Dream States: Contemporary Photography and Video @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show, with a total of 30 color and black-and-white photographic works and 1 video, variously framed, matted and installed around the four walls and on both sides of a central partition, as well as in a vitrine, in the Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography on the second floor of the museum.

The following photographers/artists have been included in the exhibit, with the number of works, their details and dates provided as background:

  • Darren Almond: 1 single-channel digital video, transferred from Super 8 film, black-and-white and color, sound, 12 min., 1995
  • Siegrun Appelt: 1 chromogenic print, 1996
  • Eugène Atget: 1 salted paper print from glass negative, 1924-25
  • Shannon Bool: 1 gelatin silver print, 2015
  • Brassäi: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935/1940s
  • Manuel Álvarez Bravo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939/1970s
  • Sophie Calle: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1979
  • Liz Deschenes: 1 chromogenic print, 1999
  • Morris Engel: 1 gelatin silver print, ink on paper, 1947
  • Patrick Faigenbaum: 1 gelatin silver print, 1977/1990
  • Robert Frank: 1 gelatin silver print, 1958
  • Adam Fuss: 1 gelatin silver print, 1999
  • Nan Goldin: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1979
  • Jack Goldstein: 1 triptych of chromogenic prints, 1976
  • Paul Graham: 4 chromogenic prints, 2011, 2012, 2014
  • Peter Hujar: 1 gelatin silver print, 1976
  • Sarah Anne Johnson: 1 chromogenic print with glitter and acrylic paint, 2012
  • Anselm Kiefer: 1 acrylic and gouache on gelatin silver print, 1980
  • Danny Lyon: 1 gelatin silver print, 1966
  • Bea Nettles: 78 photographically illustrated Tarot cards, 1975
  • Jem Southam: 1 chromogenic print, 1999/2003
  • Jim Shaw: 1 collage of gelatin silver prints, acrylic, Plexiglas, 1997
  • Grete Stern: 1 gelatin silver print, ca. 1950
  • Robert Stivers: 1 gelatin silver print, 1991/2005
  • Fred Tomaselli: gelatin silver print with graphite, 2015
  • Shomei Tomatsu: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1987-89
  • Arthur Tress: 1 gelatin silver print, 1972
  • Oliver Wasow:  20 TK inkjet prints, 1984-2008

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: There probably isn’t any photograph that can’t somehow be construed as illustrating a dream state. The incongruities of our daily lives provide the raw material for what plays on the screens of our minds at night, and vice versa. Cameras can’t yet capture the images that dart through our brains, but scenes from our REM lives appear, like photographs, to unfold in a continuous present. Violence witnessed on the street feels “like a dream” and nightmares linger into the conscious hours, with details so realistic that the images are “like a photograph or movie.”

The psychological fluidity of the medium has been noted before by the Met. In 1993, to celebrate its purchase of the Gilman Collection, the curator Maria Morris Hambourg chose to call her exhibition The Waking Dream. The title came from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and suggested, in Hambourg’s words, “the haunting power of photographs to commingle past and present, to suspend the world and the artist’s experience of it in unique distillations.”

Conceptual latitude can benefit curators, giving them plenty of room to maneuver in making their selections, or it can be a detriment if a loose framework has so many sides that it won’t support an argument.

Dream States suffers from the latter, even though the leeway of the title allows splendid pictures in disparate styles to be displayed together. Organized by associate curator Mia Fineman and assistant curator Beth Saunders around a theme that isn’t notably pertinent or provocative, the show has no discernible reason for being. It isn’t stocked with recent purchases—fewer than ten of the works entered the collection in this decade—and it isn’t tightly edited. To quality for inclusion here a photograph need only depict someone lying down or with eyes closed. A “dream state” seems to be loosely defined. It can be as a starry or cloudless sky; a tree-less landscape; inverted or abstract imagery; or something blurry.

