Category Archives: Writings about Art

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.

Visiting galleries on 57th Street – Part I & II

A Saturday afternoon (September 22nd) spent at the galleries on 57th Street was satisfying. I saw mostly photo-based work.  Four shows inspired my thoughts: Gerhard Richter; Ray Metzker; Sally Mann and Fazel Sheik. My comments will be posted in 3 installments.

Part 1. The first stop was the Gerhard Richter exhibition at Marianne Goodman.

Seen from afar, these large-scale works (the biggest are approximately 7 feet high by 20 long), beckon the viewer for a closer view of their striped surfaces. At times the colossal scale of art found in the realm of the blue chip galleries might be the only distinguishing factor between greatness and mediocrity.  In this case, close viewing redeems the work. As I walked closer to each perfect, matt finished panel, my visual field began to vibrate. The press release explains,  “Using computer technique to generate digital files, Richter developed “a display of more than 4000 patterns… into an ever more linear pictorial plane of 8,190 refined striations.” Moving still closer, the flatness of the picture plane became decidedly undulant. I approached each work and was rewarded with the same dizzying optical payout. My companion, however, was unimpressed by what she dismissed as Photoshop gimmickry, likening the results to Paul Smith shopping bags. She has a point. When seen at similar scale, what is the difference? I left the gallery with mixed feelings. Is a mere size displacement all that is needed to make art?

Left: Gerhard Richter – 925-1 STRIP, 2012 | Right: Paul Smith’s Shopping Bag

Part 2. On view at Laurence Miller Gallery, was Ray Metzker’s Pictus Interruptus series. Metzker’s entire oeuvre, spanning more than 60 years should be known to many readers for crisp, gemlike black and white studies of highlight and shadow as well as multiple frame composite assemblages. The Pictus Interruptus series, dating from 1977 is so unconventional, that I must confess to “not getting it” when I saw them hanging at the Light Gallery back in the day. By 1999, I was able to appreciate what Metzker was up to when I saw Pictus Interruptus (80CQ32), 1980 at Laurence Miller gallery. Seeing a comprehensive selection from the entire series on Saturday, I thought the work to be more inventive than much of the Photoshop based work being produced today. Using only a camera and film, Metzker plumbs the depths of pictorial space. Employing his visual intelligence and awareness of the nature of photographic depiction, Metzker set about to construct abstract spatial illusions.

Some might think that these photographs are about nothing and in fact, virtually no recognizable objects can be seen in these works.  These reductivist photographs, depict only tone, line, highlight and shadow, certainly the stuff of abstract photography through the ages. What distinguishes these images is Metzker’s willful defiance of the camera’s optical representation. Considering that cameras are generally used to encapsulate a view of that which it is pointed at, (more or less) the camera preserves that sight. What the camera sees is what we get.  Normally, the camera user composes images that are focused and properly exposed. This is particularly so with today’s automatic digital cameras.

Ray Metzker – Pictus Interruptus (80CQ32), 1980

The cliché, “Rules are made to be broken” has certainly been the case in the history of photography and innumerable and extraordinary photographs have been made that are not focused or properly exposed-intentionally or otherwise.  In this series, Metzker deliberately placed elements such as sheets of cardboard into the field of view of his camera. The elements, placed much closer to the camera than the distance for which the lens was focused do not “render” as objects, instead they obscure much of the what might be contained in rectangle of the image, in effect floating as white or grey diaphanous shapes through which glimpses of properly exposed and focused surfaces can be seen. The out of focus areas and strong diagonals of white and grey juxtaposed against darker, clearly rendered darker textures create a sense of deeper space than that typically seen in photographs. The effect is confounding.

Stay tuned for part 3…

Lise Sarfati at Yossi Milo Gallery

“On Hollywood” at Yossi Milo, features photographs about what the gallery press release describes as “women who were lured by their dreams of success in Hollywood, but who now struggle against harsher realities” The text mentions Hollywood’s “great anti-heroines of films” as an inspiration for the imagery.

