Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tara Donovan at Lever House in NYC

To those of you who are in New York City or who will visit before the 5th of September, I urge you not to miss the Tara Donovan installation currently installed at Lever House in midtown Manhattan. Lever House is at 390 Park Avenue, between 53rd and 54th Streets.

Like the sculpture of Pedro Cabrita Reis and Alyson Shotz, both of whom I've written about in this blog, Ms Donovan uses quotidian materials to stunning and surprising effect. Her sculpture bends our perceptions in two ways: it transforms the space in which she has placed them, and it bends the space around it when you look through it. This piece rewards multiple viewings as it shifts according to the time of day, the amount of sunlight, and the ratio of sunlight to artificial light. It also rewards multiple perspectives. Up close, the work is a maze of mini kaleidoscopes and restricted vistas. from farther away, the work acts as a distorted lens through which we see a world that is recognizable but seen through a funhouse mirror. That one simple material used in a unique way can yield all of these new ways to see a familiar space points to Ms Donovan's brilliant eye and creative energy.

A must see.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Arles addendum: Guillaume Chauvin & Rémi Hubert

While in Arles this summer I was introduced to two young men who, with the intention of upsetting the powers that be in French photojournalism, seem to have delivered a smack to that particular wasp's nest. Except it is French photojournalism that appears to be feeling the stings. I wanted to write a short post because it seems that many of my most in-the-know photo friends on this side of the Atlantic have not heard about the story.

Guillaume Chauvin & Rémi Hubert decided to enter the prestigious Grand Prix Paris-Match du Photoreportage Etudiant after being entirely dissatisfied with last year's winners. They felt that photojournalism was limited and full of cliché. They set out to stage a photojournalism "story" using a well-worn style that they felt would be appealing to the judges. It worked. They won.

But when they stepped to the podium to accept the award, they revealed that it had all been a set-up. I think this absolves them of any kind of accusation that this is a fraud. They had a goal to shine a light on a problem that they felt the world was not seeing properly, and revealed their plan as soon as the moment was right. Their point was to be exposed, they weren't waiting to be found out or to steal the prize under false pretenses. This is not the French Jayson Blair of the NYTimes or Janet Cooke winning the Pulitzer with a faked story. In both of those cases, the point was to get away with it. The authors really wanted the prestige of winning the prize. Chauvin and Hubert wanted to mock the prize and the work it was promoting.

I think this project neatly straddles the two worlds of photojournalism and art photography. As photojournalism, it uses visual tools to address a problem that the artists felt needed to be brought to light, which is the very definition of photojournalism. As art, it falls in a grand tradition of contemporary art which creates faux mise-en-scéne in order to illustrate an artistic narrative. I think of An-My Lê, Sherry Levine, and Gregory Crewdsen as examples in this lineage.

Controversy and condemnation have followed the pair since their public admission of the project. I fall on the side that hails the success of the project, that applauds their initiative to alter the status quo, and that sees the project as successful work of art. Others are not so laudatory. They feel that it is "merely" the work of copyists (how many Picture Generation artists have heard that?), that the project was professionally and emotionally dishonest, and that Chauvin and Hubert have no real creativity.

Who knows what will follow for these two? Some of their detractor's questions will be answered in time. Perhaps this was their one-time hit. Perhaps they don't have a grand creative spark. But perhaps they do. I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt. They hit the bullseye so perfectly with their first arrow, I can't help but be curious to see where a few more arrows will fall. Smart, focused work like this doesn't happen by accident. I, for one, will be curious to follow their trajectory at least for a little while. If you're curious to read more, including some opposing views, and to see some photos, here are some links:

Jinphoto blog

thisphotothat blog

horses think blog

Kate Day's blog at the

Guillaume Chauvin's website (In french)

Rémi Hubert's website
(In french)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Studio Visit, Bela Kasa

I discovered Bela Kasa (pronounced Kasha) when I was browsing through a Hungarian online photo auction. I didn't feel quite adventurous enough to bid online, but I did want to learn more about the artist. I asked around to my Hungarian photographer friends, and I was lucky to find that Balazs Turay knows him. Since I was going to Budapest to support a show that was the net result of a sale of Capa photos by ICP to the Hungarian government, I thought this would be a great chance to meet the artist in his home and to see more work.

