Friday, June 11, 2010

Review of the Denver Art Museum show, Exposure, curated by Eric Paddock, Part 1.

The Denver Art Museum finally has an official photo curator, Eric Paddock. Eric was born in Boulder, had a 25 year stint as the photo curator for the Colorado Historical Museum, and got his MFA at Yale- local and smart!

It is fantastic that we have a photo curator and a dedicated space to show photography at the DAM, don’t get me wrong. However, it is a small grey island in a sea of orange western art canvases on the 7th floor of the North Building. I have to say it. I do not believe that the western wing has any conceptual relevance to photography (ironically, it dovetails nicely with Eric’s previous job), and I hope in the future that photography will make such a big splash at the DAM that they simply have to take it up a notch and give it proper billing. That said- it is the most stunning, contemplative and beautifully lit place in all of Denver to view photographs. The exquisite details from the charcoal gray paint on the walls to the breath taking lighting make it a real joy to visit. More importantly it gives proper respect to the images on display.

This inaugural show, EXPOSURE, is intended to show off the depth and historical relevance of the photographic pieces that the DAM has in it’s collection. There are 7,000-ish pieces in the collection, and Eric continues to purchase more and more. To this end the show is relevant- it shows 19th, 20th and 21st century photographs in many different styles from all over the globe- even Denver artists.

Unfortunately, when you have a group show with no real theme to hang it on- beyond diversity of subject matter- it can get a bit tired. On the flip side, this show is full of such stunning work created by some of the strongest image makers in the history of photography, that one gets invigorated at every turn. A nice curatorial touch was to loosely hang them by mood, not just subject- but mood. There is a quiet contemplative wall with work from such remarkable artists as Andre Kertesz and Robert Adams. On the opposite diagonal there is a wall of portraits with the subjects confronting the viewer with their gaze, even Chuck Close is there bearing down on you from above. On the adjoining wall there is a different mood of portraiture, that of the candid, always moving, street photographers set. As one would expect here there is the requisite Gary Winogrand, but also a few choice Robert Doisneau images, as well as another Kertesz. Across the way there is a diverse collection of figure studies, from conceptual works like thst of Wes Kennedy to the simple exquisite beauty of Owen O’Meara’s nudes (more on Owen in part two of this blog- stay tuned...). Eric Paddock creates more than just walls of particular subjects with these selections, he creates moods, alternate realities for us to explore. This only possible because of the quality of work he has to choose from. The moods would be lost and the show would be chaotic if it were not for the fact that each piece on it’s own carries such a powerful presence. The mood of each section supports the works, rather than isolating them.

For example, the contemplative wall (above) includes a large dark print by Petah Coyne, entitled Untitled 735, of monks in a flurry of movement in what appears to be a courtyard. This sets the stage by blurting out Buddhism, while the next five images on the wall quietly work within that context. Leland Rice with White Door invites us to enter a room with ostensibly nothing in it, but upon further inspection there is a lovely textured wall that gives our mind something wrap around. It is like painting a picket fence- just enough task for our brain to hold focus, but not too hard. In Chez Mondrian, Paris Kertesz invites us into this space of simple beauty, and though there is nothing there of particular interest, we find it hard to leave once we are present. The same can be said of Dominoes, Walls Unit, Texas by Danny Lyon. The space was found by Lyon and captured in such a way that the beauty of the image strikes us to the core even before we conceptually realize what the image is of. Once we “read” the subject, all we are left with is this indescribable knowledge that there is something more to it than what it graphically represents. The beauty touches us first in these images so that once the subjects come into focus- they have been bathed in a glow that makes the everyday scenes appear relevant and vital. The exception to this is Anne Turyn’s image, her piece stands out as being oddly intellectual, that is to say the piece requires the part of your brain that recognizes objects and people to fully “get.” It does not carry with it the same visceral appeal that the other’s sharing the same wall have in common.

The street photography wall (above) is quite simply an extraordinary collection of artists and important works, bar none. Gary Winogrand is heavily represented by three of his most iconic pieces in his long history of image making. These images alone could define street photography as a genre, ala New York style in the 1960’s, and they are nicely rounded out by Doisneau’s humorous doubletakes from the 1940’s.

The confrontational portrait (above) wall stares back at the viewer rather intensely, and in fact there are so many eyes on you it is a little disconcerting to view these all at once. Diane Arbus’ twins stare at you together in a way that makes you intrigued, so much so that a narrative begins to play in your mind as to where these two came from and how did they come to be here? Of course then you notice Chuck Close looking down his nose at you, in fact the placement of this piece would b annoying if it weren’t so… well, funny! Those big eyes feel at the same time disjointed and intense, which makes them approachable when viewing them close up- which you will do so that you can get a good look at the twins. The image that throws you off on this wall is the Robert Benjamin, it is no where near as complex as these others souls up on the wall, the stripped down sensibility feels at odds with the classics around it. However, the Alexander Rodchenko is my favorite of the entire show. I have to admit a personal interest in the Russian Avante-Garde-both photography and the printmaking of this time period is staggering in it’s creativity and productivity. This portrait of Osip Brick alludes to the blending of techniques and craftsmanship of the period. What appears at first glance to be a straight portrait is deepened by the text present in the glasses, this text references the writer of whom the portrait has been made. Inspiring, I would love to see more.

