Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Evan and the Picture Postcard Fair

Last weekend, in a fit of geeky indulgence, I went to the International Spring Postcard Show followed a few days later by a visit to the Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard show at the Met. The two were obviously related in that they both contained postcard collections, but there were deeper connections. Walker Evans seems to have been a dedicated, if not compulsive, collector. As we learned from Jeff Rosenheim's beautifully presented exhibit (and fabulous book), Evans cataloged his postcards in a detailed and meticulous way. One might have even found his cataloging obsessive until one went to the postcard fair at the New Yorker Hotel in midtown. Dear readers, if you have never been to a postcard fair, I have no words for the combination of library science and pure fetish that you will find there.

I have no doubt that there are millions of different postcards in the world. I have no doubt that collectors need those millions to be divided into sub-categories and sub-sub-categories. But I was astounded by how specific the dealers need to be in order to satisfy the surgically precise desires of their customers. The Evans show left no doubt about the quantity of main categories: geography, parades, cars, factories, hotels, rivers, mountains, medical, military, etc, etc. But I took a perverse pleasure in seeing categories I couldn't have imagined having their own sub-categories. For example: did you know that there are enough postcards of lunatic asylums that they merit their own section? Did you know that there are so many of them them that the "Asylum" section is broken down by state and country! "Excuse me, do have any postcards of Montana asylums? No, no, no, not South Dakota. I only collect Montana asylums".

I have to say, it really did have a kind of sexual fetish kind of vibe. I mean, I think porn vendors and brothels are a few of the other commercial ventures where desire is so parsed out the nth degree. That being said, I am not immune. I went because I have my own little corner of fetishistic photo collecting: pictures of violinists. And sure enough, every vendor I approached asked me straight away what itch needed scratching. When I told them, they pointed me to music>instruments>strings>violins. Violins would always be next to guitars, banjos, harps, accordions, bands, winds, saxophones, etc, etc. I didn't have to waste my time with all those other boring instruments so I could bore right into my little neurocenter dopamine hit with violins. All around me, other collectors (obsessives?) were riffling at lightning speed through their own sub-sub-sub-category of pleasure looking for the contact high of a good find.

I have to say I had a great time. I had intended to spend 2 hours then head over to the New York Photo Festival in Brooklyn. The fair won out and I spent 4 plus hours and quite a few dollars. But even if you're not the obsessive photo geek I am, a visit to a fair like this is well worth the time. There are great examples of photography to be found (sometimes for like $3), an incredible view of a hidden part of society, and a glimpse of the lengths to which humans will go to try to organize the chaos of the world. Check it out.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

3 Shows in NYC

Three shows opened recently in NYC that prominently feature 4 artists I've written about before in previous blogs. I'm such a fan of the artists, I can't resist giving them a little further plug for their current shows.

Michael Mazzeo Gallery
just opened a group show called Transmutations - Abstraction in Nature. Chris McCaw is included with his spectacular paper negative prints that have been seared, scorched, and punctured by the light of the sun. They remain favorites of mine and well worth seeing again. In his first NYC gallery show (long overdue), Christian Erroi presents his signature photo-sculptures: Lucite encased film transparencies. He successfully bridges a view of nature that allows for metaphor as well as science. I love them. Open through June 20.

Koichiro Kurita has a solo show at Sepia Gallery. When writing about Mr. Kurita, it is easy to fall into cliché. One speaks about "Zen" imagery, or simplicity, or "Japanese sensibility". One can also be seduced by the sumptuousness of his materials and working methods. As I have noted before, Mr. Kurita uses the antiquarian techniques of platinum-palladium, salt prints and collodion printing. His paper is always the unbelievably exquisite hand-made Gampi paper manufactured according to centuries' old traditions.

While all of this information is true, it does not approach the core of Mr. Kurita's art. There are many photographers who do something approximating this work, but no one has the pure grace and focus that Kurita has. Somehow, all of these materials seem just right in his hands; they coalesce to form a seamless language. What would be cliché or artifice done by someone less rigorous, seems here to be the essence of a landscape. Check out "Old Field Beech" "Weeping Beech". The interplay between the leaves and the reflections of the leaves is balanced in a way that makes one question if it is an abstraction yet also communicates some essential "tree-ness". Likewise, in "Kasumi", one may first have the impression of seeing a Callahan wannabe in the abstracted waving grasses. But this is something else. The Gampi paper, the platinum salts, the patient exposure marry to form an impression of nature that is Kurita's own. There's nothing really new here, but that's like saying "seen one ocean seen 'em all". Not to be missed. Through June 27th.

