Acting Out: Works from the Marieluise Hessel Collection @CCS Bard

JTF (just the facts): A group show of work by 8 contemporary artists installed across four large galleries. The exhibition was curated by Tom Eccles, executive director of CCS Bard, and artist Leigh Ledare, with assistant curator Rachel Vera Steinberg. It includes 108 variously framed and matted color and black-and-white photographs, 1 video installation, and a vitrine containing 15 journals as follows:

  • Larry Clark: 15 c-prints from the portfolio “Untitled (Kids)”, 1995, edition 1/25; 24 gelatin silver prints of images dated either 1963 or 1971, from the portfolio “Tulsa,” 1983, edition 36/100.
  • Nan Goldin: 7 Cibachrome prints, 1977–1991, each from an edition of 25.
  • Lyle Ashton Harris: 15 journals, 1988–2000; 16 chromogenic prints of images dated circa late 1980s to 1994, printed between 2015 and 2018 in editions of 3.
  • Leigh Ledare: The Task, 2017, single-channel video and sound installation, edition 2/5.
  • Boris Mikhailov: 7 Ektacolor prints on 4-ply board from the “Salt Lake” series, 1986, edition 1/7.
  • Lorraine O’Grady: Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire), 1980–83, 14 framed silver gelatin fiber prints, edition 6/20 with 1 AP.
  • Cindy Sherman: 7 gelatin silver prints from the series “Untitled Film Stills,” 1978–79, each from an edition of 10; 7 chromogenic color prints and 1 Cibachrome print, 1981–1994, from editions of between 2 and 10.
  • Jo Spence: Remodeling Photo History, 1981–82, 11 black and white photographs, no edition information supplied.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: “I’m scared as shit that I’m going to be on a camera with this the first time one of these things is being filmed, and I still have no idea what’s going on,” says a youngish man in a turtleneck in Leigh Ledare’s video The Task (2017). “In fact, the more time goes on, the more and more confused I get…Someone is going to be watching this and, you know, seeing us kind of not get anywhere.”

Ledare made the video during a Group Relations Conference—a social psychology method developed by the London-based Tavistock Institute and now largely used as an organizational management tool—in Chicago in 2017. At a Tavistock conference, participants attend large and small group meetings, during which they observe their interactions with others in real time and report on their feelings and experiences. Although psychologists trained in the method are present, they do not act as group leaders, but rather as “consultants.” The expectation is that participants will learn how their reactions, perceptions, and projections affect their behavior within groups, leading to more effective interpersonal relationships and better team-building.

Over the course of three days, Ledare and his crew film 28 participants, ten psychologists, and three observers as they attempt the task of observing themselves as a group. Despite the young man’s worries, the group initially seems to make progress—issues of race, gender, class, authority and privilege are raised, bonds are formed, and resistances are identified.

Their task, however, is complicated by the presence of the cameras, to which the consultants, especially, become—or appear to become—increasingly hostile. The sole woman consultant twists in her seat; one of the male consultants, a black man, sits silent, his fingers steepled under his chin, the third consultant angrily demands the camera crew leave.

It is at this point that Ledare takes on an unscripted role: that of intruder. When one of the participants leaves the room, Ledare takes his place at the center of the group. The group implodes; participants, observers, and consultants start walking out; the screen goes dark.

First shown as part of a larger installation at the Art Institute of Chicago, the two-hour video serves as the entry point for “Acting Out,” a show co-curated by Ledare and the executive director of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies, Tom Eccles, of photographs by seven artists from CCS Bard’s exceptional holdings. Spanning about 40 years, the pieces in the exhibition range from performance and conceptual art to documentary and snapshot photography. Though at first blush they have little in common, they are linked—as Ledare points out in a taped audio tour that is also part of the show—by the notion of the individual in society.

The exhibition opens with a selection of Cindy Sherman’s staged photographs of herself made between 1978 and 2000. Seven of the artist’s “Film Stills” of the late 1970s—black-and-white photos, in the style of mid-century movie stills, for which Sherman enacted various feminine stereotypes from the mass media, including professional woman, waif, and seductress—are joined by seven later works in which she takes on the guise of increasingly self-fashioned characters.

