JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 color works (19 single images, 1 triptych, and 1 four panel work), framed in white with no mat, and hung in the entry room, the main gallery space, and a small room on the second floor. All of the works are c-prints, in editions of 5, ranging in size from 10×8 (or reverse) to 24×20 (reverse), with intermediate sizes of 14×11, 16×12, and 20×16 (or reverse). The images were taken in 2010 and 2011. (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Seeing the recent work of well-known fashion photographer Juergen Teller has got me mulling over what it means to be a contrarian in the context of contemporary photography. I think a pretty compelling case can be made that Teller’s aesthetic style contradicts almost everything we associate with fashion/glamour/celebrity photography, which is why it stands out so joltingly in the countless pages of ads in a fashion monthly. His work is raw, rough, and consciously imperfect, blindlingly flash-lit and captured with a compositional style and snapshot look that is often exaggerated to its logical extreme. His images can be shocking and provocative, so much so that they border on being dismissed as off-hand stunts. And yet his best images are the ones that use this unconventional, sometimes harsh, approach to get at a fresh underlying layer of reality and truth, one that would have normally stayed hidden in the controlled perfection of twenty-first century glamour.
If, however, we take Teller out of his fashion sand box and ask his photographs to stand in comparison with the larger context of contemporary photography/art, which is already full of hell raisers and rule breakers by the way, I wonder about whether at least some of his pictures start to lose their juxtapositional punch. This show includes a number of forgettable dirt road landscapes and quiet views of pastoral scenes. These images have no verve, no edge, no rebellion, and the mix of beauty and ugliness in the landscape has been done better by many others before; taken off the walls of this show, even a photography expert would have little chance of identifying them as made by Teller.
But what does work here are those pictures and portraits that startle and puzzle: a soaking wet dog flanked by a riot of pink roses, the delicate neck of Roni Horn’s stuffed swan seen from behind, a creepy nude of Kristen McMenamy wearing black eye makeup and a pointy shark jawbone. The star of this show is the triptych of Vivienne Westwood tucked away in the upstairs gallery (it’s in the middle of the bottom installation shot): it’s striking, unsettling, and surprisingly beautiful all at once. The nude Westwood is draped across an ornate chaise decorated with bright orange pillows, her fiery orange hair and her milky white skin competing for attention. She’s like a contemporary (and clearly older) version of Manet’s Olympia (an allusion I don’t throw around lightly): frank, seductive, unnervingly explicit, and thoroughly unexpected. In these images, Teller’s brash approach has clearly unlocked something both controversial and enduring.
I suppose my conclusion is that if an artist is going to take the path of the contrarian, then his/her job is to consistently push us out of our comfort zone and challenge us to broaden our ability to see. We may not ultimately like this much, but I think we can respect it. To my eye, this show mixes too much conventional material in with the subtle and not-so-subtle shockers, and so the overall confrontational power of the show is somewhat diluted. That said, when Teller does open the throttle, the handful of strong images here testify to his ability to create elegant comparative dissonance.
Collector’s POV: The single images in the show are priced between £3800 and £6000, based on size (all prices quoted in £). The triptych is £35000 and the 4 panel work is £16000. While Teller’s name recognition is high, his work still has very little secondary market history, so gallery retail is likely the only viable option for collectors at this point.