Which is not to say there aren’t many deserving pictures, some of which no doubt are out of the vaults and on the walls for the first time. Fineman has discriminating tastes and eschews clichés (except for Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s La Buena Dama Durmiendo.) The show has numerous surprises, among them a 1966 portrait by Danny Lyon of a sexy young couple in Ohio drowsing on the front seat of their car. The photographer’s leering shadow and that of another are reflected in the side window, signs of a voyeuristic sensibility closer to Larry Clark’s than I had previously suspected. Shomei Tomatsu’s color beachscape of shell fragments in black sand seems more decorative than is his wont, but as a constellation of abandoned things it fits into his project of photography as a rescue operation.

There is some cute match-making. A recumbent sculpture of a goddess at Versailles by Atget strikes the same exhausted pose as a tired or drunken pal of Nan Goldin’s in her French Chris on the Convertible, NYC. Other appositions encourage comparative judgments. The scenarios in Arthur Tress’s 1972 series Dream Collector, in which he interviewed young people and had them act out their nightmares, have always seemed forced and over-produced to me. His Boy in Flood Dream, Ocean City, New Jersey confirmed these mixed feelings, especially when the child’s unnaturally cool stare is matched against the starker, inward-turning simplicity of Robert Stivers’s Self-Portrait in Water.

Four photographs by Paul Graham from his 2014 series, Does Yellow Run Forever?, are able to handle more emotional freight here, as a single sequence, than in 2014 when the same subjects—his wife asleep, rainbows in a country landscape, an urban pawn shop that buys and sells gold—were repeated half-a-dozen times and spread around the entire Pace Gallery on West 25th Street. The symbolism of the work—the gaudy optimism and weighty anxieties that Graham was carrying into his new marriage—is enhanced by other photographs with dreaming on their minds. Jem Southam’s large color portrait of a round artificial watering hole for livestock in East Sussex looks like a mirror for signaling ancient aliens. It earns this interpretation from being in the same room with Graham’s landscapes, which also channel feelings about the the magic of nature.

On the other side of the room are less exalted invocations. Peter Hujar’s photo of a woman passed out in his hallway hangs above Robert Frank’s of an African-American man asleep on the cold nighttime sands of Coney Island. Both are pictures of the multitudes whose dreams will never come true. Patrick Faigenbaum’s lovely study of his mother asleep—rendered, like Whistler’s, in dim, thin layers of gray—offers more restful thoughts, if only because she is lying in the comfort of a sheeted bed.

Dreams are usually inclusive, their meanings open-ended. Grete Stern’s photocollage, Sueño No. 1: “Articulos eléctricos para el hogar”—one in a series of pictures commissioned by an Argentine newspaper to illustrate an advice column by a psychoanalyst—has a sexy message without a ready key to unlock it. Does the curvy female, who functions here as a lamp, want to be “turned on” by the large hand of an unseen man? Or should she fear him as an ogre and oppressor? Stern perhaps wasn’t sure herself how she wanted her fairy tale to be read.

Such ambiguities would be more enjoyable if the show also made an attempt to categorize the types of dreams that photographs can awaken, or to separate the photographer as dreamer from the photographic subject as object of desire or unease. Freud’s writings in the clumsy hands of amateur sleuths often do more harm than good in teasing out hidden meanings. For once, I wish he had been a stronger presence.

The exhibition’s long life—it will be up more than six months—may say less about the museum’s commitment to the thesis of photography as a dream than it does about departmental cost-saving. With the Arbus show certain to attract long lines to the Met Breuer, however, visitors might want to take an hour for these sights further uptown. There are enough arresting individual pictures here to compensate for the fuzzy thinking purporting to unite them.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and given the broad diversity of artists included, we will forego our usual discussion of gallery representation and secondary market history.

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Read more about: Adam Fuss, Anselm Kiefer, Arthur Tress, Bea Nettles, Brassaï (Gyula Halász), Danny Lyon, Darren Almond, Eugène Atget, Fred Tomaselli, Grete Stern, Jack Goldstein, Jem Southam, Jim Shaw, Liz Deschenes, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Morris Engel, Nan Goldin, Oliver Wasow, Patrick Faigenbaum, Paul Graham, Peter Hujar, Robert Frank, Robert Stivers, Sarah Anne Johnson, Shannon Bool, Shomei Tomatsu, Siegrun Appelt, Sophie Calle, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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