Photo-Poetics: An Anthology @Guggenheim

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing roughly 100 photographs, films, and videos from 10 photographers, displayed against white walls (and in darkened video rooms) in the annex galleries on the second, fourth, and fifth floors of the museums. The show was curated by Jennifer Blessing, with assistance from Susan Thompson. A catalog of the exhibit has been published by the museum and is available in the museum shop for $50 (here).

The following artists/photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works on view, their processes and dates as background:

  • Claudia Angelmaier: 2 chromogenic prints 2004, 2005, 3 chromogenic prints face mounted to acrylic, 2008
  • Erica Baum: 11 inkjet prints, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014, 1 installation of 4 inkjet prints, 2014
  • Anne Collier: 6 chromogenic prints, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009
  • Moyra Davey: 1 set of 16 chromogenic prints with tape, postage, and ink, 2011, 1 HD video, 61 minutes, 2011
  • Leslie Hewitt: 10 chromogenic prints, 2006-2009, 2 chromogenic prints in custom maple frames, 2009
  • Elad Lassry: 5 chromogenic prints in painted/walnut frames, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2 gelatin silver prints (one with applied silver foil) in painted frames, 2009, 1 16mm color film, 9:45, 2012
  • Lisa Oppenheim: 4 gelatin silver prints, 2015, 15 chromogenic prints, 2007-2009, 1 35mm slide projection (15 slides), 2006
  • Erin Shirreff: 1 inkjet print, 2014, 1 SD color video, 37 minutes, 2006, 1 HD color video, 17 minutes, 2010
  • Kathrin Sonntag: 4 chromogenic prints, 2010, 1 inkjet print, 2010, 1 35mm slide projection (81 slides), 2008
  • Sara VanDerBeek: 25 chromogenic prints (including 1 diptych), 2007, 2008, 2015

(Since photography is not permitted in the galleries at the museum, it was not possible to gather a comprehensive set of installation views of the exhibit. The selection of images below was provided courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photos by Owen Conway.)

Comments/Context: If we think of the digital revolution in photography as an event akin to the throwing of a large boulder into a small still pond, we can draw critical parallels between both the frame-breaking violence of the initial blast and the ongoing layers of waves and ripples of influence and change that have extended out from the original impact point. And while many curators and critics have been wary of trying to make definitive sense of the tumult as it has been occurring, some two plus decades into the chaos, the pressure has been increasing on our most notable voices to step into the light and make an effort to explain what has been happening in contemporary photography.

Guggenheim curator Jennifer Blessing’s approach to this thorny problem has been to largely bypass a study of the disruptive technologies, networks, art-making methods, and downstream transformations of the recent past, opting instead to consider a narrower and arguably more inward-looking set of artistic reactions to the changes in the medium. Given that this structure leaves out massive swaths of new digital work of various kinds, the choice of article becomes important here – this is by no means the show to bravely define current photographic trends; it is instead a view into an important emergent slice of the photography that has evolved since the upheaval. As such, its ambitions are much more modest than a bold map of the entire universe, but because it has selected a smaller subset of the whole to consider, its conclusions and insights on the topics it has chosen to analyze are much tighter.

The group show is the natural formula for wide ranging surveys like this one, but to be clear, while this exhibition does gather together a large number of photographers, Photo-Poetics isn’t really a group show in the traditional sense. Anthology (in the title) is a very apt word – the exhibit is actually 10 separate solo shows (of similar size) shoehorned into the same collective space. And while there are some thematic connections between the artists on view and the works selected, each one is a stand alone statement to be encountered and examined in nearly any order; this isn’t a show built on clever juxtapositions, controlled rhythms, or visual resonances across the galleries. The photographers have been meticulous edited and well-chosen, but they are largely independent of one another, even when they share some umbrella ideas, encouraging slow serial engagement rather than all-at-once immersive conclusions.

