New Photography 2009 @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A group show of the work of six contemporary photographers, variously framed, and hung in a two room divided gallery on the 3rd floor. The exhibit was curated by Eva Respini. (Installation shots at right.)

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view in parentheses:
  • Walead Beshty (4), all from 2008
  • Daniel Gordon (4), from 2008 and 2009
  • Leslie Hewitt (6 as 3 works), from 2002-2008
  • Carter Mull (5), from 2008 and 2009
  • Sterling Ruby (4), from 2005-2007
  • Sara VanDerBeek (4 as 1 work), all from 2006

Comments/Context: This year’s New Photography exhibit at the MoMA takes us far out beyond the traditional boundaries of conventional straight documentation, and emphatically declares that the museum’s 21st century definition of “photography” will be broad and inclusive.
I actually believe that this definitional discussion is long overdue and much needed at this point in the medium’s history. Since the beginning of photography, there have always been subcultures of artists who rejected the sharp reality of what a camera could capture, and spent their time and energy exploring how the various technologies could be used to create wholly unreal worlds. Out of this experimentation came multiple negatives, collaged and photomontaged works, images of staged performances, ephemeral sculptures and conceptual hoaxes, appropriated images and rephotography, camera-less darkroom creations and photograms, etc. etc. All of these were generally still gathered under the umbrella of “photography”, perhaps because their endpoint output was a photographic print of some kind.
As we cross into the digital age, new tools have expanded the number of degrees of freedom artists can now play with; there are now even more variables that can be tweaked and modified. Many of the works in this show might be best called mixed media contemporary art, as they bear little resemblance to the black and white masters of traditional photography. But while most of the works don’t look familiar, nearly all of them are further extensions of practices and ideas with roots found decades ago, just supercharged and taken way out into the unknown, often bridged into this white space by the additional of computer-based manipulation. But it seems the definitional construct is still the same: if the product is a photographic print, no matter how it was created or how unorthodox it may seem, it’s still “photography”.
I’d say it’s impossible to walk into these galleries and not notice Walead Beshty’s huge floor-to-ceiling photograms; they are so blindingly colorful, full of electric magenta and bold yellow, that they drown out everything else. Abstract lines and rectangles cluster into dense overlapping layers. Beshty’s work is clearly a distant relative of Man Ray’s and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s photograms, albeit with a much more expressionistic palette.
Daniel Gordon’s cut paper collages of disturbing figures have a Picasso-esque feeling to them, adapted to the culture of image appropriation. Hair, eyes, and other random body parts have been assembled into unsettling and Surreal hybrid characters, not exactly funny, just odd. These piece part people and their flattened surroundings finally emerge as photographs, documents of the elaborate tableaux that have been painstakingly constructed.
Sterling Ruby’s images seem the farthest from “photography” as we know it. These seem to be pure digital creations: a gathering of found images collaged together with seamless perfection and then covered with computer generated “effects” like drips of paint/blood and sprayed on scrawls, creating a violent mood. While the output is still a photographic print, these works seem to have no relationship to the old school operation of a camera; we’re in the realm of digital wizardry here and the opportunities for artistic expansion seem limitless.
The works of Carter Mull, Leslie Hewitt and Sara VanDerBeek travel some of these same experimental roads, but to lesser effect in my opinion. LA Times spreads are washed with distorted colors and patterns of martini glasses and roses become swirls of darkroom effects, staged tabletop still lifes adorned with old photographs are turned upside down, and elaborate temporary sculptures of found pictures and dripping white paint become a patchwork of symbols and inside references.
While overall this exhibit is a mixed bag of work, I enjoyed the fact that this annual show was once again being used to dig a little deeper into a topic of current importance to the medium, rather than simply a gathering of fresh but unrelated imagery. The discussion of what “photography” is or isn’t is far from over, but this show is at least a stake in the ground for people to consider.

Collector’s POV: The photographers in the show are represented by the following galleries:
  • Walead Beshty is represented by Wallspace in New York (here).
  • Daniel Gordon is represented by Claudia Groeflin Galerie in Zurich (here).
  • Leslie Hewitt is represented by D’Amelio Terras in New York (here).
  • Carter Mull is represented by Marc Foxx in Los Angeles (here).
  • Sterling Ruby is represented by Metro Pictures in New York (here). (UPDATE: I’ve been told this may not be the case anymore, and that the right pointer should be to Pace Wildenstein (here))
  • Sara VanDerbeek is represented by D’Amelio Terras in New York (here).

None of these artists has any significant secondary market track record, so gallery retail will likely be the only option for acquiring their work in the short term. While none of this work is a fit for our particular collection, I enjoyed Beshty’s eye-popping photograms the most.

Rating: * (one star) GOOD (rating system described here).
Transit Hub:

  • Walead Beshty: Directions @Hirshhorn Museum 2009 (here)
  • Daniel Gordon: artist site (here)
  • Leslie Hewitt: artist site (here)
  • Carter Mull: former Rivington Arms site (here)
  • Sterling Ruby: The Masturbators @Foxy Production, 2009 (here)
  • Sara VanDerBeek: NY Times review 2006 (here)
Through January 11th
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

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Read more about: Carter Mull, Daniel Gordon, Leslie Hewitt, Sara VanDerBeek, Sterling Ruby, Walead Beshty, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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