Monthly Archives: May 2005

Thomas Ruff and Doug Hall

Some thoughts about two shows I saw last week where photographers used computers to manipulate their work.

Thomas Ruff at David Zwirner. The initial impression of these extra large images is favorable. Presented in this show are jumbo framed photographic works which initially suggest some of the characteristics of painting. The images appear to be built up in a grid like arrangement of  sizable rectangles in muted colors. For a moment, the blocks begin to work abstractly, in that one block appears to move spatially back or forward relative to the adjacent blocks. Any person who has used  a digital camera and a computer will recognize that these blocks are pixels. After a few moments, by stepping back from the work, the overall image can be perceived, not unlike an impressionist painting. According to the press release, Ruff merely applied the simple technical device of  enlarging the image until the pixels themselves were each as large as a wallet sized photograph. That there was no further thought or intervention applied to these works by the artist, I found disappointing. The rubric of the gallery press release describes the artist’s motivations:

A  continuation of Ruff’s interest in the mechanical production of images and their subsequent  degeneration (as in his nudes and substrat series), these JPEGs draw attention to the abstraction that occurs  when recognizable images are digitized and distributed via the Internet. How  this degeneration affects our  understanding of and reaction to images, whether benign or visceral, beautiful or repulsive, familiar or  unrecognizable, is at the root of Ruff’s exploration. The release continues:  Visible pixel lines are embedded in the image, creating a  juxtaposition  of biomorphic and geometric shapes, suggesting the imposition of technology on the natural world.

The technical device used to produce this show in fact produces nothing more than technical gimmickry. The press release  attempts to pad out a thin concept with post modern jargon about computers, media and memory.  Ironically, I went to the gallery web site to refresh my memory of the show, and found scaled down versions of the photographs. On my computer screen the pixels disappeared and the images became nothing more than ordinary pictures.

Doug Hall at Feigen Contemporary.  These large photographs of prominent tourist attractions,  “are constructed out of multiple images of a location, often taken over several hours. As the press release describes ” Elements from the negatives are then pieced back together to form one coherent image. Therefore, while the photographs appear to document a single moment in time, this instantaneousness is an illusion, as the photographs are actually composed from a composite of many such moments.”

To further distinguish this work from ordinary travel photographs the press release continues.

“Doug Hall’s most recent series of large-scale photographs encourage us to reconsider familiar places and address how our perceptions are framed and defined by the spaces we occupy…  Hall’s detailed and color-saturated panoramas show us how these public spaces circumscribe human activity. “

It is difficult to see how any of these images, which could faithfully describe actual scenes, in broad daylight, absent any distinguishing point of view atmosphere or insight, could inspire any reconsideration.

Hall is quoted in the press release where he emphasizes,  “the role that institutions play in constructing our experiences of the world and of ourselves in it”. The release goes on to explain how Hall, “by working on the “world stage, “, demonstrates how we are participants in a grand theater that seeks to direct our understanding of the world. “His photographs are meant  ” remind us of how hierarchies are embedded in the world and how the physical and cultural constructs that we often take for granted have power over us, perhaps until we take a closer and longer look.” Can any of these points be perceived from the work itself?

Overall,  the images are utterly believable, betraying absolutely no hint of untruth or manipulation.  One image, from Yosemite National park is a particularly well composed gathering of people,  showing a complexity lacking in the other work. I wonder why go to the trouble to assemble the many components when the results produce so little affect. The results are perfectly ordinary, and interchangeable with souvenir  postcards.

In the same way Hall feels that visitors to the tourist attraction are being manipulated “to  behold the spectacle before them from specific, pre-ordained vantage points”, the visitors to the gallery are being manipulated by the gallery’s press release. . In both of these shows, The  gallery explanations asserting theoretical underpinnings of the work seem specious. No matter how intellectualized their explanations, the photographs remain mundane

Normally I like to share work that inspires me and I hope inspire others. But in these two cases, I left the galleries with the feeling that I was being manipulated.