It turns out that Bela does not live in Budapest. He told me in an email that he was about an hour out of town and easily reachable by train. When I told my friends in Budapest where I was going, they likened my trip to "going to New Jersey". Indeed the train trip was not the most scenic I've had in my life, passing many nondescript, rundown suburban villages and some industrial parks, but I was excited by the spirit of adventure. Plus, it was a treat to leave out of the aging, distinctly "eastern" train station where all signs were in Hungarian. I wondered how much I seemed out of place to the local population.

Bela was there to meet me when I arrived in Martonvasar train station. We got in his car to drive the 10 minutes to his much smaller village where he's had a house with his family for decades. The Kasa family has a small, tidy compound in a modest, rural sort of way. After entering through a steel gate, I could see a few small buildings on the right and the main house on the left. This all framed a few dozen acres of lawn, fields, and well-tended garden. We sat down on the patio overlooking the garden and fields and started to get to know one another.

Bela went to school for photography in Germany. He worked for years as an advertising photographer both in Germany and Hungary. He is a trim man with short cropped hair, and intense, deeply focused eyes. He's had an interest in Hungarian/Gypsy folk music for years, and he's a capable musician on a number of instruments. He began traveling to the Hungarian, Romanian, and Transylvanian countryside in the 70s looking for Gypsy musicians to meet, make music with, and to learn about. The resultant photographic essays he's produced document a very personal vision of a world few see, and a world which is quickly disappearing. He noted to me that many of the musicians in his photos are already dead, and that the communities are dispersed or dwindling. You can see some of his images in the book "Hungarian Folk Instruments" by Robert Mandel. Otherwise the printed versions of his work are simply not available.

His perspective is one that is particularly seen from the inside. he knows the the whole story of everyone he photographs; fathers, wives, uncles, cousins, nephews, etc., these are not anonymous portraits. He participates in wedding ceremonies, funerals, village festivals, and more. Some of these, he told me, last for days. For example, the photograph I bought from him shows a wedding band playing after more than a day of festivities. He told me he took the viola from a sleeping band member and joined the other musicians. After a time, he put down his instrument, and took this photo.

Though it's visual syntax doesn't break any new ground photographically, I think it's a remarkable picture. I don't believe there are many vintage copies of his images, but in the case of an artist like Mr. Kasa, I don't think that's the point. His view of this insular and misunderstood culture deserves to be seen and to achieve a wider distribution; probably in the form of some kind of publication. Take a look at his website to see a broad cross section of his work.
Bela Kasa website

After we had looked at a few folders of his work, Bela treated me to a delicious country lunch: chicken sautéed with Hungarian paprika, a loaf of hearty, fresh bread, and a salad composed of vegetables mostly from his garden. The Hungarian style peppers were just coming in. Yum. After lunch, Bela drove me back to Martonvasar to catch the train back to the city. It was a pleasure to have such an intimate introduction to an artist and a place that are so distinctly and beautifully Hungarian. It's what makes the soul of travel worthwhile for me.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lora Reynolds Gallery show

I just received an email from artist Graham Dolphin about a show in Austin, Texas he's in. It's at Lora Reynolds Gallery, and while I don't usually comment on shows I can't see in person, this one looked too good to pass up. An excerpt from the gallery press release:

This exhibition brings together works that are concerned with the act of mark-making, including drawing, sculpture, video, cut paper, and painted wood. The show considers the primacy of how the pen or pencil hit the page, how the artists have controlled and exploited the possibilities of their mark, and how a line or curve can
occupy a space.

Artists included in the exhibition who are particularly dear to me and/or included in my collection are: Graham Dolphin, Tara Donovan, Teresita Fernández, Dan Fischer, Ewan Gibbs,
Mitzi Pederson, Ed Ruscha, Fred Sandback, Jim Torok, and Daniel Zeller. Check it out. I would love to see it in person, but it's pretty vibrant even online.

Impressions from Rencontres d'Arles '09

I must be getting cranky in my old age. After being a complete curmudgeon about last year's installment of the photo festival Les Rencontres d'Arles (RdA), I was looking forward to really enjoying it this year. After all, gone was the dispiriting game show, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire Curator?", featuring Christian Lacroix as the losing contestant, and in was an all-star crew of former "commissaires" of the festival. What could go wrong?