In viewing the show, I immediately was reminded of Cindy Sherman and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. The work of these two artists can be seen as the first “mining” of Hollywood depictions of the female. In Sherman’s film stills she effectively made what appeared to be promotional still images for ‘old’ movies using herself as the model to portray “The sixty-nine solitary heroines (who) map a particular constellation of fictional femininity that took hold in postwar America,” (From the Museum of Modern Art website). Philip-Lorca diCorcia and his male prostitutes echoed similar imagery, with the roles played out with irony by real male prostitutes whom were paid to pose. Both artists “staged” their photographs and the results were considered to be “fictions.”and in the argot of post modernism, these images were seen as, among other issues, questioning photographic reality.

In Safarti’s work, it appears as if the artist was looking to remake the imagery that inspired Sherman and diCorcia’s work and remake their work at the same time. So too, do the leggy women posing with their far off gazes, hardened stares, and cigarettes all evocatively posed “on street corners, bits of sidewalks, parking lots and corner stores, (and) banal locations.” One image in particular Vinny-Ann, Hollywood & Highland, 2010 assumes a remarkably similar composition to Cindy Sherman’s photo.

Crisse, 6722 Sunset Blvd, 2010 and Malaïka #13, 2010 both look very much like diCorcia’s photographs. Sarfati’s photographs present strong likenesses, replete with drama and scenic atmosphere.

All the ingredients are there for what look to be great photographs, yet they all look too familiar. Having rebaked Hollywood clichés without the leavening added by such artists as diCorcia or Sherman, these images do not rise to the level of the work they mimic. Sarfati’s images allow the photographer, subject and viewer alike, to partake yet again in the stylized representations of the louche life.

Christian Marclay at Paula Cooper Gallery

Christian Marclay’s video installation, The Clock at Paula Cooper (through Feb 21) is likely the ne plus ultra of appropriaton art.

With appropriated imagery appearing in the work of so many contemporary artists, the prospect of seeing more popular imagery or ordinary objects brought to a gallery with the notion that the material is ‘recontextualized’ by the artist is not so promising. Equally, the prospect of viewing the Clock, 24 hours in duration, suggests at the very least hours of tedium.  It is difficult to think of another artist’s work that demanded this much time to see the complete work. The idea of a 24 hour long art work might inspire questions of why?

However, Marclay’s concept is brilliant and dispels any skepticism; this instantly immersive video contemplates the passage of a day’s time.  Using appropriated scenes from numerous movies, Marclay assembles snippets of film depicting the faces of clocks or watches as well as scenes where actors mention the time. Every minute of a day’s 24 hours is represented in sequence by multiple cinematic representations during each 60 second time span. For each specified minute, Marclay’s video might show cuts from several films. The segments are chosen from such a wide range of movies, that the physical task of gathering and assembling the fragments of that many moving images is prodigious in of itself. The whole video spools out with projected representations of real time- a quick glance at one’s watch confirms that the 7:04 PM  shown on screen is correct.

Marclay didn’t simply find corresponding images of clocks and watches to stitch together to play out the 24 hours of elapsed time; his choices from the many film sources are extraordinary, surprising and masterful. The interweaving of film clips creates a disjunctive but narrative arc. If this concept was simply assembled with images of the requisite clock faces, the juxtaposed action and sound tracks from totally different films could have been jarring or incongruous. Marclay combines one sequence to another with sensitivity to the transitions of both the film sound tracks as well as how the last frame of action in a preceding clip leads into the action of the succeeding clip. In one scene from a foreign language film, a small boy gazes at dusty digital watches through a shop window. After a time, he enters the shabby shop. When the proprietor stoops behind the sales counter presumably to show something to the boy,  Marclay cuts the scene before we can see the transaction.  The next scene, in an expensively decorated room is of a gold pocket watch with cover being opened and wound. In many edits, the sound track from some earlier clips is carried over to the next clip. Sometimes Marclay’s video would return to a film used earlier and pick up the action from where it last left off. This mélange is at once musically and visually symphonic. The video is variously suspenseful, dramatic and funny, It is also highly anticipatory– much like watching a clock and hoping that time will pass, I found myself, at times, wondering when the next minute would be projected or spoken by an on screen actor.

