Published by Safe-T-Gallery Inc.
Don Burmeister: Owner/Editor
Barbara Confino: Associate Editor
The annual New Photography series at The Museum of Modern Art might be as good an indicator of the moods and whims of the institutional-academic art establishment as any. This year the exhibition expands to six photographers, its focus being somewhere off in the middle distance. Four of the photographers are represented by vaguely personal, vaguely socially involved documentary projects. The other two are archivists who artfully present photographs appropriated from other sources and then manipulated. All six are heavily concept driven, and a number seem to be oblivious to the quality of the physical prints that are displayed. (And one artist’s work has been almost contemptuously undermined by a thoughtless installation.) But if there were a one-word description of the mood of this show it would have to be ennui. This is not because the photographers are sleeping on the job. If anything they are all too earnest in their approach, the curator unable to include even a hint of humor, joy or even sarcasm.
Of the six, the most sophisticated work was that of New York based artist Moyra Davey. Working in the mail art tradition of Ray Johnson, she mails friends folded photographic prints centered around various themes libraries and coffee shops is one, lighting fixtures another.) Unlike the early Fluxus mailers however, she asks the recipients for the prints back, and then mounts them in grids (think On Kawara postcards.) The mailing paraphernalia of tape, stamps and labels fills one quadrant of each print, and provides an interesting dimensionality to the images, the overall grid becoming a quiet meditation on everyday life.
Pride of place in this show goes to Deana Lawson, who is represented by a series of large, color, environmental portraits. The press materials claim the images reflect “Western and African portraiture conventions”, although the pan-cultural tradition of photographic voyeurism seems to be more dominant, the series ending rather incongruously with an image of what could be a Vodou or Santeria altar. Huh? (Imagine Diane Arbus spending time at her local GLBT center rather than at a nudist resort in New Jersey and you have the flavor of this work.)
The other photographers in the show have less presence. Viviane Sassen (a Dutchwoman) grew up in Africa and has lived and traveled extensively through the continent. She is represented by a series of color photographs ‘dream images’ taken at various undisclosed locations, frequently of figures with their faces concealed. Frankly, there are now about 7 billion dreamers in the world, and many of them have cameras too, so the images presented in this show hardly make a dent.
The images of Doug Rickard are another matter, still. He has photographed his computer screen to make images, all of them originating on Google Street View, the program that photographs every single street, bicycle-path, and hidden corner in the world for access on your home computer. There is supposed to be some political statement in Rickard’s choice of images they are all of low-income areas of America, but this just amounts to vicarious slumming. And, why not just look at Google StreetView yourself? <Google Maps>
The final set of work could have been the most interesting of the six. Zhang Dali is a Chinese artist who has been collecting and documenting the changes in imagery used by the Chinese government, particularly during the reign of Chairman Mao. He has found early images and then documented the changes to them as they re-appear over the subsequent years. For each image Zhang mounts his several sources on a board, adding background information in a caption in Chinese and English. Although some changes seem innocuous, putting in a curtain in place of a cluttered background on a handshake shot, others can be examined in the manner that Soviet images from the same era were, to see who gets removed in each subsequent publication of the same group shot.
I put my evaluation of Zhang’s work in the conditional above because the installation is one of the most perverse I have encountered in recent years. This is work that requires you to get close, read the text, go back and forth between images, but here it is installed in a double row of pieces reaching from well above my line of sight (and I’m over 6 ft tall) and down to within a few feet off the ground. In other words only the most agile and dedicated viewer can comfortably take in this work. Surely, half the number of examples lined up at a reasonable height would have doubled the impact.
George Georgiou is a British documentary photographer, and his images are sturdy, high quality personal reportage of Turkey. His prints, however, are disappointing. Done in the high-resolution style of Joel Sternfeld or Steven Shore, they seem to have been shot with a journalist’s quality digital camera. Therefore they suffer when blown up to the gallery size necessary for MoMA’s ill-proportioned spaces. These images, as well as Viviane Sassen’s, look far better on the computer screen than in large prints.
Right next door to this exhibition is the museum’s multimedia extravaganza ‘Talk to Me’ filled with scores of digital flat screens. Perhaps the Department of Photography should consider borrowing some after that show closes, so it can present contemporary digital images the way they look best on a digital screen.
By now the utterly atrocious conditions of the new MOMA building are old news, and may well have contributed to the overall feeling that this show is just a bit tired. Still, the New Photography imprimatur is a valued credit for any photographer, so we can expect to see these photographers in greater depth in the future, hopefully under more felicitous circumstances.