Category Archives: review

Postdate

Nandan Ghiya. Download Error, DSC02065, 2012.

Nandan Ghiya. Download Error, DSC02065, 2012

Pushpamala N. Toda (after late 19th century British anthropometric photograph). From the photo-performance project Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs , 2000-2004.

Pushpamala N. Toda (after late 19th century British anthropometric photograph)

Gauri Gill. Urma and Nimli, Lunkaransar, from the series Notes from the Desert, 1999-2010.

Gauri Gill. Urma and Nimli, Lunkaransar.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. An Indian from India.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. An Indian from India

As has become somewhat standard*, the San José Museum of Art put together a show featuring non-white modern artists in a way which works as both an introduction to another culture while being tremendously relevant to the existing San José community. In this case, it’s their Postdate show of Indian photography.

*Off the top of my head, Rising Dragon’s Chinese photography and Mexicanismo’s Latino art are both relevant here.

Walking through this show reminded me a lot of Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show in how it features a highly visual culture which is using and remixing old images into new artwork, creating pieces that not only reference the old meanings but also evolve the imagery into something that’s currently relevant. In this case, a lot of the old imagery references India’s colonial past and got me thinking a lot about photography as it applies post-colonial cultures dealing with the legacy of colonialism and colonial images.

Despite photography’s (correct) description as being a democratic medium, there’s also its history of tropes and power dynamics which still informs a lot of the way we approach and react to images. As point of view gathers historical momentum that it’s good or noteworthy, it becomes increasingly difficult to break away from it and see other points of view. This isn’t a function of copying as much as there’s momentum built up in the idea of “good” that most people can’t escape or don’t know how to break. It’s one thing to be able to represent yourself. It’s quite another to do so in a way which breaks free from all of what you’ve learned is the “correct” way to view yourself.*

*Something I explore a bit in an older post on self representation, this time involving American Indians. 

Postdate breaks out of the traditional views. While none of the photos at San José explicitly reference The People of India, they reference similar works, or works which grew out of the stereotypes in there, or the stereotypes themselves which have become the face of India in the West. This isn’t just photography as self-representation, it’s reappropriation of non-representative works. Which is very cool to see.

Pushpamala N.’s photography in particular is relevant and notable here in how, similar to Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems, she’s actually performing a lot of the cultural baggage which she absorbed and grew up with. But these themes are in a lot of the photography on display. I especially liked Guari Gill’s work and how, in addition to addressing the representation issues in how India and Indians have been photographed by the west by showing non-trope images and collaborating with her subjects, a lot of her work is also evoking the physical history of photography by being printed on glass and becoming a physical object which feels more like an ambrotype or glass plate than a photographic print.

I also really liked Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya’s work of photographs of the National Instruments factory and how, while it looks like ruin porn, it explicitly looks at the history and infrastructure behind producing cameras made by, and made for, Indians.* It’s not just seductive aging textures. What was made here, who it was made for, and the implications of the manufacturing (and its cessation) matter. In this case, these photos ask what it means to produce your own tools of self-representation as well as what it means to no longer have those tools available in the modern globalized world. Does it matter where a camera is made?

*That the National 35 appears to actually be a King Regula Sprinty because National Instruments purchased the production equipment from the original German manufacturer adds a whole new layer of interesting complications and food for thought here.

I saved Annu Palakunnathu Matthew for last. Partly because her work was very funny. But mainly because she loops in Native Americans and tries to deal with what it means to be Indian in a culture which defaults to a very different image of what “Indian” means. Her reenactments of the Edward Curtis photos work on so many different levels. When displayed in an American museum, they remind us of our own colonial history while also calling out the falseness of the supposed truth in those images. They also draw parallels between how elements of both cultures are appropriated by progressive white Americans. And they capture the humor that results in trying to distinguish which kind of Indian we’re talking about.

Trevor Paglen

Trevor Paglen. NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK, 2014.

NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK, 2014

One of the constant discussions in photography has been about the issues of surveillance and voyeurism and the appropriateness of observing and recording the lives of other people. Much of this discussion is as much about the identity of whoever’s doing the recording as much as it’s about the actual act itself. Some people get upset by government surveillance while others find individual photographers more threatening.