Simply contemplating how the artist chose the segments of film and assembled the pieces into a 24 hour work is awe inspiring. So many thoughts come to mind in watching the cavalcade of imagery: what is happening in a particular clip; what film is it; when was it made; who are the actors, and lastly how great is the mind that envisioned this work? Of the many artists who choose to work with appropriated material,  Marclay is possibly the most transformative of his material. One never forgets that the source material originated elsewhere, but the finished works are always truly recontexualized by the hand, mind and eye of this artist. The Clock has to be his most elaborate work to date. On Fridays the gallery is open overnight so that the complete cycle can be viewed. While the scale of the gallery screening is a very important aspect of viewing the work, I still wish that the work would be streamed on line. In that way one could access it over successive days and eventually see the entire video. This is a work of genius, and I long to get back to the gallery to spend more time watching the Clock.

Rineke Dijkstra at Marian Goodman

Rineke Dijkstra’s recent show at Marian Goodman Gallery has remained on my mind (June 29 – August 21, 2010 New York). Until this show, Dijkstra’s  photographs did not figure large in my pantheon of photography. I found the well-known portrait series of children and young adults at the seaside to offer little sustained interest. The images were an immediate read, utterly factual and heavily referential to art historical precedents. Her photographic technique dates to the time of August Sander and her results except for being in color and of contemporary individuals were very similar to his. Many photographers who have worked with a 4×5 or similar view camera end up making portraits that have a studied awkwardness like those of Sander. This is a function of working with this type of camera, and very few photographers are able to make images that significantly depart from the qualities that are identified with Sander’s work.

Some may question a reference to Sander’s work without going into detail about the thematic underpinnings of his study of contemporary Germans or how the images were different than the practice of his contempories, but I am limiting the discussion to the characteristic nature of his work . With the 1969 Exhibition of Sander’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, many of us were astonished by the strikingly evidentiary nature of his photography. Part of that had to do with the time capsule nature of old photographs- the quaint costumes and accouterments of another era, but the other aspect was that in the decades since Sander’s time, many more people were being photographed with hand held cameras by friends and family and in those photos people generally looked much more relaxed and casual than those who had to set still for a portrait in Sander’s day. Seeing Sander’s photographs brightly illuminated on the white walls of Moma further heightened the impact of their starkly rendered factuality. Large format straight document was one of the photographic views of the world being championed by Moma. Along with Sander, the photographs of Walker Evans and Atget which were also shown at the time. These shows were very influential for contemporary photographers, and quite a few rejected the practice of  handheld 35mm cameras in favor of working with large format cameras and tripods.

For those who haven’t used this kind of equipment, I will attempt a short summary of their relatively complex operation: Most 4×5 cameras do not have viewfinders and so the photographer must put his or her head beneath a focusing cloth (other viewing aids are available which can be substituted for a focusing cloth). It can take several minutes for the photographer to: 1. frame the subject,  2. focus the image, 3.  close the lens of the camera and cock the shutter,  4. load the sheet film holder, 5. remove the dark slide on the film holder. While all of this is going on, the sitter must remain fairly still so as not to disturb the composition, focus and sharpness of the image. This would be the time when the photographer may try to influence the sitter’s pose and expression.  After all those steps, the exposure is made. For the subject sitting or standing with little to do but uncomfortably stare back at a big box with a single glass eye, large format portraiture can feel like a medical examination. This procedure tends to insure that the sitters have solemn, dignified and stiff countenances rendered in exceptional clarity, very much like the faces in Sander’s portraits.  It’s why so many images made by Joel Sternfeld, Alec Soth, and others are very much alike. Besides the individual appearances of their subjects, I didn’t think that many large format portraits images are strongly differentiated from one artist to another. That is, until Dijkstra’s last show.

