So get real. There is socialist realism, the kind with workers up on a pedestal, and then there is “Capitalist Realism,” in Margaret Thatcher's England. Do not ask which is more chilling. Under Stalin, Soviet photography had to choose between propaganda and experiment, and the choice could be a matter of life and death. For Brian Griffin, at Steven Kasher through April 9, the choice no longer exists. The market has its dogma, and the results are surreal. Griffin shares the gallery with Meryl Meisler and, in one of her photos, “A Scholarly View of the Jewish Mother.” Meisler presents the entirety of Long Island as one big dysfunctional family. This being the 1970s, for a gay woman about to come out of the closet and depart for Manhattan, it is also like entering a very campy theater already in progress.
Griffin looks instead to modern photography as both propaganda and experiment—both well apart from the choice between formalism and everyday life. He has the startling angles of Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky, along with their raking, glowering shadows and light. He has the poses of official sculpture, in at least one case on a pedestal. Most of all, he has the unsettling narrative impulse of Surrealism. Men in office doors could come right out of subway phone booths in a nightmarish painting by George Tooker. Sliced bread rises up and flops down across a man's bare back like steel teeth.
This is political photography—and that means both serious distrust of the reigning ideology and an obvious message of its own. “Capitalist realism,” Griffin's coinage, has a double irony. It says that the right's answer to Communism is just as oppressive, and its answer to a worker's utopia is just as unreal. In their different ways, socialist realism and free markets promise liberation, which never comes. That man on a pedestal is not bronze but a human being, only burdened by the same gestures and the same harsh tasks ahead. Fortunately, though, the sixty photographs, from the mid-1970s to 1990, do not only take sides.
“All right we are two nations,” John Dos Passos wrote during the Depression—a formulation still alive for America's left in “the 1 percent.” Griffin's work, too, divides roughly in two, between workers and management, but neither is exactly triumphant. Another laborer hammers futilely at the ice-covered Alps. Others lie on their backs, crushed beneath the pipes they meant to forge and the tools they hoped to wield. They cannot, though, resist giving the item on top a kiss. Maybe capitalism is not torture, but sadomasochism.
The men in suits, too, are more comic than sinister, not to mention slimmer and more stylish than bowler hats for René Magritte. One stares at an industrial eyesore as if on a visionary landscape, while another seems unlikely to make it out of bed. Two share a horse, like Lady Godiva dressed in gray. As in The Waste Land, a crowd flows over London Bridge, but death has not undone so many. They pass the dark confines of perhaps a limo toward a gleaming modern city, as if trapped between their overseers and their work, but with the edge on both. The bridge rails have their parallel in bright vertical bars in the foreground that may serve as a vision or a prison, too. Griffin works almost exclusively in black and white, with lights suffusing the shadows and shadows entering the light. A man seen through a cracked window gestures like a police officer making an arrest, but the cracks hold the light. Another suited man holds a letter that appears to dissolve as in a flame. A worker looks up past wreckage to what might be fireworks in the night. A show like this can become as oppressive as its subject matter, whether in its comedy or in its anger. Both, though, get to share in the light.
Brian Griffin Capitalist Realism Steven Kasher Gallery 515 W 26rd St. Chelsea Map 212 966 3978 stevenkasher.com Feb 25 through Sat, April 9, 2016 Hours: Tue-Sat, 11 to 6