Somehow, it didn't quite work out as I had hoped. I'm afraid I detect a marked trend in RdA towards the commercial and safe. The evening projections read more and more like ads for the big magazines and agencies or veer towards edgy work from the past that has gained sure-fire approval over time. Sure, they showed Nan Goldin's landmark work, "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" and Duane Michals held court in his usual anti-establishment way, but we've seen this all enough times for it to have lost some of the sting it had 25 years ago.

What was more disturbing than Ms Goldin's document of counterculture excesses was the vanity fair of Vanity Fair's parade of portraiture from it's 300 year history. What? You say VF is not 300 years old? How on earth could they have found THAT many boring pictures in less than 300 years? As I say, I must be getting cranky, but really, do we need to see every single Madonna or Cher cover that has ever been recorded by mankind? The precipitous drop in photoghraphic quality as the covers moved into the 60s, 70s and 80s was dramatic and disheartening. As Dave Barry once quipped, Froot Loops are not part of a complete breakfast, they are adjacent to a complete breakfast. Putting other photographers in the same slideshow as Steichen, Muray, and Horst doesn't make them great photographers, it makes them adjacent to great photographers. But I concede that I have lost this argument. Mark Seliger will have a a retrospective at the Guggenheim before I die, I'm betting the Met will host a VF covers show, and the Liebowitz canonization has already begun.

But all was not lost. There were pockets of pleasure and interest to be found. The retrospective of Duane Michals' work was engaging and smart. Like a perfect Noel Coward number, the surface sarcasm only partially disguises the real emotion underneath. Likewise, the show taken from Nan Goldin's personal collection was a treat. I had almost lost hope of seeing a collection like this - one or two examples by each artist, three at the most - that would make sense to anyone but the owner. Personal collections are often like dreams: only interesting to the one who has them. But Ms Goldin's collection was an exception in the extreme. In every case her choices showed a line of thought, a visual clarity, and intelligence at every turn. It's not that I doubted that she has these qualities, it's just that I think it's even more difficult to represent them in a personal collection. I hope some version of the show will find a place in the US.

Elsewhere I was happy to see Naoya Hatakeyama's "Maquettes" series. While the original work dates back some 10 years, Mr. Hatakeyama has been toiling at perfecting his mode of presenting this work. This was the premiere of the final version. They are light boxes showing manifestations of light in black and white. Somehow the artist has found a way to make the blacks black and the light white even though there is a lightsource behind the work that would tend to make everything go gray. The effect is to create the most luminous, contrast-y black and white abstractions one can imagine. I love them.

In previous years at RdA, the Prix Decouverte had been problematic for me. Not because the work was weak necessarily, but because many of the artists weren't really discoveries. It would be hard for me to argue that Marilyn Minter is an art world unknown, for example. This year, though, I am happy to say I had not heard of a single one of the artists in the Prix Decouverte show. I hope it marks a trend in this part of the festival. It really should be a place of discovery for unrepresented, less well known work.

Among the many choices in the Decouverte show were two that I thought were notable: Yang Yongliang and Magda Stanova.

Yang Yongliang mines familiar territory for contemporary Chinese artists, the ancient ink drawings and scrolls. However, I find that he does so in a notably organic way and one which rises above the mere historic reference. Mr. Yongliang uses photoshop to create distopian landscapes of a future China; one in which there is endless building on top of the remains of previous buildings. The photographs have a remarkable level of detail that recall ink landscapes but are photographic in the extreme. To add to the cross-historical reference, his photos are "stamped" with owner stamps like traditional scrolls. But on further examination one finds that these "stamps" are corporate logos probably relating to the maniacal building projects. I'm not sure if these are works that are staisfying for the long haul -- it's a bit of a one liner -- but it was a treat to be introduced and he seems an artist to watch.

Magda Stanova was nominated by Joan Fontcuberta, so it was no surprise that this was very intellectual, and conceptual work. As a matter of fact, it would be hard to call it photography since the exhibit contained drawings, video, text, and animation. I quote here from the artist's statement:

In the visual essay, titled In the Shadow of Photography, I attempt to answer these questions. The work consists of three chapters. The first is searching for the specifics of photography; the second investigates photographic world; and the third is examining how the behavior and thinking of people has changed since the invention of photography. The work is including topics such as: photography as a time traveling machine; why a person has a stage fright while being photographed; how the present is becoming a stage for the future; or how are we loosing the possibility to get an authentic memory from a photographic attempt to conserve it. These reflections are presented through the mediums of drawing, text, collages, photographs, objects, video and animation.

