Saturday, July 15, 2017

Walker Evans @ Centre Pompidou

Walker Evans, Subway Passengers, 1938
Even for those of us who are not Walker Evans fans, it’s difficult to dispute the importance of his work. However, his influence on the development of photography as art and documentary in the twentieth century is so great that there’s a risk visitors will find the current exhibition at the Centre Pompidou predictable. So much of what Evans did with the medium has become household, to the point where it’s as though many of his inventions are no longer his. Yet, there is still much to gain from a visit to this huge exhibition.
Walker Evans, County Church near Beaufort, S C, 1935
The exhibition text claims that Evans wanted to find an identity of America through his camera lens. Certainly, his images cannot be divorced from Depression-era America, even if there are elements of international modernism at work in them. It’s interesting to think about what that image of America is, particularly, as it is so clearly driven by capitalism as it was developing in the first half of the twentieth century. Evans’ focus on advertising, shop signage, window displays, objects and of course, poverty as its fall out represent the substance of his vision of America. Even though he clearly chose to photograph the everyday people, I’m not sure that Evans' sole impetus was to draw a very political image of America. Because his interest in form, structure, and replication says as much about the photograph as medium as it does about the thing being represented. Surely, the social and ideological critique is just one element of his life's work?

Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs,
cotton sharecropper
, 1935/36
Nevertheless, the photographs still have a strong political and social message. Now Let us Praise Famous Men, Evans project with James Agee in the Depression-ridden American South includes perhaps some of his best known images. Their exposure of American poverty as the flip side of modernity was acclaimed at the time in the 1930s. For me, there’s something shocking about the same photographs today. Namely, their resonance a century later when American poverty might look different, but it is as crushing as it was following the great depression. Seeing Evans’ photographs again reminded me that even though American artists have been exposing these injustices for 100 years, the country (by which I mean those in charge) continues to ignore the unrelenting divide between rich and poor.

I did have a couple of problems with the exhibition, and the first was the display of Allie Mae Burrough’s photograph in a room of its own at the midway mark. Given Evans’ use of photography to represent everyday life, his emphasis on repetition, on the published photograph as one of thousands, placing a single image in a shrine-like display so that viewers can bestow adulation on it as if it were the Mona Lisa seems to disrespect everything about the photograph. This is a curatorial choice that reinforces the arbitrary iconic value of a single image over the thousands he produced, and thus, panders to, rather than extends, popular conceptions of art. I found it to be an extremely odd decision.
Walker Evans, Roadside Stand near Birmingham, AL, 1936
Secondly, while there is much to learn from the exhibition, particularly thanks to the sheer number of photographs on display, there could have been more transparency with regard to Evans’ process. To give an example: in arguably his most exciting and apparently most aleatory photographs, Evans took hundreds of photographs on the New York subway with a hidden camera for a project, again with James Agee, Many are Called. The 1930s photographs are striking for their raw and “honest” depictions of faces unaware of being photographed. The assumption is that because they are depicted unknowingly, their guard is down and, similarly, the photograph itself is “unmanipulated.” It is true that the photographs are touching and intimate, offering a peek inside the inner life of the subjects on the other side of the subway car. However, the exhibition makes no mention of the fact that Evans very heavily edited the photographs in production. What we see are far from the “fly on the wall” images that might otherwise be assumed.
Walker Evans, Sign into Truck, 1928-30
These flaws aside, together with the sometimes frustrating oscillation between chronological and thematic presentation of the work, as I say, it's a lovely exhibition. Evans’ meticulous and obsessive focus is made apparent through the groupings, particularly of photos of wooden houses, street signs, and portraits. That is, through the repetition across images and from theme to theme, visitors can easily identify the photographer’s concerns. In addition, because of its documentary nature, despite the huge number of photographs on display, Evans’ work is easy to look at, and the passage through the exhibition is relatively smooth. I also enjoyed seeing the way his photography consciously took the vernacular focus of documentary photography and made it into art, again something that is revealed across obsessive repetitions from theme to theme and photo to photo. And lastly, even for those who think that they have seen these photographs before, Evans’ analogue images yield much more in the flesh. Thanks to the cameras he used and his production process, the images don’t have the slickness or size of those of most art photographers working today. This gives them a delicacy and an intimacy that cannot be reproduced in books.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Gregory Crewdson Cathedral of the Pines @ The Photographers' Gallery, London

