Actual Size! Photography at Life Scale @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of works by 18 artists/designers/writers, hung against light grey walls in the double-height gallery space on the second floor of the museum. The show was curated by David Campany.

The following works are included in the show:

  • Tanya Marcuse: 1 pigment print, 2018
  • Aspen Mays: 1 gelatin silver print photogram, 2013
  • Manuel Franquelo: 1 direct pigment print on gesso covered aluminum, 2013
  • Jeff Wall: 1 gelatin silver print, 2014
  • Ace Lehner: 1 inkjet print, 2009
  • (in vitrine) Jorge Luis Borges: 1 magazine, 1946
  • Paola Pivi: 1 inkjet print on vinyl, 2001-present
  • Laura Letinsky: 1 dye sublimation print on aluminum, 2021
  • (in vitrine) Kija Lucas: 1 pigment print, 2014-2021
  • (in vitrine) Walker Evans: 2 magazine spreads, 1948
  • Brassaï/Daniel Henry Kahnweiler: 1 book, 1949
  • (in vitrine) Paul Rand/Man Ray: 1 lithograph on paper covered cigar box, 1954
  • 5 inkjet reproductions of advertisements, 1929, 1960, 1963, 1984, 1991
  • (in vitrine) Pierre Houles: 1 magazine spread, 1974
  • (in vitrine) Neil Selkirk: 1 magazine spread, 1975
  • 1 poster, 1999
  • Schindley Photo: 1 postcard, 1910
  • Mason Williams: 1 screenprint on paper and cardboard box, 1967 (box in vitrine)

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the distinctive architectural features of the gallery spaces at the new ICP is a towering two-story space with a massive double height wall. It’s a wonderfully open and airy space, with the ability to look down into the gallery from smaller catwalks above, but that huge wall has proven to be a mighty challenge for installing photography. Even the largest prints get overshadowed by its immensity, and clusters of normal sized prints are hard to see from far away, especially if they are placed way up high on the wall. Every installation in this space since the museum re-opened has had to somehow come up with a solution to putting pictures on that wall, and Actual Size! Photography at Life Scale feels like a show that was intentionally built to deal with its challenges.

The huge wall demands an exercise in thinking about how to handle extremes of scale, and Actual Size! is a show that forces viewers to actively consider how photography can increase or decrease the scale of whatever the camera is documenting. It takes as its curatorial premise a set of strict physical limits – the exhibit only includes pictures that show their subjects at “actual size”, or one-to-one scale. It doesn’t offer pictures that make small things bigger or big things smaller, but only those photographs that show things “as they are”, which turns out to be something that actually doesn’t happen all that often in photography, except in certain kinds of portraiture and still life imagery.

Actual Size! stays away from these more obvious motifs, and instead moves to more unexpectedly extreme examples of the theme. The big wall problem is solved by a single massive print from Paola Pivi that reaches from the ceiling all the way to the floor. The image comes from an aerial photography project Pivi has been working on since 2001 documenting Alicudi, an island near Sicily. Her images of the dry mountainous island have been enlarged to one-to-one scale, the prints showing the rocky terrain on long billowing billboard-sized scrolls; when her digital pictures are enlarged to this scale, they of course become pixelated, transforming the hillsides into blocky washes of indistinct brown. Thus to reach a photograph that purports to show us the land at its natural size, we’ve had to cross into a realm of complex digital approximation. For many, this idea of mapping the world at its own scale will connect back to a well-known fantasy story by Jorge Luis Borges (which is seen in printed form in a vitrine), where the detailed, point for point map becomes so large that it covers every inch of the land, and is therefore useless.

Somewhat less huge, but still strangely oversized for our expectations of what will be seen or encountered in an art gallery is Mason Williams’ 1967 image of a Greyhound bus. Filling a full wall, the paper bus seems parked and ready to board, its everyday bulk muscling in on its refined surroundings. (For those who like a bit of playfulness, the cardboard packing box for the folded print offers the humorously practical tip “Do Not Open in the Wind”. ) Its presence is unexpected and somehow wondrous, offering a compelling example of how bold recontextualization can change our perception of something even as mundane as a long distance bus.

At the other end of the size spectrum, a number of prints show us small things at their actual size. Photographs and photograms of hailstones, postcards (by Walker Evans), cigars (by Man Ray), and the dodging tools found in a darkroom (by Aspen Mays) all provide us with a chance to recalibrate our sense of scale – they’re bigger than we might have remembered. Other works show us broader arrangements of small things, like the leafy detritus on a snow-misted forest floor (by Tanya Marcuse) or the gatherings of junk on astonishingly crisp recessed shelves (by Manuel Franquelo), drawing us into environments filled with seemingly endless potential discovery. And a selection of reprinted advertisements reminds us that various products (including hand guns, a Kodak camera, a chain saw, and an Apple monitor, among others) have all been shown in magazine spreads at their actual size, giving the potential customer the feeling of touching and handling the objects being promoted.

When people do make an appearance in Actual Size!, they are either set in scenes that give us clues to physical scale, or are entirely disembodied, becoming fragments which are more easily sized. Jeff Wall’s staged scene of homeless life in a concrete tunnel places us almost exactly at the spot where we would be standing if we were inside the spatial boundaries of his photograph, with the concrete floor of the gallery almost continuing the concrete floor in the picture. And the same visual effect occurs in Ace Lehner’s image of a couple sitting on a large tree branch – the print itself trails onto the floor, as if inviting us to step into the leaf-strewn park. In both cases, we’re indirectly offered visual evidence of scale that matches our own, however momentarily disorienting that may be. When various body parts are shown here at actual size, they tend to be objectified – Picasso’s hand (by Brassaï), the fists of boxers George Foreman and Muhammed Ali (by Pierre Houles), and the thigh of Brazilian soccer star Pelé (by Neil Selkirk) all becoming pieces we can recognize and match against our own, creating an intimate back and forth between viewer and photograph.

Actual Size! is a happily practical effort, which creatively solves the problem of the big wall in the gallery while surrounding it with a just right-sized show with enough of a curatorial theme to keep us intrigued. Three more rooms of one-to-one scaled photographs would have beat this small idea to death, but with a couple of extra large pieces and some tightly edited context, this small show is thought-provoking without being pedantic.

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

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Read more about: Ace Lehner, Aspen Mays, Brassaï (Gyula Halász), Jeff Wall, Kija Lucas, Laura Letinsky, Man Ray, Manuel Franquelo, Mason Williams, Neil Selkirk, Paola Pivi, Pierre Houles, Tanya Marcuse, Walker Evans, International Center of Photography

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