Now You See It: Photography and Concealment @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing a total of 26 photographic/video works from 23 photographers/artists, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls (with yellow accents at the ends) in a large single room gallery space. All of the works have been drawn from the museum’s permanent collection. (Installation shots below.)

The following photographers/artists have been included in the exhibit, followed by the number of works on view and their details:

  • Vito Acconci: 1 set of mounted gelatin silver prints, 1972
  • Juliette Alexandre-Bisson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1919-1920
  • Diane Arbus: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1963
  • Lutz Bacher: 1 set of 7 gelatin silver prints, 1986
  • Chris Burden: 2 gelatin silver prints with typescript, 1971
  • Fredi Casco: 1 gelatin silver print with graphite inscriptions, 1950/2012
  • John Cohen: 1 gelatin silver print, 1960
  • Thomas Demand: 1 chromogenic print, 2012
  • Robert Frank: 1 gelatin silver print, 1955
  • Lee Friedlander: 1 gelatin silver print, 1966/1973
  • Mishka Henner: 1 inkjet print, 2011
  • Helen Levitt: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1942
  • Vera Lutter: 1 gelatin silver print triptych, 2000
  • Ralph Eugene Meatyard: 1 gelatin silver print, 1962
  • Grace Ndiritu: 1 video, 2003
  • Paul Outerbridge: 1 carbro print, 1936
  • Jack Pierson: 1 chromogenic print, 1992
  • Pierre-Louis Pierson: 1 gelatin silver print from glass negative, 1861-1867/1930
  • Miguel Rio Branco: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1994
  • Fazal Sheikh: 1 set of 18 inkjet prints, 2011
  • Taryn Simon: 1 triptych of inkjet prints and text, 2011
  • Bill Wasilevich: 1 gelatin silver print, 1949
  • Weegee: 1 gelatin silver print, 1942/1983

Comments/Context: It’s a not so hidden secret that contemporary photography is not a particular strength at the Metropolitan museum, either in its collections or in its curatorial staff, but given a high ceilinged space dedicated to the display of examples of the medium, the museum soldiers on year after year putting up group shows that try to draw thematic connections between its powerhouse holdings of vintage photography and some of its more recent acquisitions. The newest iteration in this long running series plays with the idea of concealment in photography, once again bridging between old and new with a mixed degree of success.

Masks are perhaps the most obvious visual motif among the variants in this show, covering the uneven psychological territory between Paul Outerbidge’s nude with a black mask, hat, and fishnets and Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s kids in creepy Halloween masks. Hidden faces (like those found in abundance in W.M. Hunt’s Unseen Eye collection) are a related group of images, juxtaposing Weegee’s paddy wagon riders blocking their faces with top hats and Bill Wasilevich’s portrait of Jimmy “One-Eye” Collins peering out from behind his coat collar. Grace Ndiritu’s video takes these ideas a step further, as she employs a large piece of patterned fabric to cover her face in a dizzying variety of ways, from a turban, to a blindfold, to a niqab, all in an evolving succession of twirls and twists (performed to a haunting soundtrack by Baaba Maal). The broader concept of hiding is then extended by Helen Levitt’s kids in a cardboard box or playing hide-and-go-seek and Vito Acconci’s iconic under the floorboards masturbation performance Seedbed.

Obscured and blocked views are another angle on this overarching photographic concealment theme. Blurred pixels disguise the Dutch countryside (in Mishka Henner’s appropriated aerials) and Nazi relatives (in Taryn Simon’s archival studies), while curtains come down on Jack Pierson’s chorus line and Juliette Alexandre-Bisson’s séance birth. Images of backs both give us clues and prevent us from knowing, like Thomas Demand’s painstaking recreation of a storeroom where missing paintings were found, Miguel Rio Branco’s stringy, decaying backside of a tapestry, and Fredi Casco’s surreptitious pencil outlines drawn on the back of party pictures from authoritarian Paraguay.

While all of the works in this exhibit can be logically made to fit under this concealment umbrella, their interaction as an interrelated whole lacks the frission of a great group show; the bigger pieces and multi-image sets on view are less obvious fits, and the smaller fill-ins aren’t quirky or unexpected enough to tie the package up into something exciting. So as has been the case many times before in this lofty space, this is a cross-period photography group show built on a generally solid concept, and one that’s well-edited, conservative, and just a tad bit dull.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibit, there are, of course, no posted prices, and given the group show nature of these varied selections, we will dispense with our usual discussion of prices and secondary market history.

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Read more about: Bill Wasilevich, Chris Burden, Diane Arbus, Fazal Sheikh, Fredi Casco, Grace Ndiritu, Helen Levitt, Jack Pierson, John Cohen, Juliette Alexandre-Bisson, Lee Friedlander, Lutz Bacher, Miguel Rio Branco, Mishka Henner, Paul Outerbridge, Pierre-Louis Pierson, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Robert Frank, Taryn Simon, Thomas Demand, Vera Lutter, Vito Acconci, Weegee (Arthur Felig), Metropolitan Museum of Art

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