A Handful of Dust @Pratt Photography Gallery

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing photographic works by 25 different artists/photographers/institutions, variously framed and matted, and hung against green and white walls in the two room gallery space. The exhibit was curated by David Campany (here). It originated at Le Bal (here) in Paris and will travel to the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2017. A catalog of the exhibit was published in 2015 by MACK Books (here).

The following photographers/artists have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, their dates and processes as background:

  • Laure Albin Guillot: 2 photo engravings on metallic paper, 1931
  • William Allan/Bruce Nauman: 1 video (24 minutes 24 seconds), 1967/2015
  • Georges Bataille: 1 magazine spread, 1929
  • Brassaï: 1 magazine spread, 1933
  • Robert Burley: 1 chromogenic print, 2007
  • John Divola: 9 gelatin silver prints, 1974/1993
  • Marcel Duchamp: 1 boxed set of various materials, 1959/1968/2015, 1 magazine cover, 1935
  • Walker Evans: 3 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Charles Henri Ford, 2 magazine spreads, 1945
  • Man Ray: 1 hand print, 1963
  • Man Ray/Marcel Duchamp: 1 enlarged reproduction, 1920/1964/2016
  • Jeff Mermelstein: 1 chromogenic print, 2011
  • MoMA: 1 catalog, 1970
  • Photographer unknown: 18 gelatin silver prints, n.d., c1917, 1935-1937, 1937, 1940, 1945, 1955, 1959, 1979, 1 set of 30 post cards, 1935-1937, 2 magazine spreads 1929, 1935
  • Alain Resnais: 1 film sequence (1 minute 23 seconds), 1959
  • Gerhard Richter: 1 set of 128 gelatin silver prints, 1978/1999
  • Sophie Ristelhueber: 1 photobook, 1992, 1 pigment print, 1991-2007
  • Edward Ruscha/Mason Williams/Patrick Blackwell: 1 photobook, 1967
  • Aaron Siskind: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1948
  • Frederick Sommer: 2 magazine spreads, 1943 and 1945/1962
  • Giorgio Sommer: 1 albumen paper print, 1873
  • Jeff Wall : 2 gelatin silver prints, 2006-2007
  • Wols: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1937/1981, 1938-1939/1981

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the byproducts of our 21st century absorption with controlling and editing our own online and offline personas is that we have inadvertently diluted the traditional meaning of the verb “to curate”. Where we now offhandedly (or perhaps pretentiously) curate our Instagram accounts, our fashionable wardrobes, our iTunes selections, and our food pantries, curation was once the heady domain of the intellectual, where scholars and academics spent years (or even lifetimes) creating exhibitions, histories, and painstakingly researched collections that took into account layers of complex context and thought. In cavalierly applying that very specific word to our gardens, bookshelves, websites, and friend groups, we run the risk of forgetting what real curatorial expertise and commitment looks like.

In bold contravention of this slow downward slide, A Handful of Dust is among the most curatorially sophisticated shows of photography to be seen in New York this year, which is part of why it feels so different than nearly everything else one might encounter at a gallery or museum these days. It is an exhibit first and foremost concerned with artistic ideas, and with the connections and associations that can be found among artworks and their influences. Thoughtfully curated by David Campany, the show is in many ways a meta-discussion of themes and resonances, a visual essay that follows trails of breadcrumbs and overlooked paths, so much so that the individual photographs and artworks on view become less important than the overarching ideas themselves. Images by Gerhard Richter, Jeff Wall, and Walker Evans (and many others) sit on fully equal footing with those by unknown makers and other vernacular photographs, all gathered as supporting evidence for Campany’s thesis. As a result, the “artwork” to actually be seen here is not these component parts, but the larger whole of Campany’s logic. For many, such overt braininess might feel hopelessly dry and arcane, but happily, Campany’s ideas are so expansive and inclusive that it’s hard not to be seduced by their charms.

The story begins with a single puzzling photograph made by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp in 1920. The image in question captures the network of lines on the raised surface of Duchamp’s famous masterwork The Large Glass, as seen from a low angle and covered with scattered clumps of dust. But these two artistic tricksters didn’t leave it at that – they implicitly offered us two separate but equally plausible readings of its content. Of course, the image could depict dust “breeding” on the surface of a piece of glass as its title describes, but it could also seemingly be an aerial landscape, the up close detail actually showing us a vast expanse of space. Depending on our assumptions about the scale of the view, the image oscillates back and forth, creating a kind of double vision, Dada-style.

