New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 28 June 25 to July 1, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Inflated Images
Richard Misrach

Photo by Richard Misrach . Source:
Richard Misrach.

Size matters. Or does it? If you want to stun and overawe with sheer scale, then, of course it does. Fascists have always known that. But if you seek to offer a deeper experience, one that resonates in the mind, sonorous and suggestive, then size is irrelevant, sometimes even counter productive.

Richard Misrach, a photographer I admire, has fallen prey to the contemporary obsession with scale. Either that, or he has been pressured by galleries who believe size is the golden road to big bucks. His new show at Pace/Macgill, On the Beach 2.0, is all about BIG. There are only thirteen prints and every one huge.

Gigantism runs rampant in the art world. One only has to take a quick look back in time to know it all started with painting. The Abstract Expressionists, to be precise, defiantly rejected easel painting in favor of the billboard esthetic pioneered by advertising. One had to paint Large, or be considered effete, a label American artists in particular have long dreaded. Think of Hemingway and his life long striving to be mister macho man.

Combined with the preeminence of film—the immersive media par excellence–- billboard advertisements, building wraparounds, and humongous video screens are the most dramatic visual experiences of our time. Taking their cue from propaganda, Madison Avenue instinctively understood Large, and excelled at making all other media suddenly seem small. If photographers are competing with painters, painters, consciously or not, have been competing with advertising, something Andy Warhol very clearly understood. Artists, too, want to dominate the environment, to loom large and swallow their viewers whole. How could easel painting -– never mind poor little photography–– compete? The answer is they couldn’t.

But now that photography has conquered the art world, it, too, wants to strut its stuff and dominate the viewer, so as not to be considered an effete, little medium of no importance: hand art as a painter acquaintance of mine once contemptuously called it.

And so Richard Misrach, perhaps the finest photographer working in the landscape genre today, has hopped on the same train to Brobdingnag. To make matters worse, the work in this particular show is derivative, a weak emulation of Harry Callahan’s exquisite series on Lake Michigan and Cape Cod done, oh, some forty or fifty years ago, in which he paid homage to large bodies of water with their the vast spaces and minute, repetitive forms by photographing water in a relatively calm, featureless state, a tiny person, usually his wife, centered in the image.

Let’s look at the Callahan next to the Misrach.

Photo by Richard Misrach . Source:
Richard Misrach, "Untitled,February 10, 6:38PM" 2012.

Photo by Harry Callahan . Source:
Harry Callahan, "Eleanor and Barbara, Lake Michigan" 1953.

Moreover, Misrach’s Blackwater, though quite beautiful, clearly quotes Frederick Sommer’s innovative work from the 1930’s. Specifically, Sommer’s pioneering all over compositions showing the Arizona desert as a featureless sea of repetitive forms. Or Callahan’s own sea of infinite variations taken at Lake Michigan.

Photo by Richard Misrach . Source:
Richard Misrach, "Untitled, Blackwater 3" 2012.

Photo by Frederick Sommer . Source:
Frederick Sommer, "Arizona Landscape" 1943.

Photo by Harry Callahan . Source: ../PANPICS/Image2955f.jpg
Harry Callahan, "Lake Michigan".

Borrowing from his brilliant, more modest predecessors would not be especially reprehensible if Misrach had built on their vision to reach his own. But he hasn’t.

What is needed, Mr. Misrach, is originality of vision and depth of feeling, not size––qualities you once demonstrated most admirably in your Desert Canto series.

But not here. No, not here.

Richard Misrach

The Pace Gallery
510 W 25th St.
Chelsea         Map

Saturday, May 4 to
Saturday, June 29, 2013

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat