Monday, November 20, 2017

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Surface Tension @ Marian Goodman, Paris Gallery

Hiroshi Sugimoto Surface Tension installation @ Marian Goodman Gallery
Standing in Marian Goodman's Marais Gallery for Sugimoto's Surface Tension exhibition, we forget we are in darkness because the light emanating from the photographs (as well as the spotlights shining on them) makes the space luminescent. It’s as difficult to describe the endless fascination of these photographs of a single subject as it is to explain how photographs in the dark can give off the impression of being in a light filled room. So you will have to believe me when I say that this exhibition is a never-ending narrative of surprise.

Hiroshi Sugimoto Surface Tension installation @ Marian Goodman Gallery
Seeing this many of Sugimoto’s seascape photographs together in one space changes everything. It changes the way that we look at his photography, it changes the way that we see the world, it changes the way that we understand photography. These photographs of seascapes in which the sky can be a leaden black weight on a fragile sea, or sea and sky can be indistinguishable expanses of white, open up everything we thought we knew about the sea.  I even suspect this might be one of those exhibitions that change our expectations of what art does.
Hiroshi Sugimoto Surface Tension installation @ Marian Goodman Gallery
So what do we see? It’s the same image over and over again of the sea, the sky and the horizon line shot over time at different locations around the world over a number of years. The form of the image is always the same with the horizon running exactly midway through the photographic composition. Sugimoto photographs every sea across the world; the Pacific Ocean, the Celtic Sea, the Tasman Sea, the Sagami Sea and the Aegean Sea being some of those pictured in the exhibition. And although it's always the sea, each sea and each image is also different. What we see is the sea in its infinity, proliferating and reaching into infinity, endlessly transformed by the weather, the light, the location and from photograph to photograph in the exhibition. The sea is never the same, ever. Sugimoto’s form of repetition that never repeats pushes the photograph to its limits of abstraction. Over time with these images it doesn’t matter where they are taken because they tell nothing of the place itself. They become self-enclosed abstract worlds of their own that refer only to the sea in another abstract, unlocatable place.
Hiroshi Sugimoto Surface Tension installation @ Marian Goodman Gallery
 Sugimoto’s seascapes draw our attention to the horizon as the most mysterious and enigmatic of “objects” or phenomena. It can be a clearly defined line between sky and sea, or erased by the haze of the air, but whichever form it takes, the human eye is unable to see and to hold the line of the horizon. And because Sugimoto has removed all familiar markers – perhaps a gull in the sky, a cloud passing by, a ship, or even waves on the ocean — means that we have no access to the sea, the sky and the horizon. Nothing on either side of the horizon helps us to grasp what is in the image. We are left with wild and overwhelming visions of a phenomenon that cannot be controlled or ever fully understood by our eye. In this sense, photography would seem to be the exact wrong medium to capture the sea. Because the sea is constantly evading the eye, even that of the camera, while photography wears its capacity to capture on its surface.
Image result for sugimoto seascapes
Hiroshi Sugimoto, Carribian Sea Jamaica, 1980
It’s not just photography that is challenged in the seascapes; indeed, one might argue that, Sugimoto is doing the work of contemporary painting. The photographs over time are less about photography than they become a struggle or negotiation with the questions of painting – texture, tone, hue, light and the unreliability of vision. The sea has fascinated painters throughout history, and particularly in modern times. From Casper David Friedrich’s distant, ethereal bodies of water to the churned-up emotions of J M W Turner’s stormy seas, painters have sought to explore their age and their medium through depictions of the sea. In its multiple and infinite variations, in the light of the moon, the sun, under clouds, in rain, at night and during the day, Sugimoto’s manipulated seas start to bear the brushstrokes of painting. I am not the first to see Rothko in these seas, and indeed, the connections to late 20th century abstract painting are everywhere. The concerns of Sugimoto’s seascapes are the same as those of his colleagues working in paint. To give one example, the horizon is always dead centre, but it appears to be in different places depending on the light during the day or night, the weather, the latitude and longitude of the location. Thus, the images become also about optical illusion, the forces on our vision, and our resultant willingness to submit to the manipulation of the image (and the sea). Accordingly, we might say that the sea in Sugimoto’s photographs comes to teach us even more than can be imagined. We even learn about our own limitations, particularly, the limitations of our physical vision, but also, our willingness to be deceived by an illusion.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Jasper Johns, Something Resembling Truth @ Royal Academy, London