I think in general this is a fantastic first show. Knowing that there was incredible amount of expectation for this show I can only guess that Eric was somewhat breathless at the opening, and it feels like a great beginning. I do hope to see more thoughtfully conceived shows in the future, but in the same breath I hasten to add that the point of this show was to highlight the diversity of the collection, and to that end this show is stellar. If you care about photography in the slightest- you must see this exhibition.

Do look forward to the Part Two to this blog where I will pontificate on the local artists in this show! Namely master photographic craftsmen Owen O'Meara and Kevin O'Connell.

Talk to you soon,

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review of "Heads of Hydra" a photographers' collective. Curated by Richard Peterson, being shown at Vertigo Art Space.

"The Poet makes himself a SEER by a long, immense, and reasoned DERANGEMENT OF ALL THE SENSES. All forms of love, suffering, and madness; he explores himself, he tries out all the poisons on himself and keeps only their quintessences. Unspeakable torture where he really needs faith, all the superhuman strength there is, where he becomes in the midst of everyone else the great sick man, the great criminal, the great condemned — and the supreme Knower! — since he has reached the UNKNOWN!" –Arthur Rimbaud

The annual photo show at Vertigo Art Space, curated by Richard Peterson, is once again a fun challenging show. If you just stop in to look at “pretty pictures” you will be sadly disappointed. However, if you take the time to absorb and think about what you are surrounded by you will have a chance to see, and be moved by, an amalgam of contemporary and historic photography.

The show opens by the above quote by Arthur Rimbaud, a French Symbolist poet from the 19th century. Rimbaud’s method of writing was not about telling a story accurately, or describing one’s surroundings truthfully. He wrote to evoke a mood or emotion, and he held emotional honesty above a literal translation of events to be more “factual.” Combine this with Richard Peterson’s predilection for the surrealists, a movement whose core belief is that artworks are mere artifacts of thought and therefore should not be taken too seriously, and what you have is a show of ideas- big, sweaty, thick, gritty ideas.

Technically photographs may be simple tangible artifacts of thought, but in the case of this show they are at the very least well crafted artifacts. There has been a movement within photography to blast a misguided view of photographic prints being cheap since they are “just prints” that can be printed and reprinted at the artist’s discretion. In light of this, many photographic artists create artworks that can be easily identified as one-of-a-kind unique images. This is made apparent by the resurgence of interest in historic processes (processes whose final products are inherently singular) and the plethora of multi-media artworks hanging on gallery walls today. Multi-media in this context is not digital double speak for a slideshow with music. I am referring to painting, sculpture, and printmaking blending seamlessly with photography to create imagery that is instantly recognizable as a one-of-

a-kind original.

Is this kind of uniqueness a necessary element for beauty? Of course, as a photographer I would say unequivocally that, no, no it is not. This may be a knee jerk reaction though and not very honest, so maybe we should let it rest.

In the case of David Zimmer this unique quality is captured through the marks on the photograph’s surface made by the hand of the artist. The paint brush applied surface texture, presentation, and scale, all speak to how a photograph can be like a painting. Or, perhaps, how they are different. In any event, the ambiguity of the medium leads the viewer to be more interested in the chiaroscuro of the subject as opposed to how it was made. Some photo/paintings are only interesting for their technical choices, whereas Zimmer’s simplified, virtually monochromatic color palette somehow pushes the viewer to consider the subject depicted in the image as opposed to how it was made. Oddly the inclusion of the subject’s ring adds a sense of identity to the apparent nude in both images. Often portraits that use the body as subject are not about specific people, not about identity, but in these two works we are only given the clue of a ring and yet we are already searching for the supposed identity of the sitter. Is she married, does she have a lover, lacking honest color and surrounding detail we wonder where she is, is she alone? All questions we would not bother with without the simple inclusion of that ring! On a purely technical note: though it is a contrasty piece there is flatness to the image that is hard to get away from, specifically the shadow tones of the figure feel one dimensional and the midtones are non existent.

Sabin Aell’s work as well carries with it a sense of uniqueness. In her work though, we get the sense that photography may just be but one tool in her tool box of artistry. She is making use of sculpture, painting, graphic design, printmaking and one even gets a sense of jewelry design- in her piece that quite literally hangs on and off the wall. Her work has a very post-modern approach to it in the way the imagery feels appropriated, the metal work feels stolen and the wall vinyl feels like it was lifted from a different project. It is the coming together of these parts that makes her work so engaging. Like many works in this show, it is not the imagery that is so arresting, it is how the imagery is presented that makes the statement. Her pieces have a printmakers aesthetic, with the layered limited color palette textural images, reminiscent of multiple passes through an intaglio press with only slight ink color changes being made. To add to this aesthetic are the rough edges, artificially showing the wear and tear of time, that speak to it being a work on paper. The graphic black cut out on the wall, however, though referenced in the imagery, still feels a bit forced. The imagery has such a diverse and wonderful attention to detail in its handling of texture and blending of historic and more contemporary methods of mark making, that the wall cut outs feel pedestrian and foreign in comparison. The metal work however is a very nice touch, this is the fore mentioned jewelry aesthetic. The aluminum supports for the work feel like grossly enlarged dainty necklace pendants, lending a light modern feel to an otherwise moody work.