Also represented by two bodies of work is Larry Clark, for whom Ledare once worked as an assistant. Two dozen black-and-white photographs from the series “Tulsa” (1963–1971) document the hardscrabble environs of Clark’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the drug culture of the working-class friends with whom he grew up. On view nearby is a group of color stills from the 1995 film Kids, Clark’s fictionalized documentary about group of sexually active young skateboarders on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Made at a time of government inaction on the AIDS crisis, the film challenged the idea that heteronormative people were not at risk of contracting the disease. At the same time, the movie showcased Clark’s ongoing (and, for many, problematic) obsession with teenagers, their fluid identities, and their resistance to authority.

A 1986 series of works by Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov depicts bathers at a lake in Southern Ukraine once known for its healing waters but by the time these pictures were taken, badly polluted. The sepia-toned prints show ordinary people continuing to swim there, oblivious, or perhaps inured, to the hazards of doing so. A comment on the abdication of responsibility to its citizens by the Soviet state, the pictures predate by 10 years Mikhailov’s more chilling series “Case History,” which not only documents the plight of the homeless in post-perestroika Ukraine, but the power he was able to wield over them in exchange for small amounts of money.

In Remodeling Photo History, a 1982 photo-based artwork by the late British feminist Jo Spence, the artist upends classical models of feminine beauty, as well as the conceptual art tropes of her day, interspersing photographs of her nude body with a pictures of a full-breasted mannequin and another of herself wearing googly glasses and reading Freud. Later she would document her battle with cancer, producing images not only of her less-than-perfect body but also of its slow dissolution.

Taken between the 1970s and the 1990s, Nan Goldin’s series of photographs of herself and her friends, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was originally a performative slide show, set to music. The pictures validate the fast and flamboyant artistic subculture of which she was a part in the early days of AIDS.

More overtly political are photographs documenting Mlle Bourgoise Noir, Lorraine O’Grady’s ongoing performance piece of the early 1980s for which she crashed art events in New York City dressed as a beauty queen. Long unexhibited, they reflect not only O’Grady’s outrage at the mainstream art world’s marginalization of artists of color, but her anger at black artists whom she felt were repressing their identities in order to be accepted within it.

A decade later, the African American artist Lyle Ashton Harris, the youngest of the seven photographers, would document his life as a rising star in a changing art world, one newly multicultural and alive to gender and racial difference. A group of Harris’s 1990s color photographs of artist peers, of openings, and of friends and male lovers, newly printed and accompanied by a selection of Harris’s journals and scrapbooks from that time, are the standouts of this show.

In terms of the Tavistock model, the photographers in this first-rate exhibition are both observers and participants. They are even, on occasion, intruders. Despite the show’s punning, and rather unfortunate title, each of these artists was wholly engaged with the culture of their time, examining the issues of their day through the lens of personal experience. If nothing else, this show is a reaffirmation of society’s fundamental need for artists and for the truths they reflect back to us in their work.

But while Ledare’s curatorial thesis for this excellent show is clear, it is less evident what he is after in his own oeuvre. He is remains best known for his first major piece Pretend You’re Actually Alive (2000–2008), a portrait in photographs and memorabilia of Ledare’s family, the disruptive center of which is his mother Tina Peterson. Once a promising ballet dancer in George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, Tina is now attempting to make a living as a stripper. In her fifties at the time of the project, she is still beautiful and still sexually active, as evidenced by Ledare’s photographs of her in bed with a series of younger men she’s met at work and through personal ads.

In Pretend…, as in The Task, Ledare’s role is elusive. Is he an observer or a participant? And is Tina victimized by his documentation of her sex life or empowered? Ledare’s work has, from the beginning, been greatly influenced by his interest in group dynamics and in the role of the artwork in activating viewers’ own projections and transferences. Perhaps he is a kind of Tavistockian consultant, perpetually throwing us back on our own devices.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and given the group show format, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Boris Mikhailov, Cindy Sherman, Jo Spence, Larry Clark, Leigh Ledare, Lorraine O'Grady, Lyle Ashton Harris, Nan Goldin, Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS Bard)/Hessel Museum of Art

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