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958
As I entered the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Royal Academy, I was so excited that I could almost hear my heart beat. Johns is an artist whose work has deeply engaged me over decades, and the prospect of a full retrospective was more than my anticipation could handle. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of entering a space to be greeted by Flag, 1958 or Target, 1961 there in front of me, in the flesh, after seeing them so often in reproduction. As I wandered through the first couple of rooms including that filled with grey numbers, I was mesmerized. Johns’ paintings are more intellectual than emotional, often playing on words, colors, undercutting what we think we know, and the history of painting. But in the first rooms, I was carried away by the thick and luscious, if truncated, brushstrokes as they danced over newspaper, and I experienced the joy of being together with Johns' fastidious crafting of the painted surface, and his complicated use of stencils.
Jasper Johns, Map, 1962-63
Once I came down to earth, and was able to take it all in, I ultimately found the exhibition to be disappointing. This wasn’t the failing of Johns’ great art, but the curation didn’t capture the complexity of the artist’s thinking and the sophistication of his work. The paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings work on so many levels, as playful games that can have a viewer roaring with laughter, as treatises on the history of art, as modernist explorations of the very definition of painting, as philosophical reflections on life and identity, as searing critiques of American politics, and the list goes on. But at the Royal Academy, these works by arguably one of the greatest living painters, are reduced to a series of somewhat simplified themes: paintings as objects, changing dimensions, words and voices, time and transience, and so on.
Jasper Johns, Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981
I hear critics and art lovers alike dismissing Johns after 1980. I agree that the late work is not consistently outstanding, but I am not one of those people who write off late-Johns. I happen to think that the Catenary works of the 2000s are among the most sophisticated paintings in his oeuvre, and some of the most complex paintings produced this century. In them the catenary string, as the most perfect modernist form, is consistently cut short, embedded in encaustic paint, hung from side panels with the excess at its side; it is manipulated in all manner of ways to comment on and critique painting from the Renaissance through Modernity as the measure of what painting can and can’t do. No one else alive is doing this with the same level of intensity in painting. I also believe the later cross hatch works, their fascination with form and their connections to the fragmented body, music, dance, and the great masterpieces of high modernist art are at the centre of his oeuvre. That is, their concerns recur and are developed in the later lithographs and screen prints especially. However, the paucity of these media and the insistence on a limited set of themes in the exhibition mean those connections are not shown.
Jasper Johns, Catenary (Jacob's Ladder) , 1999
There’s also the title: Something Resembling Truth. Of course, given the title of my forthcoming book — The Truth is Always Grey — I wholeheartedly approve of the title. However, nothing in the exhibition leads the viewer towards an understanding of what the title means. Or indeed, how the museum is using the title to explore Johns’ work. I also really enjoyed the non-chronological juxtaposition of works from different periods in his career. But as far as I could see, aside from the thematic groupings, there was little that came of the juxtapositions. I think back to the Richter exhibition at Tate Modern when unlikely juxtapositions gave us a sense of how the artist’s fascination for color and form, for example, are explored in still life and abstraction at the very same moment. In the Richter exhibition, the curation allowed us to see Richter’s mind in motion on and between canvases. But juxtaposition in this Johns exhibition merely showed him as dexterous in the use of materials and the variety of his concerns. When grey paintings and the brightly colored canvases are placed next to each other, we learn nothing about his use of colour. Or when the cross-hatches from the 1980s are placed in the same room as Painting Bitten By a Man from 1961, we learn nothing of Johns’ preoccupation with surfaces, bodies, repetition and uniqueness. It’s in these ways that the depth of his thinking was placed secondary to images that happened to look nice together.
Jasper Johns, Painting Bitten by a Man, 1961
The angry and funny young man who made flags and bullseyes, placed casts of his body parts as the framed extension of the canvas, hung cutlery, painted over the red white and blue flag in a gamut of greys and made the map of America fall off the canvas, as the country was on its way to Vietnam, is not here at the Royal Academy. Visitors will luxuriate in the visual density of Johns’ oeuvre, but they won’t learn about its intellectual complexity or experience its emotional depth. I believe that it is possible to look at Jasper Johns’ extensive body of work and see everything there is to learn about art and its trajectory over the past fifty years. But the lessons are probably not going to be learnt from a visit to the Royal Academy this Fall. Johns’ admirers and critics will be awed by the well-hung works in the flesh, but newcomers might not give them the attention they warrant.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Thomas Ruff. Photographs 1979-2017 @ Whitechapel Gallery, London