Marco Breuer continues to explore and expand his list of ways to abuse a piece of photo paper. The inaugural show at Von Lintel Gallery's new space has five different series on view from this always engaging artist. I especially loved the the "shot" pieces in which photo paper had received and recorded a shotgun blast. Different colors registered where various pellets hit at varying temperatures and velocities. While not all of the show was as inventive as I've come to expect from Mr. Breuer, it is certainly as intellectually rigorous and sensually satisfying as ever. Great work. Up through June 13th.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Reflections on Photolucida

I was invited to be a reviewer at the recent incarnation of Photolucida in Portland, Oregon from April 23rd to April 26th. The event had over 64 reviewers looking at over 160 portfolios. I had been invited because my friend Barbara Tannenbaum of the Akron Art Museum recommended me to the organizers. I recently read her blog on the event and I realized that I had shirked my responsibility as a reviewer and a blogger by not posting some comments. I mean, part of why I was invited, I imagine, was so that I would write about the festival and post some thoughts about the artists I met.

Read Barbara's blog here.

First let me say that the review sessions were beautifully organized. Each reviewer was responsible to attend 2 of the 3 sessions each day. A schedule was available well before the event so I could do some preliminary research on the artists I would meet. During the festival, artists showed up every 20 minutes as promised, and no one was allowed to stray too far from the alotted time slots. While 12 portfolio reviews every day for 4 days isn't exactly easy, neither was it too much. I have reviewed other places with a much more demanding schedule where I could feel my brain melting into photo soup as the day wore on. In Portland, I was always fresh enough to be alert and positive about each portfolio I saw. Kudos to all the dedicated pros who work to make Photolucida work.

My philosophy as a reviewer is simple: how can I help this artist? I don't dwell too much on whether I like the work or not. I'm looking to see what the artist is trying to accomplish by attending this review. If I can be of help, I'm happy. Some artists feel that their work is still in process and want comments, others are looking for representation or a book deal. Of course, I can't wave a magic wand and make their wishes come true, but I always look to open doors or show them doors they didn't know about. I'm keenly aware that they paid a fee to hear my opinion, so I want to offer some kind of value that goes beyond my simple likes and dislikes. It's not perfect -- some artists will find me more helpful than others -- but I hope that overall I was a productive visit for the majority of artists who met me.

It's also a bit of a roulette wheel which artists you meet. Reading Barbara's blog, I saw that of the artists she wrote about, I had only met one. But a few that I didn't meet sounded intriguing and made me wish I had had the opportunity to see their work. I did see more work than on my official schedule. Some artists ask for extra time, which I gladly did to the degree that my schedule allowed, but it wasn't always possible. So a promising artist like Ryan Zoghlin asked for time, and I never got a chance to meet him. My loss.

One practice that Photolucida implements would be a welcome addition to the NYC photo scene if someone were to organize it. It's called a portfolio walk. The way Lucida does it is to set up tables in a large room big enough to hold 60-80 portfolios and a crowd to view them. The public is invited in to walk around and view what's on the tables, talk with the artists, take a business card, or schedule a more private view. After an hour, the artists pack up and a new set of 60-80 artists come in to take their place. Rinse and repeat until all of the scheduled artists have had a turn. It's a wonderfully interactive, unjudgemental, and social way for a relatively large number of artists to have their work seen by a relatively large amount of people. It's sort of a hybrid portfolio view/one day art fair. Cool.

Following Barbara's lead, here are a few artists whose work I found noteworthy. In alphabetical order with a short comment:

Mary Farmilant had a series devoted to what she called "ghost hospitals" -- hospitals which have been closed due to lack of funding or support. She had an innovative portfolio presentation which combined photos with vials of hospital smells and a CD of hospital sounds. I loved her concept of an immersive photo environment.

Jane S. Noel showed me work from a project called "First Impressions". She distributed hundreds of questionnaires based on a photo of herself. While she allowed each responder to see only one photo, she actually used many different ones that only changed her hair color. She then collated the responses according to hair color and displayed them with the photo. I found it to be an intriguing exploration of prejudice and preconception based on appearance.

Brian Parkin showed me a typology of signs from industrial sites in the southwest. Solid work

Christopher Rauschenberg is working on a series from the flea markets in the north of Paris. As he freely admits, it's a work in progress. There were a number of very strong photographs, and the project knits together beautifully. I'm eager to see the finished book and exhibition. I think it'll be great.

I had seen Austrian photographer Reiner Riedler's series about fantasy theme parks when it was part of the Month of Photography in Bratislava last November. The series is called "Fake Holidays". This is very mature work just waiting to be pounced on by a good US dealer. As of the date of my review with him, he did not have US representation. Check it out.

Photolucida was a fabulous experience for me. Seeing work, meeting artists, networking with professional from the gallery and museum worlds, investigating local museums, galleries and shops (see post below on Ampersand) -- it all added up to a satisfying and stimulating trip. I hope I'll be invited back.