Instead of using a still camera, Dijkstra has mounted her video camera(s) on a tripod. Of course, making filmed or video portraits has been practiced by other artists, including Andy Warhol. These video portraits merely added monotony to the results by extending the awkward confrontation between camera and subject beyond the few minutes normally involved and also extending the time required to view the work. Little more was yielded by the extra time.

Dijkstra inventively sidestepped the tedious nature of the filmed portrait by making her works actually cinematic. For the video, Weeping Woman, three cameras were mounted on low tripods upon which was affixed a reproduction of the Picasso painting, Weeping Woman. Facing her video setup are nine fresh faced, young, teenage boys and girls. The camera was allowed to roll without interruption for 12 minutes. With this work, Dijkstra has brought portraiture to a whole new level. Whereas her large still portraits describe similar likenesses of awkwardly self-conscious individuals, her video presents 9 exquisitely detailed specimens for us to observe for an extended interval.

In using the Picasso painting as distraction from the camera and videographer, Dijkstra effectively absented herself during the filming and the sitters were able to forget that they were being filmed. Being under the observation of three cameras, would likely make most people self conscious, but these children, dressed in their school uniforms, are preoccupied with a discussion that they are having about the painting.

With this work Dijkstra has created a beautifully voyeuristic experience for her audience. The high definition video spools on allowing us to stare at the expressive faces of the children, something we might wish to do in life, but would not for fear that our intense gaze would be noticed. At best, a still photo might capture a single expressive moment, but in this video, expressions and feelings fleetingly cross their nine faces.  It’s as if we are watching time lapse films of weather patterns: furrowing brows, pursing lips, and narrowing eyes animate these nine fascinating faces. We can listen in and we can scrutinize 12 minutes of a life infused group portrait. Their expressive intensity and rapt concentration reminded me of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. In that painting, he portrayed the  very expressive faces of eight surgeons and  one corpse. In viewing the video Weeping Woman, we might imagine that if Rembrandt stood in place of the video cameras, he could have chosen from each face of the children one momentary expression from which to make a painting of this group. The experience Djkstra is truly a breakthrough in portraiture.

Similarly Dijkstra’s Ruth Drawing Picasso (approx. 6 minutes) examines a young teenager at the Tate Liverpool sketching a Picasso. In her school uniform and sheepskin boots she sits on the floor, a sketch book in her lap, her face looking up over the camera and then down at her book while intently drawing what we can assume is the Picasso on the wall behind the stationary camera. Scarcely moving, Ruth becomes an analogue of the artist’s model. She sits very still, while the video camera renders her image. It is Ruth’s intense focus that makes the video so engaging.  It is the great accomplishment of this artwork that its viewer can remain interested in watching a person quietly sit in place for six minutes.

By contrast the videos of club patrons at The Krazyhouse, Liverpool UK (Megan, Simon, Nicky, Philip, Dee), 2009-2010 are not nearly as evocative. Perhaps studies in self-conscious posturing, the videos seem much more like Dijkstra’s still photographs, only animated. These videos are of young adults slowly dancing and gyrating to cheesy dance music. In one, the dancer is more talented and inventive,  and this made this video more interesting than the other three. But all of the videos seemed bound in their specificity. Despite showing much more ‘action’, these video evoke much less feeling. Neither the subject nor the photographer had transcended the process, and the results feel inert. Compared to the keen observation of her young subjects, there is a monotonous and listless quality to the portrayals of the dancers.

In many of Dijkstra’s technically adept still photographs she seems unable to bring more than simple observation to the subject. In her work, the process of photographing and being photographed seemed to impede the evocation of anything more than awkward likenesses. The genius of her video studies of the school children is in the observation of her subjects’ observation. In turn, Dijkstra has acutely studied their intense attention to something outside of themselves. By doing that, she has portrayed something far richer and surprising than her still photographs. Also, by allowing the video camera to run more or less unattended, she took herself out of the process, and in doing that, she invested the results with more of herself than ever before.