Thomas Ruff, Machine 1390, 2003 
For the second time in the last few months I have seen an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery that has refused the ideologically suspect curatorial narrative of chronology. And in the case of the new Thomas Ruff retrospective, this choice is not only innovative but it invites us to see the German photographer’s body of work as it should be seen. Ruff’s photographs are always made in series, both connected through their process of production and presentation, as well as, in their conceptual concerns. Each photograph as a unit unto itself makes no sense. For this reason, it takes a little time to acclimate to the exhibition and its logic, but after the first couple of rooms, I realized how provocative, rich and misunderstood the work would be if seen in any other presentation. 
Thomas Ruff, Nacht/Night 5, 1992

Ruff’s photographs always reproduce not the historical event seen in the image — which we may or may not recognize — but they manipulate and re-present the way that the photograph was used either to record the event itself, or in the historical moment that it took place. Thus, for example, in the series, Nights (1992-96), we see multiple images of the empty streets of Düsseldorf through the same surveillance night vision cameras that were used in the fighting of the Gulf War carried out a year earlier. The photographs of Düsseldorf are beautiful, aesthetically very pleasing to the point where we do not recognize the streets of Düsseldorf in the images, but rather are drawn to their photographic representation. We recognize in them the distinctly hazy outlines produced in very early photographic images, thereby infusing them with nostalgia. Indeed, Ruff reproduces images of a Düsseldorf that we do not recognize. Factories, industrial buildings and structures such as chimneys, storage facilities, empty and silent streets are not those we would associate with northern Germany’s wealthy business hub.

Thomas Ruff, Negative-Artists 01, 2014
In all of Ruff’s photographs, the production process involves not only a series of intricate technical strategies, but the multiple strategies always lead to a transformation. In a particularly powerful example, Ruff’s Negatives, 2014 involve a process in which Ruff scans positive 19th century photographic prints, digitally reverses the tones from sepia to blue, black and white, so the images appear as negatives. Not only do the series of photographs remove the works from their historical narratives, but by inverting the positive/negative photographic print, they also invert the political implications of the images. Thus, in an image that might have been an otherwise benign documentation of a 19th century collector surrounded by his possessions, the image becomes a politically charged commentary on the historical era of the original photograph. The face of the collector becomes that of a colonizer, however, he and the figures of his statues and paintings now have black faces instead of white. In such a photograph, the whole discourse of colonialism that we are reminded of as we see these images is completely reversed through Ruff’s process of production.
Thomas Ruff, Haus Nr. II III, 1990
Ruff is also interested in the interstice between photography and other media. In a recent series, w.g.l.07, 2017, Ruff takes archival images of a 1958 exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s abstract works in the Whitechapel Gallery. Ruff’s photographs of Pollock's paintings are reproduced in black and white with the carpet and the suspended ceiling in brilliant colour. Thus, where Pollock’s paintings caused quite a reaction on the artist’s London debut in 1958, in Ruff’s images, the paintings are black and white decorations of a radical architecture. Ruff’s photograph transforms the architectural space of the gallery into the most interesting aspect of the image. In addition, we find ourselves standing in the very same place in the gallery that appears in the photographs, thus Ruff challenges the line between reality and illusion in the photographic image: photography represents architecture as dwarfing painting, and both in turn are represented as a re-presentation when placed within the gallery in which we stand. However, when we realize the gallery has been changed since its appearance in the 1958 reproduction, we see the space in which we stand as no more than a representation.
Thomas Ruff, Interior 1A, 979
In a series entitled Interiors (1979-83), Ruff raises another set of concerns that will stay with him throughout his career. He photographs the interiors of homes of his friends – corners, the edge of a wall, the taps without the full sink. There is the odd intimate object, but what’s striking is the lack of humanness in these images. They may be the living spaces of his friends, but they are modernist compositions, attendant to the form, framing, color, the vertical and horizontal lines of shelves, cupboards, pictures and wallpaper seams. The significance of the objects is not explored, but their presence nevertheless creates intimacy. The photographs are both intimate and not, nostalgic and not. In addition, like Ruff’s other series, the works may be placed on the same wall, but they are only related to each other through their process of production: the photographs may be taken in different houses, some of them may be taken in the same house, it’s impossible to say. But like all of the series, what’s important is not that we find logical connections and meaning in the content of the images but in the fact that they are placed in a line on the wall.
Thomas Ruff, Photographs 1979-2017
Installation View @ Whitechapel Gallery
Lastly, a word on the curation which I found compelling. The pictures are not placed chronologically and neither are those in one room all the same size, or necessarily all using the same processes of production and transformation. Small c-prints are placed opposite oversized works that are literally ten times their size. Thus, like the logic of the works in their series, they make meaning next to and opposite each other, rather than in any kind of traditional narrative unfolding.