I’ve seen numerous projects over the years which push the issues with regard to individual photographers. Hidden cameras, infrared flash and film, telephoto lenses, anything really that allows you to take pictures of people in situations they wouldn’t want to be observed in. At their best, these kinds of photos make me think about the nature of photography and my practice of it. At their worst they end up being creepy and creepshotty. But the experience is always as much about the individual photographer and his technique in capturing people candidly as it is about the subjects themselves. Looking at the photos makes it easy to put ourselves in the photographer’s shoes; we see what he sees and our enjoyment of, or reaction to, the image often aligns itself with his intent.

Trevor Paglen though is one of the few photographers who addresses the other side of the discussion. Paglen investigates the pervasive surveillance by the state and its effect on all of us as subjects, or possible subjects, of that surveillance.* His show at the Altman Siegel gallery is small** but extremely thought-provoking in this regard.

*His Last Pictures project is sort of related in that it covers the infrastructure of surveillance but is a much different provocation in that it asks questions about what kinds of images and things humans will leave behind after our extinction.

**You can see everything in the show on the website.

It’s especially interesting in that rather than being angry or outraged, Paglen’s work is very quiet and contemplative. It’s easy to be upset about rights abuses and blame politicians for prioritizing immediate comfort over principles. It’s quite another thing to really think about the nature of how much we, as a society, have invested in watching ourselves and what it means to have that subtext lurking underneath everything.

Trevor Paglen. NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Point Arena, California, United States, 2014.

NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site
Point Arena, California, United States, 2014

The photos are pretty in a minimal, natural, elegant way.* Which is exactly the point. Just underneath the quiet scene is a ton of infrastructure dedicated to watching and monitoring and controlling us. All of us. A few images are paired with maps that feature a lot more information** about the location and the nature of the infrastructure there. This information demonstrates the magnitude of the surveillance while also giving it a material presence. As clean and elegant as the photos may be, the maps show the messiness we’re not supposed to know about. They work really well together as diptychs and really increase the sense of wrongness and unease that I get when just looking at the photos.

*I happen to like minimalist seascapes anyway so that’s a bit of a bonus.

**Much of which comes from the Edward Snowden disclosures.

Paglen’s photos are also especially noteworthy here because they’re photographs where the actual subject of the image isn’t just hidden but is actually incomprehensible without any of the provided context. This isn’t merely hard to do with photography, it’s not how photography is supposed to work at all. Yet Paglen manages to not only make it work but turns all the potential problems into features. How do you take photos of hidden infrastructure? Don’t show it at all and instead imply that it could be anywhere and everywhere.

Rather than showing what we think of when we think about surveillance—cities and security cameras and other places where physical crimes may be expected to occur—these quiet scenes tell us that we can’t get away from that eye. And that it’s not being watched physically that’s the really creepy part of the surveillance state.

What’s creepy is the sense that the surveillance is everywhere and watching everything.  What’s creepy is that we’ve all bought into the system that supports this. What’s creepy is realizing that as much as this upsets me, there’s part of me that’s glad it’s there.

Untitled

Which makes it nice that Autonomy Cube is also in the gallery. It’s always fun to have some artwork that you can interact with. And while this isn’t a major bit of interaction—just connecting to a Wireless Access Point which routes everything through Tor—it’s enough make me start to think about the alternatives. The idea that it’s part of an ostensibly private/anonymous internet is comforting. At the same time I also felt myself questioning whether or not I could trust it. Or whether anonymity is even all it’s cracked up to be.

As much as I may not trust the government, it is the devil that I know. Anonymousland meanwhile is unknowable. And the internet so far has not been particular good about demonstrating that anonymous cowards are any better.

Plus there’s the whole question about the wisdom of changing your behavior because you can’t trust the government to act responsibly.* I totally understand wanting to protect yourself. But this is also the first step toward victim blaming. The scale and scope of surveillance should prompt us to think about reining it in or providing proper guidelines about its application, not how each of us should protect ourselves better on an individual basis.