Set up before the viewer in the center of the room, like suspended dominoes, are Richard Peterson’s works. Each image has it’s paired reversal impeccably printed on the back, so that the viewer is invited to visit these works in the round, much like a sculpture. And much like a well crafted sculpture, once you look at the piece in a full circle, you are happy that you did so- the pieces are quite rich and a joy to look at. Anytime you present two dimensional works in a three dimensional space there will be issues, and Peterson handles these well, mostly by adhering to a simple and clean method of hanging. But also in his placement of the pieces in a row that grants them the dimensionality that they would lack if hung separately in the middle of the room. Though historically relevant, the black ribbon falls flat as it competes with the rest of the simple design- a bit tired looking. Still, transparency is the theme here, so much so, that one begins to think that all of the supposed concreteness of our world may in truth be a wee bit more flimsy and transparent than we were willing to admit at first blush. The glass mats, the suspension, even the window light of the space itself speaks to the illusion that is our world. The images themselves are filled with symbolic imagery alluding to the broader theme of the impermanence of our reality.

It is refreshing for a show to require something of the viewer, that is to say that to fully enjoy the show you must think. Not just about each piece, but about the juxtaposition of all of these works in one room.

Look around and let your mind wander.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review of Russell Croop's "Painting through a Keyhole: The iPhone as Canvas" at The Dairy Center for the Arts

The most intriguing aspect of Russell Croop's "Painting through a Keyhole: The iPhone as Canvas" exhibition is that at first glance one perceives them to be paintings on canvas. Then we might think they are photographs. Upon a closer inspection, however, we soon realize that we have no idea what they are- but yes these are digital somethings. It is truly unknown until you read to see how they were made.

Russell Croop is a photographer. These are not photographs captured with a camera, but they are made up of pixels. They are not paintings painted with a brush, but they are printed on canvas. No paint is used. The compositions feel like photographs. There is no lens. Confused? Good. So are we.

The easy answer is that Croop paints with his finger on his iPhone using applications (software) such as NetSketch and Brushes. These images are not photographic in any way, but Croop is a photographer. He then outputs (prints) them onto canvas. For display purposes they are stretched on stretcher bars much like a traditional painting.

The reality is a bit more complex. One of his pieces, My Living Room, has 40,090 "brushstrokes." A brushstroke in this case would more accurately be described as a finger stroke. It is what one would normally call a virtual painting, but now that the final piece is printed onto canvas it is no longer virtual, it is.

The big question that this brings up, the elephant in the room, is what form of art is it? I believe most viewers would say that it is a closer relative to a painting than a photograph. So, how could anyone say that they are photographic? Well, all of the technology used in the creation and output of these art works are technologies coming out of current digital photographic tools and more importantly- they feel photographic. The compositions themselves are photographic in nature. In fact, Croop makes most of his images by bringing up photographs onto his computer screen and then sketches them out on his iPhone. That is, his source material is not found in nature, but is in fact a representation of nature he previously captured with his camera. Notice that for a lack of a distinct art form to pigeon hole this work into- we are saying it is a bit like photography and a bit like painting. It has brushstrokes, but it also has pixels.

The interesting thing here is that there is a new technology that allows for a new art that does not fit into any classical art form tradition. It most assuredly shares a lot of mark making that we attribute to painting, but it still feel like a digital photograph. Things that feel digital in this way are more typical of Photoshop filters than brushstrokes. Technically the reason they feel digital is the lack of blending that you would typically get from an actual painting. These pieces are reminiscent of a paint-by-numbers, if they were to be judged as paintings. If you recall paint by numbers images that you made when you were 12 years old, they had a distinct look because each color did not blend in to its neighbor. Each painted section was a pure color that sat next to another small section of a different pure color. These dots and swaths of distinct and separate color is what makes these Croop pieces feel digital.

More importantly, it is the mind of the image maker that makes them feel photographic. What I mean by the mind of the image maker, is that Croop is a trained photographer. He has a peculiar way of seeing that is though a lens. As such, even when he is not using a lens to capture an image- they feel like photographs. The compositions come at us in such a way that they feel posed and composed. You take the camera away from the photographer, but you can't take the mindset of a photographer away from his art.

The fun part of this is that it is new! So, we are drawing on our collective past for words and parallels to describe it. In the end, the images feel like photographs in composition, expression and technical nuance. And, what better way to judge art, but to express how they feel. Given this and the fact that there is no other art term for them, why not call them photographs?