Reconstructions: Recent Photographs and Video from the Met Collection @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of a total of 17 photographic and video works by 15 artists/photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in a large divided space (with a small darkened alcove for the video) on the second floor of the museum. All of the works have been drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and were acquired in the last seven years.

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

  • Thomas Bangsted: 1 inkjet print, 2011-2012
  • Erica Baum: 4 inkjet prints, 2009, 2010
  • Lucas Blalock: 1 chromogenic print, 2012
  • Shannon Bool: 1 gelatin silver print, 2014
  • Sarah Charlesworth: 1 chromogenic print, 2011
  • Clegg & Guttmann: 1 chromogenic print, 1986/2012
  • Miles Coolidge: 1 inkjet print, 2013
  • Moyra Davey: (1 work) 26 c-prints, tape, postage, ink, 2013
  • Roe Ethridge: 1 chromogenic print diptych, 2013
  • Adrià Julià: 1 lenticular print, 2014
  • Matt Keegan: (1 work) 8 chromogenic prints on sheet metal, 2011
  • Owen Kydd: 1 two-channel video (color, silent, 3:30), 2012
  • Luis Úrculo: 1 inkjet print (with 1 inkjet on paper), 2014
  • Erika Vogt: 1 single channel video (color, silent, 9:53), 2012

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s a pretty common reality that museum acquisitions, either via purchase or donation, are often difficult to track from the outside. While a few museums publish lists of every artwork added to the permanent collection in a given year, this is the exception rather than the rule. And artists and galleries are often happy to announce acquisitions by major museums, but systematically keeping an eye of these releases and tallying the independent points of information is beyond the scope of most collectors. So we’re generally left with an imperfect understanding of what most museums are actually doing, unless we have inside access to the workings and strategies of a particular accessions committee. This is too bad, as most museums (as embodied by their curatorial teams) do have a distinct and informed point of view about topics like the important artists on the leading edge of contemporary photography – the problem is that we usually don’t know what that opinion is, at least in any public way.

Without special access, shows like this one are often our only chance at divining the direction of a particular curatorial group. In this case, the exhibit starts with an umbrella thematic label (“reconstruction”), and then gathers together many (if not all) the recent acquisitions that fit under that category. This approach doesn’t gives us a comprehensive view of everything that was acquired (and not acquired) by the photography department during that period of time, but offers instead a slice or subset drawn from the larger whole.

“Reviewing” such a collection of works has some obvious pitfalls, as the exhibition looks at a theme meaningfully constrained by the boundaries and strengths/weaknesses of the existing collection, the interests of the curators, and the budget of the committee and its major donors; it’s not the optimum presentation of the theme (with the best of the best borrowed from wherever those artworks my reside), but what the Met has in its inventory that fits this construct. But there are at least a few intriguing questions we can consider. How well does this group collectively represent the larger trend? Given the chosen theme, do we think the artists chosen were the “right” ones, i.e. those that are most likely to be durably important? And given the photographers selected, did the Met get a great example, a good example, or a mediocre example of his/her work?

There are three works in this show where the Met curators got both the photographer and the specific artwork right on the money. Moyra Davey’s mailed photographs are an innovative and important body of work, and the Kevin Ayers piece dealing with record collectors is one of her best. Erica Baum’s folded book corners are similarly original, and the four examples on view here highlight her mix of clever found wordplay and angular formal abstraction. And Lucas Blalock’s jittering living room chair, full of disorienting Photoshop reworking, is an excellent example of his contributions to the digital discussion. We can expect to see these works again and again in the years to come.

In the cases of Sarah Charlesworth and Roe Ethridge, the Met curators have clearly gotten the selected artists right, but the specific image choices are solid, if not entirely superlative. Given the assumption that there already several early Charlesworths in the collection, this image from her later Available Light series is a straightforward choice to build out the larger picture of her career; it isn’t her best body of work, but this image is among the better from that series. In Ethridge’s case, he’s clearly important and influential, and will likely become increasingly so as the history gets written further. His ramen noodles diptych included here is certainly a fine choice, but not as fully representative of the nuances of his work as it might have been; its all-over formal qualities disguise the more commercial/conceptual questions that make his work so disruptive.

Several of the works on view are surprisingly inspired and risky choices for an institution like the Met. Owen Kydd’s durational photographs are a fabulously smart selection; this particular example isn’t as amazing as some, but it’s a solidly forward thinking addition. Neither Luis Úrculo nor Shannon Bool is an obvious choice, but the chosen images will likely both stand up well over time. And Matt Keegan’s work is on an intriguing trajectory; this particular piece is representative of only part of what makes Keegan’s work worth following, so its selection is a little skew, but still thoughtful.

While there might be a verifiable logic for the inclusion of the rest of the works on view here, they could have easily been omitted without diluting the overall strength of the show (the single video, unaccompanied by other relevant acquisitions, seems like an afterthought). Michele Abeles, Jessica Eaton, and John Houck would have been logical additions for this contemporary genre, with a handful of other names that could easily fill out the roster more fully.

In the end, the main problem with this generally well-edited group of works is that aside from Blalock and Bangsted, it is extremely analog heavy in its thinking about the medium. If “reconstruction” is the desired theme, and the Met wants to be able to robustly tell the story of the medium since the introduction of Photoshop and the arrival of the Internet, a number of keystone artists and pictures that would help to explain that digital evolution are visibly missing. What this selection says is that the Met understands quite well how contemporary photography connects back to its analog roots. What it also says is that while the Met may indeed have strong opinions about the newest digital work, they have yet to broadly manifest themselves in important foundation-setting acquisitions.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and given the diversity of the artists/photographers included, we will dispense with the secondary market analysis typically found here.

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Read more about: Adrià Julià, Erica Baum, Erika Vogt, Lucas Blalock, Luis Úrculo, Matt Keegan, Michael Clegg & Martin Guttmann, Miles Coolidge, Moyra Davey, Owen Kydd, Roe Ethridge, Sarah Charlesworth, Shannon Bool, Thomas Bangsted, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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