JTF (just the facts): A large group show, containing the varied work of 51 artists/photographers, displayed on the five floors of the museum. The works on view were made between 2009 and 2015. The show was curated by Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin. A catalog of the exhibit (with detailed summaries of each artist and broader survey essays/interviews) has been published by Skira Rizzoli and the New Museum (here) and is available in the bookshop for $60. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin aren’t photo insiders. The curators of this year’s New Museum Triennial don’t inhabit the invisible bubble that surrounds photography as a discrete genre, and I highly doubt they had a particular photographic agenda in mind when they set out to select the artists to be included in their sprawling survey of this particular moment in contemporary art. Using a loose “early career” definition as their guide, the curators ultimately chose many artists (most of which will be unfamiliar to the mainstream photo audience) who have a photographic component to what they do, and as a result, they have indirectly (or perhaps inadvertently) taken stock of what’s fresh and new in contemporary photography. In contrast to prior iterations of this show, they’ve generally gotten it right photographically, hitting on many of the medium’s current pressure points and fractures.
Of the 13 artists in this show (out of a total of 51) that have actively employed photography in one way or another, very few could reasonably be called photographers. Nearly all inhabit the borderlands of interdisciplinary photography, where photographic imagery is combined with painting, sculpture, video, performance, or digital art, creating hybrids that often feel momentarily photographic but actively extend the medium in alternate directions. It’s as if the ubiquitous vocabulary of photography is being translated into multiple languages, retaining parts of its original intent while simultaneously becoming something altogether different.
If this show is any reflection of the larger trends at work in the art world, then incorporation of photography into sculpture and installation art is growing rapidly, with new methods of printing images on unexpected surfaces opening up plenty of new doors for visual innovation. Lena Henke’s sculptures appropriate transparent pictures of her own sand/chainmail sculptures, wrapping them around a rectangular volume, allowing the imagery to float and intermingle in space. Aleksandra Domanović’s sculptural installation puts images of blood cells and krill on clear curtains of hanging plastic, creating a double height permeable enclosure around the viewer, mimicking the feeling of being in the ocean or inside a living body. Guan Xiao uses bold mirrored images of snakes as a backdrop for other installation activities (involving tripods), hanging them on billowing sheets that cover both the wall and the floor. Lawrence Abu Hamdan prints scientific scans of cassette tape on color transparencies, displaying them on lightboxes amid flashing lights and soundscapes. And Eva Koťátková has taken her intricate hand cut collaged works and surrounded them by various wire/iron constructions and cages that create a busy three dimensional room-sized environment. In each case, the photography isn’t a stand alone entity but a small part of a larger physical vision, one piece in a much more complex puzzle.
Other artists are pulling photography in alternate, often opposing directions. Njideka Akunyili Crosby is incorporating dense mixtures of appropriated photographic imagery into her paintings (see detail image above), probing the edges of post-colonial cultural transformation, while Eloise Hawser has turned the ghostly images of lithographic plates into artworks in their own right. Lisa Holzer has moved toward a more digital aesthetic, blending photographs, text, and digital mark making (even nail polish) into layered allusive compositions, while Sophia Al-Maria has evolved along an adjacent track, adding the aesthetic of digital pixelization to her videos of dancing Middle Eastern teenagers.
Even the four artists whose end product is an actual photographic print don’t entirely conform to our usual notions of photography, either in conception or execution. Kiluanji Kia Henda has built tumbling metal geometries in the desert outside Amman, Jordan, photographing their linear silhouettes against the bright white sky, combining a caricature of the building explosion in his native Angola with an evocation of the storytelling line drawings used by local peoples. Onejoon Che’s photographs are perhaps the most straightforward, documenting statues and monuments built by North Korean contractors for various African nations. But he then takes that conceptual investigation further, extending the ideas into videos and sculptural recreations that push harder on the implications of the underlying economic relationships and cultural ideologies. Juliana Huxtable’s performative self portraits evoke extreme twists on black social roles, from the Nubian princess to the urban jungle warrior, further stylized by green body paint and yellow corn rows, or purple braids and pastel camouflage pants. Adjacent pictures bring stream of consciousness text to the forefront, where edge to edge poetic diatribes rattle off like lightning bolts. And Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili comes from the process wing of contemporary photography, playing with light leaks, layered photogram constructions, and intertwined filtered color, never quite settling on representation or abstraction.
If we take shows like this one as a report from the front lines, I think we are driven to an increasingly elastic definition of photography, especially when the combinations, hybrids and mashups with other media lead to further mutations of artistic form. The idea of “surrounding” as a description for what is going on (seen in the subtitle of the exhibition) is actually quite forward thinking and apt. Photography may no longer be evolving along one single back to front chronological progression, but instead be spreading its fingers in all directions, ultimately surrounding both artist and audience with imagery that permeates nearly every facet of everyday culture, creating an intermingled artistic present where photography is quietly (almost invisibly) sitting at the root of many disparate investigations. The “is or isn’t” photography bright line no longer exists, or at least isn’t relevant in the minds of these early career artists. With more and more interdisciplinary work being created, combinatorial photographic thinking is becoming the norm not the exception, and if this show is any guide, we’re seeing the momentum increase.
Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. As all of these artists/photographers are by definition early in their careers, we will forego our usual discussion of secondary market histories for this review.