Gregory Crewdson, The Shed, 2013
For the first time, the Photographer’s Gallery in London has given three floors of exhibition space to a single artist. And to mark the occasion, they have chosen Gregory Crewdson’s creepy, visually sophisticated, photographs from Cathedral of the Pines. As I seemed to do everywhere I went in London last weekend, I started at the end. Which, in the case of Crewdson’s photographs, made the experience even more unsettling. Beginning on the second floor, I was thrown by the early images in which naked women with aging bodies stand in deliberately staged postures contemplating something to which we as the viewer have no access. “What on earth is going on here?” I kept asking myself. Soon realizing I was not going to figure out what had happened at this scene of the crime, I started searching for clues of what the photographs were doing.
Gregory Crewdson, Beneath the Bridge, 2014

I began to realize that my inability to understand why the figure was standing naked, surrounded by nature and often near a decayed or abandoned structure, but showing little concern or anxiety despite the apparent threat was indeed the point. Even before thinking about where they are placed, the bodies themselves are unsettling: they are often aging, deformed, misshapen, and some of them even have the trace of death. And then, we realize, the figures don’t belong in the wilderness of nature in which they find themselves. Clearly, something has happened, but it is as through it happened elsewhere, in a different narrative, in a different life even. Perhaps the figure is a ghost, or a fantasy, that has wandered into the wrong time and space? The displacement in the photographic image gives it a sense of temporality it can’t otherwise have. Because photography is about stillness and death, about a moment frozen in time. And yet, in Crewdson’s images, photography captures ongoing narratives from different eras, different places and spaces. This is what makes them so unsettling. The water flowing at the bottom of a landscape is like oil or another thick glutinous fluid, churned up by a photographic production process as it is transformed into something else. Again, the water gives away the time lapse photography that is clearly part of the production process, and simultaneously, sees photography do something technically out of its reach: transform the everyday into the supernatural, mythical or otherworldly.
Gregory Crewdson, Reclining Woman on Sofa, 2014
There is a lot of nakedness, but very little vulnerability in these images. The figures are in command of their bodies, contained and in contemplation, making them closed off from the world they are in. They are not bothered by the presence of the viewer, and neither are they threatened by their environment or the others in their image. This contemplation through posing speaks to the performance, the staging of the mise-en-scène that makes the photographs like films (again the temporal longevity captured by the photograph). Apparently, Crewdson uses a crew of 15 produce images, a production process that again, pushes at the boundaries of the photographic and its claims for truth, for a kind of evidence of that which it sees. Clearly, there is much more happening in Crewdson’s images than can be instantaneously articulated.
Gregory Crewdson, Pickup Truck, 2014
From a formal point of view, the perspective is also unsettling. The images are placed on the walls at an uncomfortable height, a little low, so that we look down at the grass, the river, or the snow in the foreground of each image. They are, I realize halfway through the exhibition, placed as if they are windows for us to look through. We are thus standing inside the structures, looking into those that entrap the participants in the image. Windows, doors, mirrors, even water in the form of rivers are all conventionally used to open out the image, both to the spaces that cannot be included within the frame, and to the world beyond that of the photographic (or painted) mise-en-scène. And yet, in Crewdson’s images, mirrors and other reflective surfaces are always used to close down the space – there is no way out of even the opening in the forest in which the scenes are staged. If something can be seen through the window, it is either more of the same, more of what is inside, or it is a forest, out of which it is unlikely there will be a way out. When the figures are inside and we look through windows at them, it’s the same. They become the image in the window through which we look, but of course, it is a window that opens up to nothing. And yet, to reiterate, everyone is at ease, in contemplation, unthreatened. And so, these spaces of entrapment are simultaneously places of safety and protection.
Gregory Crewdson, Woman at Sink, 2014
The photographs are also highly political, even though at first glance they may seem like fairytale fantasies. Because in the middle of the forest, the structures are always abandoned, cars look as though they are broken down, vans look as though they have been appropriated as homes for poor people. The world in the image is always that of the lower classes, even when the landscape is classless. The iconography of the environments – trailers, underneath of bridges, wooden houses, old cars, outhouses – tells of poverty. Again, the unsettling placement of the viewer in relationship to the images gradually reveals itself as replicated within the photograph. This is the American Dream gone horribly wrong. Even if the locations are placeless, they reek of homes and families, people who never connect, and who are isolated in their contemplative reflections. If ever we thought that the American dream was within reach, these photographs remind us that it was only ever a fantasy.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Matière Grise @ Galerie Max Hetzler, Paris