The show is accompanied by prints of the same subjects. At best, they are well-chosen film stills, but feel more like souvenirs than the fully formed works that the videos are.

Julie Blackmon at Robert Mann Gallery

© Julie Blackmore

Previously seen at art fairs over several years, Julie Blackmon’s new photographs currently showing at Robert Man Gallery continue to construct tableaux fictions of bourgeois family life. Rather than documenting the lives of her subject, Blackmon, a mother of three children, photographs her family, nieces and nephews using digital techniques to blend and recombine many images of the characters depicted in her imagery. Staged photography has remained a staple at contemporary art galleries, with the most ambitious of the genre being created by Gregory Crewdson.   Representing the polar opposite of Crewdson’s bitter dramas of human alienation, Blackmon’s photographs come across as the idealized good life of affluent young families. In seeing Blackmon’s work singly or in small groups, the viewer will likely delight in the comical relationships depicted in the  images as well as the carefully constructed formal and narrative qualities).

Whereas Crewdson often depicts despairing individuals inhabiting grimy film noirish sets,  Blackmon photographs well dressed adults and children in splendidly appointed interiors and homes with the bright strobe lighting techniques seen in shelter magazines.  In fact her work teeters more to the side of editorial illustration, and these confections often seem too sweet.

Not usually seen in galleries, similar efforts are  frequently found in   “work books” of commercial photographers. In these glossy pages (used by art directors  in the advertising field to find photographers for assignments) can be found more than a few staged photographs  depicting a quintessential American moment . A  skinny tow headed boy tinkering with his soapbox derby car is one such trope. Another- the beautiful blonde young woman in bikini washing a classic red Camaro while being sprayed  with  a hose by the  handsome varsity hunk. Similarly, recent Smuckers Jam TV  commercials  traffic in an idealized 1950’s representation of an American farm boy’s life of bluejean overalls and vintage bicycles filmed in gauzy soft focus. We owe these treacley scenes to the covers of Saturday Evening Post and the former illustrator, now celebrated  artist, Norman Rockwell. And while Blackmon’s images, styled with the accouterments of today’s well off homes, avoid the nostalgia of Rockwell, they are heavily invested in cuteness.  Because the compositions of the imagery are so expertly assembled from multiple photographs, the work looks more contrived than evocative.

Take “Lost Mitten” in which a  gently contoured snowy hillside below a cloudy sky divides the picture frame roughly in half. A black labrador (often appearing as a prop in  Ralph Lauren Ads) enters the photograph from the lower left, pointing our eyes to the red coated mother towing a beautiful wood sleigh and toddler while presumably his sister of 3 or 4 years age attired in a tasteful gray over coat and yellow knit cap prepares to slide down the hill on plastic sled. The mitten in question can be seen on the snow bank.

In Blackmon’s photograph, “Line-up” -seven children are placed against a granite block wall and overhead balustrade of a solid looking house. All the children are fashionably styled and are assembled across the lower half of the square image in a perfect  composition which even includes the children’s’ chalk marks on the pavement.  In what could be a portrayal of the mischievous nature of boys,  one kid pulls his ears and sticks out his tongue for the photographer. But it looks like so much stage direction and comes across as cloying as the Smuckers Ad. When every child’s expression looks selected for maximum expression and every detail looks deliberately placed, the artifice comes on heavy handed in the same way that Norman Rockwell’s paintings left nothing for the viewer to imagine.  Wide eyed, pigtailed blond girls, freckle faced boys, kindly gray-haired granddads and apron wearing grandmas,  were some of the types cast by Rockwell. Each were photographed posing with particular expressions on their faces and then assembled in the paintings which would so deftly and obviously play on our heartstrings.

