Monthly Archives: October 2012

Barney Kulok at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery

Barney Kulok’s new photographs ably straddle the two camps in which the medium finds itself these days:

  1. Photography seen at art galleries- created by artists using photography.
  2. 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

Barney Kulok. Photos courtesy of Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery

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.

Barney Kulok. Photos courtesy of Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery

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: Mask Sculptures at Gagosian

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.

L: Untitled (French Grey Pink Mask M17.a), 2012 | R: Untitled (Geo Abstract Reveal Face 41.61), 2011



Visiting galleries on 57th Street – Part IV

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.

Visiting galleries on 57th Street – Part III

Part 3. On view at Houk Gallery is a new body of work by Sally Mann. Mann continues with her use of ancient photographic processes, in this case, ambrotype photography.  More than a decade ago, Mann began working with the difficult 19th century photographic process, wet plate collodion, producing photographs of Civil War Battlefields with had an emphatically elegiac quality. This feeling was undoubtedly produced by the murky soft focus prints that were characteristic of the wet plate process. Our collective image consciousness knows the brown and grey tone palette of the early photographic processes, and our associations are with the olden days. PBS just broadcast Ric Burns’ Death and the Civil War, a documentary making liberal use of mottled, cracked and blurred glass plate photographs of that tragedy. Mann’s civil war battlefield photographs could be seen as contemporary affectations of those photos.

Left: Ambrotype, Photographer Unknown – Right: Ambrotype of Abraham Lincoln by Preston Butler

Since the 1970’s, contemporary use of 19th Century photographic processes has been a pursuit of many photographers. A Google image search of wet plate collodion photographs yields “About 75,300 results (0.36 seconds),” most made in the 21st century, many evoking those same feelings of nostalgia of actual 19th century photographs. In distinction, though, Mann’s practice is highly expressive and evolved.

This show is comprised solely of self-portraits. In these works, the technique creates the mood. Like her collodion images, these works are likened in the press release to  “discards from a mid-nineteenth-century photo studio – plates flawed by the sitter’s movement or the medium’s unstable actions, of which they present a catalogue: pitting, scarring, scratching, streaking, graininess, blurriness, erosion, fading, haziness, delamination, over-exposure, and under-exposure.” Mann hasn’t simply applied 19th century technique to her contemporary practice; she has reinvented the process by presenting the glass plate images upon black glass instead of clear. She has also applied the 20th century sensibility of seriality to her presentation by arranging multiple glass plates in grids. Clearly inspired by the nostalgic qualities of 19th century processes, Mann has used what would have been considered faults in photographic processing to expressive effect. Her own visage peers out through a clouded, scratched veil of a peeling photographic emulsion. It’s as if we see her face and her torso just behind an extremely dirty window. The effect is one of decay and mortality.

Sally Mann – Untitled (Self-Portraits), 2006-12

At Pace MacGill Gallery, Fazal Sheikh’s work also examines life and death. Traveling far from the cities of New York and Zurich, in which he lives, he has photographed the northern Indian city of Varanasi, located on the Ganges River. Like Varanese, a site that has drawn pilgrims over the ages, India draws westerners to make their pilgrimages in search of visual enlightenment. Notwithstanding their vivid images of a wondrous and unfamiliar land, many are unable to bring back more than scenes from their exotic vacations. The 34 pigment prints on display, Sheikh’s first works in color,  have captured an essence in this subject that would have eluded many a photographer. According to the press release, Sheikh seeks to “visualize the spiritual concept of ether…” I found the delicately printed works captivating. It wasn’t until I began writing about the show did I realize how small the actual prints are- 5×7” and 5×7”. These days, we are so accustomed to seeing jumbo prints (I.E. The Richter show) at galleries, it is astonishing how powerful a finely honed artwork can be even at modest scale. Like Sally Mann’s show, Sheikh’s imagery also alludes to death. Very different than the 19th century process of Mann, Sheikh appears to be using advanced photographic equipment and materials. His pigment printing process appears to offer Sheikh a richly expressive palette. The images are somewhat dark and at the same time very luminous. Lacking any noticeable defects, they demonstrate a mastery of technique. As a visitor to the far off land of his subject, it is apparent that he is able to see beyond the obvious Indian exoticism; his observations are sensitive and intimate.

Fazal Sheikh – Either, 2008-2011

Both Mann and Sheikh’s work transport the viewer to a place of their own creation. Mann has photographed herself at home and Sheikh has photographed a more exotic subject, far from home. Mann uses an ancient technique; Sheikh uses contemporary technique. Both artists have recognized qualities of their respective techniques and have distilled singular visions through their deployment.