Raymond Hains, Untitled, 1990
Albert Oehlen’s Untitled, 2017, commissioned for this exhibition, dispels all doubt about the ambiguity of grey. The colour chart that moves from what we might call grey to blue to brown to white showing that, in fact, any colour might be grey if seen in the right light. And vice versa, grey can become any other colour if seen from a given perspective, by a particular culture, in a specific historical moment. As Wittgenstein reminds us, we call grey, like all other colours, is always at the mercy of language, the words that we give to that peculiar cast of light on the surface before our eyes. I have no idea if it is Oehlen’s intention to cast the definition of grey into question, but this is what came to mind as I stood before this work that seems unrelated to everything he has done until now. While the form of the colour chart is nothing new—and visitors will be reminded of Gerhard Richter’s works of the same genre—its placement here at the entrance to Matière Grise as a claim about grey, is innovative.
Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 2017
The exhibition confirms all my convictions that grey is the most exciting colour. While each work on exhibition has some kind of value, the curation is what makes this show fascinating. Matière Grise brings together all of the materials in our world that are grey: steel, clay, oil, spray paint on cars, aluminium, charcoal and of course, paint. The exhibition consists of pieces ranging from Raymond Hains, Untitled (1990) made up of posters torn from the streets stuck on stainless steel, through Edmund de Waal’s still life of a pot, a book with a gold leaf leaning against it inside a small box, to a rock by Navid Nuur, enamelled and with indentations in which iron shavings are nestled. All of this matter is grey, and together, they remind us that grey matters.
Loris Gréaud, Trajectories, 2017
My favourite of the individual pieces is Loris Gréaud’s Trajectories, 2017.  Car waste oil has been smeared across absorbent paper, mounted and framed in black oak. The bevelled edges of the paper which is mounted on board and then made precious through a frame. The unevenness of the paper on which the oil is smeared thus becomes foregrounded and similarly makes the oil as medium poetic. The oil raises many associations; the cars from which it has been wasted, the environment from which it has robbed, the economy it turns around, remind us that oil is such a politically and economically potent substance. And here, in Trajectories, oil makes paper sensuous and aesthetically pleasing, and in turn, delicate.
Jérémy Demester, Vin d'Anjou IX, 2017
It is interesting to note that all the pieces are abstract, and all are tactile, material and or sumptuous surfaces. And like Trajectories they all engage some form of transformation, either of the material or the grey. Each piece therefore reflects back on the colour grey. The shiny reflective surface of Jérémy Demester’s, Vin d’Anjoy IX, 2017 is hung opposite Gréaud’s Trajectories and looks blue by comparison, across the other side of the room. The two are in conversation, reflecting on their differences—reflective opposite absorbent—and through juxtaposition, their own materiality. In this example, we see how grey has the capacity to make ethereal substances material—oil, water, air, and of course, paint are made into things, distinct, but dependent on each other for definition. We see this transformation, literally, in the fourth panel of Hains’ Untitled. A horizontal blue line about 1/3 of the way down the panel turns blu paint into water, a substance. Materiality is also the conversation had by the objects of de Waal’s Tobias and his angel (2017): the objects in the box are ceramic, graphite, glass, aluminium, plexiglass, and all come together to transcend their individual identity and significance.
Günter Förg, Untitled, 2001
The question I came away with: why is it that grey is always rendered through abstraction? I don’t know the definitive answer, but I am convinced that artists turn to grey to pose the questions and problems that preoccupy, but cannot be examined through representation. Grey is a stripping back of the concerns of the aesthetic, and therefore, questions are resolved in grey where other colours have no idea. Thus, Günther Förg’s ribbons of dark grey on a lighter grey background ask questions about background and foreground, the difference between line and ground, between chaos and order, labyrinthine possibilities.

My commitment to grey stems from the fact that grey has to work with other colours, in different materials in order for its brilliance to shine through. Grey doesn’t have an easy life. And this exhibition is memorable because it is only in the coming together of the different works that all of this magic happens in the Max Hetzler gallery.

All images copyright Max Hetzler Gallery