Representing the other end of the rainbow are the photographs of Gregory Crewdson. With considerable skill and evocation, Crewdson broke from the aforementioned  sentimental imagery and rightly found himself to be a highly sought after artist. Over the years, Crewdson’s work, for all it’s power, began to create its own tropes- alienation and misery photographed in exquisite clarity and detail. Never the less, it serves as a contrast in which to examine Blackmon’s work. If Blackmon can be likened to Rockwell, Crewdson can be compared to Edward Hopper. The paintings of Hopper depict people in situations of which the interpretation is not as obvious as those of Rockwell. Viewers of his work can try to imagine the thoughts and feelings of these individuals, reflecting on their own lives and feelings.

In Blackmon’s photograph,  “Girl Across the Street”, pictures the back of a very young  boy of 18-24 months,  with his hands and head at the sill of a picture window. The very formal composition uses the drapes and window as a proscenium to the stage like view of the lawn and house across the street, capturing the boy’s view of a girl of similar age  across the street, arms akimbo, dressed only in panties. The picture’s details are perfectly propped- 1950’s era star burst wall clock on the left of the window, 50’s yellow tiered lamp shade and a half eaten chocolate donut on the floor. The view outside is a stone mid-century suburban house, lawn with  small turquoise blue inflatable splashing pool and a scooter.  At first glance, the scene conjures up this adult’s childhood memories of being confined to the house when the world outside beckoned powerfully. But for all of the precisely arranged details, the image seems rooted  in stasis.

In Baby Toss, a photograph that I was initially  drawn to, a super cute baby girl is frozen in flight against the pure blue sky  of the upper right quadrant of the photo. Below, the man who tossed the kid stands with his hands stretched overhead to catch the kid.  This little bundle of joy with  a slight hint of terror on her face is wearing a green hand knit cap, a light brown double breasted overcoat with red buttons, striped purple and black tights and red shoes.   Balancing the photographs composition on the left are the head and shoulders of another child whose knit hat, amusingly is pulled down over her eyes.

Whether depicting fantasy or reality, art seems to be most successful when the portrayal  leaves room for the variable meanings that we find in living.  In thinking of photographs of children the work of Sally Mann and Helen Levitt come to mind.  In the case of Mann , the evocation of her work was so rich and multivalent  that some viewers own darkest fears colored their interpretation of the work . Many years earlier, Helen Levitt photographed children candidly and in action,  capturing a rich and evocative portrayal of their lives and relationships.  There is an authenticity lacking in Blackmon’s photographs. However carefully Blackmon assembles all of the elements that comprise her imagery, for this viewer it never brings anything more to mind than cutely appealing imagery. Plucking the same heart strings as Norman Rockwell, there is never any squalor or struggle in Blackmon’s work. These images could easily be confused with those made for a lifestyle magazine.

Work of Art: The Next Great Artist

Having raptly watched the entire season of “WORK OF ART: THE NEXT GREAT ARTIST”, I couldn’t get the program out of my mind. I began to reflect upon the program and its concept. While this show broke new ground with its art and artists theme, the format was a TV staple- the reality game show.

Reality television shows of this type first crossed the Americans consciousness with the broadcast of CBS’ Survivor. That show introduced television viewers to a cast of 16 men and women who competed with each other in a succession of physical and strategic challenges over 13 weekly episodes. Every week, the host Jeff Probes would portentously brief the players (organized into two ‘tribes’) about the new game, its rules and conditions. Taking place on a remote tropical island, the play would begin with scenes of the contestants struggling to complete physical tasks that were later cut and edited and amped up by an emotional soundtrack. At episode’s end, the host would reappear at a tiki lit fire circle meeting of the tribes to review the challenge results. Building suspense with lingering pauses and shimmering music, one cast member would then be eliminated from the game. Survivor captured the attention of an astonishingly large television audience and was one of these American cultural moments where the show was endlessly promoted and discussed in most media, including the serious press. As the show’s cast diminished, who the final winner might be became a national obsession. Anyone residing in the US would have had to be well insulated from any media to have remained unaware of the show.

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