The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

WalkAbout: A Chelsea Trio

Photo by Josef Koudelka . Source:
Josef Koudelka, "Greece" 1994

Once again my ICP class and I braved the NY gallery scene to discover what there was to see, this time the field of exploration, Chelsea. Of the six or seven galleries visited, three seemed to hold our interest most. And of the three, Pace-MacGill with its stunning Koudelka show had the greatest impact.

There is always something dark about Koudelka. Defiant and deadly and proud. Duende, the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca called it. The tragic sense of life, his countryman, Unamuno, wrote. One sees it in his bitter blacks, his coarse granularity, his unsmiling surfaces. It is a vision very out of fashion these days when a banal and disaffected pose is more generally the sensibility of choice.

Yet in the splendid show at Pace, Koudelka’s sensibility displays its power once more. Certainly as they stood there, in that large room, and stared, the members of my class seemed more than a little taken by it. Surrounded by his panoramas it is hard not to acknowledge that sombre music.

Photo by Josef Koudelka . Source: pacegallery.com
Josef Koudelka, "Danube, Romania" 1994

Photo by Josef Koudelka . Source:
Josef Koudelka, "Brandenburg Germany" 1996

One heard it on the barge moving dirge-like down the Danube, the statue of Lenin tied firmly to its deck. And in the broken Colossus at Amman. For that matter, it resounds in all his rough textured surfaces. The long format adds to the impression, the images reflecting off one another like the long resonant notes of a Bulgarian basso.

Famous for his daring photographs of the Russian invasion of Prague and his equally daring flight from his country, Koudelka is probably the greatest East European photographer of his generation. The grim history of the region marked the work of almost all the poets and artists born there: from Zbigniew Herbert to Roman Cielewicz, Henryk Tomaszewski, Jan Svankmajer, and Milo Forman. And Koudelka is no exception. In his brilliant series on gypsies he captured all the pain of the outcast without ever resorting to melodrama or overt emotionalism.

In these images filled with rocks and bricks and low hanging skies, in these inanimate things, we find the same Black Forest poetry, the same connection between men and animals, animals and earth, earth and snow, snow and water. An ecology of suffering unites them all. And even though there are few living things in this particular show, certainly no human things, the pulse is there. One could put a stethoscope to the earth and hear it.

Photo by George Platt Lynes . Source:  courtesy Robert Miller Gallery
George Platt Lynes, "Pygmalion and Galatea" 1937

Koudelka, of course, couldn’t be more different from George Platt Lynes and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose elegant surfaces adorn the walls of the Robert Miller Gallery. Together they explore the homoerotic esthetic as it evolved in photography over several generations.

Wonderfully printed and lit, with the body beautiful the motif uniting them, this work has much in common with fashion photography, just as fashion photography has much in common with contemporary staged art photography. And though many younger photographers would deny any association with these slick and selected surfaces, it is nevertheless there for all to see.

Photo by George Platt Lynes . Source:  courtesy Robert Miller Gallery
George Platt Lynes, "Acteon" 1937

Elegant, artificial, and decidedly theatrical, in each photographer’s work sex is illusion and mythologized desire. Staged and ritualized, turned into a ballet of costumes and masks, or else a causal snapshot of the star undressed, for them Beauty is always posing, assuming a character or a position in the drama of the bedroom.

A very different but equally artificial sensibility is that of Paulette Tavormina whose work is shown at Robert Mann. Taking as her template the paintings of Luis Melendez she recreates in photography the detailed depiction of still life familiar from classical painting.

Photo by Paulette Tavormina  . Source:  courtesy Robert Miller Gallery
Paulette Tavormina , "Still Life with Quince and Jug, after L.M" 2014
Doubling as both a commercial food and art photographer, Tavormina uses her exceptional skill at lighting and visual organization to combine the meticulous practice of a photographer like Irving Penn with the earthy palette of a 18th century painter. A number of contemporary photographers follow this is model, sometimes seriously, other times in jest. Tavorimina at least is straightforward and presents her work without pretension to socio-cultural commentary. If just for that reason alone, it is worth looking at. It may not be great work, but it is very well done, indeed.

Finally, as a coda to all this looking was a bit of eating and drinking to round off the experience. An accommodating local bar provided the venue and we provided the talk, detailing and debating the merits of what we had viewed, adding the social satisfactions of exchange to the solitary ones of seeing.

WalkAbout: A Chelsea Trio by Barbara Confino

Artist and writer Barbara Confino’s new series, Walkabout: The City As Image, explores urban life as a visual experience. Functioning as both cameraman and editor, the walker sees the physical and human environment as if it were a film in the making with its connections, contradictions, collage-like juxtapositions, and unexpected harmonies
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