staged photograph of young men working on an automobile. Similar illustrative images could be found in car magazines of the era. Beyond a gay man’s libido, there is little stimulation to be found in Mizer’s work.

Contrast Mizer’s work to George Platt Lynes: Lynes, an accomplished editorial and commercial photographer who faced the same taboos against homoerotic imagery, albeit at an earlier time. Taking inspiration from classical sculpture, surrealism and avant garde art of the 1930s, Lynes’ men were rendered in rich black and white tones that strongly delineated the male form while at the same time portraying a subtle sexual energy.

George Platt Lynes

George Platt Lynes – Two Sleeping Boys, 1941

That Bob Mizer is being pronounced an undiscovered artist of a bygone era is familiar phenomena of these times. Not to say that the canon is fixed for all time, but in the 150 years since photography’s invention,  the works of the great photographers have been widely seen in museums and print. In dredging the river of photographic imagery, connoisseurs of the medium are now serving up all sorts of material made for some illustrative purpose which we are now being encouraged to interpret as art.

Consider the 2008 International Center of Photography exhibition of a Fort Worth, Texas photographer, Bill Wood, who worked from 1937-73. The images of that show depicted small town events, car dealerships and grand openings of local stores.  And there lies the attraction for  many of the photographs that are being shown as newly found masterpieces. Whether it be the nostalgic qualities of vintage clothing styles or the stiffly posed studio portraits brought about by the slow and methodical practice  of large format film plate photography, old photographs have an undeniable charm. But when made, Wood’s photographs were ordinary and lacked the invention and particular vision of recognized and celebrated photographers of the day.  As windows on to another time the images of Wood are quirky and curious. Defined and sensitive interpretations of their subjects, they are not.

Bob Woods

Bob Wood

Excavating Bob Mizer’s work any further is unlikely to reveal any greater depth than that of typical erotic photography. Today, these mid century nude photographs may seem amusing, but they function on the same level as any pornography and as such there is nothing more than meets the eye.

Emmet Gowin at Pace/MacGill Gallery

With the exception of a few practitioners (for example, Michael Light and David Maisel, both discussed in this blog), the attraction of aerial photographs seems subject matter driven. Photographers and audiences alike seem satisfied with the bird’s eye view of the landscape we usually see at eye level. The typical aerial photographs exploit the regular sense of design, pattern and bright colors of the built environment- urban canyons, suburban tract housing, sinuous concrete highway interchanges, majestic mountains and amber waves of grain. These predictable images abound in the archives of Stock Photography agencies and on the internet. Aside from the overhead viewpoint, these photograph offer little stimulation.

© Getty Images

© Getty Images

In contrast to the forgoing, Emmet Gowin’s aerial photographs, which he began in the mid 1980s remain revelatory. The power of these toned black and white photographs of the scarified land of nuclear test sites is not because the images show novel perspectives of familiar scenes from unfamiliar perspectives. Instead, it was Gowin’s use of the expressive qualities of the silver print that created imagery that transcends description.


Emmet Gowin. B&W Aerial Photographs.

While the monotone view of black and white photography is intrinsically abstractive and Gowin’s mastery of the medium has always yielded imagery distinctively his own, with the new work he has forsaken the distinctive practice for which he is best known, choosing to work with a digital camera and in color. That digital photography can with ever increasing fidelity depict the world, makes it ever more a challenge to make images which impart more than a representation of what was in front of the lens; in Gowin’s hands a digital camera has produced color studies of Andalucia that are as eloquent as his black and white work.

The textures and colors and gradient tonalities of these new landscapes are unexpectedly engaging. In the photo “Montes Occidentales, Granada, Spain,” regularly spaced trees planted across a sloping hillside inexplicably appear both as dimples or nubs. Scale in this work is baffling: the much larger trees of the irregular woods surrounding the orchards look more like moss than forest. The orchard trees look more like bushes.

Emmet Gowin. "The Montes Occidentales, Granada, Spain, 2012"

Emmet Gowin. “The Montes Occidentales, Granada, Spain, 2012”. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery.

The intricate details of Gowin’s photographs invite close inspection, and the rewards are delightful. “The Guadix-Baza Region, Granada, Spain, 2012”, a study in brown and tan depicts a landscape after tilling. The randomly shaped lots divide the photographic frame into a patchwork of striated browns and tans. Unlike everyone’s favorite- vast, flat american farm land grooved by the harrow disk, the irregularly inscribed lines of this image and the shadows of clouds dappling the land all make for an ambiguous reading of the lay of the land. This is particularly so within the center of the image where the the scroll-like contours of the lot can be seen as a scrunched up area rug.

Emmet Gowin. "The Guadix-Baza Region, Granada, Spain, 2012"

Emmet Gowin. “The Guadix-Baza Region, Granada, Spain, 2012”. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery.

“The Montes Occidentales, Granada, Spain, 2012” employs a more vibrant pallet. Made in early morning or late in the day, the raking sunlight created long shadows behind the trees and within the low spots of a rolling terrain. The image is diagonally bisected by a meandering road, blue in color. The lower portion of the photograph, a matrix of textures and pattern, the upper section impressionistically mottled in what look like dustings of colored powders, yellow, greens, whites and browns.

Emmet Gowin. "The Montes Occidentales, Granada, Spain, 2012"

Emmet Gowin. “The Montes Occidentales, Granada, Spain, 2012”. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery.

For eyes other than Gowin’s I’d think that his subject matter would have appeared rather faded and not particularly interesting; his new photographs are a gorgeous surprise.

Emmet Gowin: Landscapes Andalucia runs until January 4th at Pace/MacGill Gallery.

James Nares at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

James Nares, Street, 2011, HDV, 61 minutes, Edition of 6

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.

James Nares: “STREET” (2012) from Paul Kasmin Gallery on Vimeo.

Ken Josephson at Gitterman Gallery

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.

Ken Josephson. Chicago, 1962. Vintage gelatin silver print

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.

Ken Josephson. Stockholm, 1967. Vintage gelatin silver print

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.

Ken Josephson.  |  Left: Illinois, 1971.  |  Right: Illinois, 1964.

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?

Ken Josephson. Chicago, 1970. Vintage gelatin silver print

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.

Ken Josephson. Illinois, 1970. Vintage gelatin silver print

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.

(In)Appropriation. The new Academy: Post Modernism and the lack of new insights.

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.

Left: Sherrie Levine, After Rodchenko, 1987. Gelatin silver print, $15.000
Right: Alexander Rodchenko, Pioneer Trumpeter, 1930. Gelatin silver print, $3995

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?

Left: Eric Doeringer, Untitled (Cowboys) 005, 2011. Archival inkjet print, $2200
Right: Richard Prince, Cowboy #1, 1992. Price range: $300.000-1.500.000

Left: Hermes Birkin Bleu Bag, $7000 | Right: Hermes Birkin Bleu Replica Bag, $180

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.