Definitely Ms Stanova is someone I'd like to watch. It was a compelling debut.

Denis Darzacq was first mentioned in this blog when I met him at Houston Fotofest in March of '08. I have continued to run into him through mutual friends, and to track his career in a casual way. He was part of a group exhibit at La Capitole during the festival. On view was his "Hyper" series showing dancers suspended in space in the isles of big box grocery stores (called Hypers in French). I have always liked this work but I'd only seen work prints and online versions. Mr. Darzacq swore to me that the work was only at its best when viewed in exhibition size, approx. 30x36 prints. I'm very dubious of artists' claims like this. For me big prints are not necessarily better and often artists don't have the best perspective of how their work projects in larger spaces. Well, this time I should have listened to the artist. Mr. Darzacq's prints were a model of kinetic energy which projected the soul of the work in a perfectly well-chosen scale. I don't know why he doesn't have US representation, but this exhibition certainly made the case that he should.

So, in retrospect, maybe I'm not quite as cranky as I thought. While there were distractions and disappointments, there were also plenty of examples of great or thought-provoking work. While I may give the festival a pass for a couple of years in order to come back to the scene with a fresher perspective, there's no doubt that vital, interesting work was on display. Even a cranky guy like me can't quibble with that ratio. And I didn't even cover all of the work I liked. Leigh Ledare, Roni Horn, and a vernacular show called "Without Sanctuary" were all worth noting but which I won't discuss for lack of space. They can all be viewed on the Rencontres d'Arles website.
Check it out.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Studio Visit, Philippe Gronon

I was introduced to the work of Philippe Gronon by the librarian at ICP, Deirdre Donohue. I had missed his intriguing show at Yossi Milo Gallery, but based on the the work I saw in a catalog from a French museum exhibit, I wanted to see more. Through Deirdre, I was able to contact him and to set up a meeting for the day I would be in Paris.

So often these days, seeing work in person after being introduced to it in print or online is a disappointment. The work has been somehow created to be seen that way, but when it has to stand on it's own in three dimensions it fails. Clearly, this is not Mr. Gronon's problem. His art absolutely needs to be seen and experienced and has been created to establish communication with a viewer who is present in front of the work. He works in a variety of series and typologies, but the ratio of the original object to the finished work is always 1:1. Whether he is describing an elevator or a matchbox strike plate, one views the object in the same size that you would if it were physically present in the room.

The thread that runs through all of Mr' Gronon's photographic output is the idea of the palimpsest: something bearing the traces of an earlier, erased form. We see it in the leather writing tables from the Bilioteque Nationale,

and the striking surfaces of matchboxes.

It's layered into the etched and stained photo developing trays (a deft, self-referential work),

and present in the layers of information on the backs of painting in his "Versos" series.

In short, Mr. Gronon has developed a concise language to communicate the complexity of time through an incredibly diverse assortment of objects. I'm hooked.

Some of you may find the "Versos" series reminiscent of the Vik Muniz "Verso" series that premiered at Sikkema Jenkins earlier this year. It raises an interesting question: can two artists working simultaneously and in isolation from each other create work that is visually similar? The answer, obviously, is yes. It's a topic to which I'd like to return in a future post. But for now, let me simply address the questions posed between the works of Muniz and Gronon. First, it's worth noting that both series premiered in their respective galleries, separated by an ocean, on exactly the same day. Aside from that coincidence, one should note that Gronon has created photographs, while Muniz has created sculptures. But most importantly, the respective works mine entirely different artistic ore despite the surface similarity. Mr Muniz, as is his well-established practice, explores memory and its effect on the experience of social and cultural icons. Mr Gronon, as I mentioned earlier, is exploring time's effect on an object and how we experience that aging and layering as information. I would find a co-exhibition of the two series fascinating and and not the least bit redundant.

My time in Mr. Gronon's studio was an introduction to a complex and satisfying artist. While his work is not easily seen in person in the US, his website provides a complete, if muted, index to his output. Check it out.
Philippe Gronon website