Taking this duality as his intellectual springboard, Campany proceeds to investigate “dust” from a series of competing angles. He begins by digging into the aerial motif, bringing together various military reconnaissance views of desert regions from World War I and World War II, and then follows that tangent to documentary images of map making and dusty air raid destruction. Later in the exhibition, we return to this modified war theme (almost like a musical refrain), with photojournalism from the nuclear aftermath in Hiroshima, and then again in Jeff Mermelstein’s image of a dust and debris covered statue taken on September 11th.

Interwoven amongst these works is a separate conceptual thread interested in bodies turning to dust. Campany shows us a 19th century Giorgio Sommer image of plaster casts from Pompeii, followed by a 1936 Walker Evans picture of a dusty child’s grave and a snippet from the opening scenes of Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, where sparkling dust falls and covers the skin of two intertwined and amorous bodies.

This theme is then offset by an adjacent idea, which tracks eroding land also turning to dust, seen largely in the form of 1930s Dust Bowl post cards and imagery. Billows of dust tower into the sky and overtake entire towns like passing storms, leaving citizens to cover their faces with masks and kerchiefs, and books, tables, and car hoods sprinkled with a fine layer of enveloping dust, an idea which later connects to a Bruce Nauman/William Allen conceptual performance from 1967 where sprays of white flour are made into various forms. Again and again, Campany uses this stepping stone progression to link unlikely artworks together, mixing the literal and the conceptual with equal facility.

Yet another cerebral vector Campany follows is one concerned with surfaces and textures, as seen photographically. 1930s microphotography patterns from Laure Albin Guillot are flanked by Aaron Siskind’s up close walls covered in squiggles of paint from the late 1940s, and a nearby vitrine holds a 1935 photograph (in magazine form) of carpeting that resembles the contours of a landscape. This idea then morphs into Frederick Sommer’s all-over Arizona desertscapes from the 1940s and John Divola’s vandalized walls from the 1970s, and comes full circle with Gerhard Richter’s photographic fragments of a painting and Jeff Wall’s tactile rock surfaces made just a few years ago. It seems hyper attention to surface never really goes out of photographic style.

The abbreviated show (which is smaller than its original installation at Le Bal) ends with Sophie Ristelhueber’s large scale aerial shot of the flat desert of Kuwait, which echoes the original Man Ray/Marcel Duchamp image with surprising fidelity. A direct riff on the original, it is an effective corollary, turning the first premise inside out, the actual aerial now looking like dust breeding, not the other way around. It is a fitting bookend to the directed intellectual wanderings that have occurred in between the original picture and this final homage some 70 years later.

For those reading this review who won’t be able to follow Campany’s logic from one picture to the next in person, it is important to understand that this exhibit isn’t just an easy thematic show assembling pictures with a common subject. Instead, it is a carefully constructed visual argument using dust as its inspiration and conduit that indirectly walks us through complex nuances in the history of photography. There are basically no false steps or extraneous pictures – each and every object that has been included adds to the line of curatorial analysis Campany has put forth.

In the end, the show feels like a performance of great skill and brilliance, a sophisticated intellectual exercise given physical form. From one single artistic thread, Campany has woven a brocade of interlocked ideas that will offer plenty of cerebral stimulation to those that give him the chance to spin out his tale. The challenge is that from a quick glance, such an exhibit can appear almost dauntingly hermetically sealed, so inwardly smart that it can push away those that aren’t as comfortable or engaged with the subject matter. As a result, its many risks and leaps of cleverness will likely be best appreciated by self-designated photography insiders, who will revel in Campany’s thoughtful curatorial resonances and inspired artistic connections. As evidenced by well crafted exhibits like this one, it’s clear that the verb “to curate” still has layers of depth and power we would be well served to remember.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. And given the diversity of work on view, we will forego our usual discussion of the relevant gallery representation, prices, and secondary market histories.

Read more about: Aaron Siskind, Brassaï (Gyula Halász), Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Frederick Sommer, Gerhard Richter, Giorgio Sommer, Jeff Mermelstein, Jeff Wall, John Divola, Laure Albin-Guillot, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Burley, Sophie Ristelhueber, Walker Evans, Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze), Pratt Photography Gallery, MACK

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