The overarching set of thinking that holds this collection together is a particular mindset toward (or perhaps reaction to) the new ways of working in/with photography that the digital revolution enabled. It sets its roots in both Pictures Generation appropriation and heady Conceptualism, with a splash of take-no-prisoners incisiveness attributable to the invisible presence of Sarah Charlesworth, whose aura lingers like a benevolent ghost above the proceedings. Visual raw material (both tangible and in bits) is sourced from all over (thanks to the Internet), brought into the studio, and allowed to stew until new forms and avenues for investigation have emerged. Reuse and rephotography are then employed with measured creativity, often reveling in the physicality of the imagery and its layers of hidden history. And given that 9 out of 10 of the photographers in this show are women, a subtle flavor of feminist inquiry simmers in the margins here and there.

Appropriation has come a long way since the 1970s, expanding out from the simplest forms of isolation, recontextualization, and resulting media commentary that were its origin to the more nuanced and complex approaches to image harvesting we are seeing today. Many of the artists working in this genre have dug deeply into archives of printed photographic materials, performing a kind of conceptual archaeology on these dated representations, paring back their discoveries and opting for the purity of revisualizing what they’ve found. Anne Collier has explored changing female roles in her appropriation of album covers, magazines, camera catalogs, and other ephemera, photography itself always intertwined with her gender studies. Erica Baum has cleverly used the flared edges of yellowing paperbacks as an isolating effect, allowing fragments of single images to peek out, offering flashes of mysterious narrative amid the linear striping. Claudia Angelmaier has leveraged photographic reproductions in textbooks and on postcards, using the paper itself as a kind of interrupting scrim through which the images on the backs of the pages are seen; she’s also tested our collective memory with countless variations of the same image (in one example, Albrecht Dürer’s bunnies), each one subtly color tweaked by the process of reproduction. And Elad Lassry has embraced the oddness of advertising and stock photography, isolating images in matched color frames with a kind of surreal hyper attention, and more recently, introducing sculptural interventions that further complicate the process of looking.

Other contemporary appropriators have gone a step or two further, moving toward recombination, juxtaposition, and collage-like aesthetics. Leslie Hewitt’s arrangements of photographs and books on the floor of her studio create telescoping geometries that aggregate layers of associations; she then expands that idea in sculptural stacks of precariously balanced objects and images leaning against the wall. Lisa Oppenheim combines images of sunsets taken by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan with her own images, creating a slide show that collapses distance and time (with a nod to Kenneth Josephson). Erin Shirreff pushes her reuse in other directions, combining printed images of artworks into elemental sculptural pairings, and tricking our eyes with a static image of the UN that changes not because time is passing, but because she is altering the light that is cast across it. And Sara VanDerBeek turns images into hanging mobiles, full of references, allusions, and visual echoes.

While the choices in this exhibit may have been driven to some extent by recent acquisitions, there is a formal and conceptual commonality to these works that is rightly highlighted as a trend in contemporary photography. In each case, the artist’s reaction to the flood of available imagery swirling out there in the world has been to edit and reframe, creating personal order out of engulfing chaos. At its best, this method leads to shimmering clarity and essential moments of “aha”; at its less effective, it drifts into airless, precious self-consciousness. This show gives us a cross section of both, but always with a sense of quality and craftsmanship. Blessing has pared away the messiness of the digital revolution and given us something far more resolved and organized. The tenor of her choices is meditatively consistent, and while that might not entirely reflect the true unevenness of the medium at this moment, it certainly leads to a thoughtfully composed flow of ideas.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. As reference, the included photographers are represented by the following galleries:

  • Claudia Angelmaier: Parrotta (here)
  • Erica Baum Bureau (here)
  • Anne Collier: Anton Kern (here)
  • Moyra Davey: Murray Guy (here)
  • Leslie Hewitt: Sikkema Jenkins (here)
  • Elad Lassry: 303 Gallery (here)
  • Lisa Oppenheim: Tanya Bonakdar (here)
  • Erin Shirreff: Sikkema Jenkins (here)
  • Kathrin Sonntag: Galerie Kamm (here)
  • Sara VanDerBeek: Metro Pictures (here)

While the works of Lassry, Collier, and a few of the others have some intermittent secondary market history, the total number of public transactions for any one of these photographers has been relatively small, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Anne Collier, Claudia Angelmaier, Elad Lassry, Erica Baum, Erin Shirreff, Kathrin Sonntag, Leslie Hewitt, Lisa Oppenheim, Moyra Davey, Sara VanDerBeek, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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