*A point Snowden himself makes at the end of this video.

Vitra

Untitled

I went to Philadelphia to see Paul Strand but I couldn’t help but be excited by their Vitra Exhibition too. For the same reason I would always hit the design rooms at SFMOMA, I never ignore a design exhibition at a museum I’m visiting. It’s not just because of my background, I enjoy seeing items which make me think about the things I use, how I use them, and how they’re made.

The Vitra show offered exactly that in addition to reminding me of SFMOMA’s chair obsession. While it’s interesting to see all the information about how Vitra works and designs things, it’s being able to see the objects—in particularly the chairs—that’s really fun.

Most of the objects on display are furniture. Most of the furniture is seating. Which is great since seating is one of those universal things that we all understand. I used to side-eye SFMOMA’s seating infatuation but I get it now. This isn’t like looking at a DWR showroom.* Instead, there are designs which push the concept of usability. Maybe they’re not comfortable. Maybe they’re not practical. But they’re playful and expand the concept of what a chair could be.

*I’m beginning to be convinced that the Ikea Nesting Instinct is really the affordable DWR Nesting Instinct.

And that’s kind of the point, Vitra doesn’t play it safe. Yes, there’s a heavy emphasis on usability. But you can’t be truly innovative without playing and being willing to put something crazy together. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of wood laminate. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of sheet steel. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of corrugated cardboard. What the hell, let’s make a chair out of iron mesh. Some of those work. Other’s don’t. You learn from what doesn’t and enjoy the result as an object anyway.

Paul Strand

Paul Strand. Wall Street, New York.

The Paul Strand show turned out to be the motivation I needed to finally make the trip to Philadelphia. I’m glad I went. Strand—like Weston was for a long time—is one of those photographers whose work I’ve absorbed but never really looked at in a specific, comprehensive way before. Sure, some of the images are extremely well-known, but many of the rest I’ve never seen before yet have sensibilities which feel just as familiar to me.

Needless to say, I really like his work—especially his precise framing and composition. He’s able to find the order within the type of scenes that often catch my eye but which challenge me when it comes to finding the photograph in them—door hardware, a clump of plants, items which I can’t abstract to pure texture or sculpture because they contain both an interesting structure as well as their real-world function.

Strand’s work is also very interesting because he was right there at the beginning of photography as an art form. From his early work consisting of “fuzzy” pictorial contact prints to portraits and street photography to urban abstractions and still lifes to contrasty enlargements to finally combining photos and text together in book form, his journey as an artist parallels a lot of the medium’s journey as he learns to embrace what the medium does well and address things it doesn’t. The result of this is that many of his photos remind me of other photographers’ work. Not in a rip off way, just that looking at Strand’s work made me realize how much of an influence he had on other photographers. He’s not someone to ape. He’s someone to study and learn from and take what he learned and apply it to whatever I’m interested in.

What most struck me was realizing that while Strand’s most-famous images—those that you’re supposed to know and recognize—came from his early work, this doesn’t mean that that work is better. Instead it reflects on how his sensibilities shifted and he went from producing individually great photos to collections and books that, while consisting of great photos, are more about the way the photos work together to describe a place.

Paul Strand. The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis)

It’s his later work which has stuck with me after seeing this show. Strand would spend a long time in a location, photographing details, buildings, people, etc. all of which together form a portrait of the area. His images though don’t try and explain the area to us but rather provide a sense of how it was when Strand was there. They’re documentary without feeling anthropological or journalistic. They’re positive and empathic without being propaganda, Looking at them is like looking through an exceptionally high-quality photo album and offers a lot of food for thought as I think about making my own photo albums and books.

The exhibition itself is also noteworthy for having a lot of technical detail about the different printing methods Strand used. It does a great job at demonstrating how they differ—both on the production side and in the final product—but especially the final product. There are examples of copy negatives and interpositives and information about how they were modified before contact printing. There are also displays of the same images, or similar images from the same shoot, reproduced as platinum, silver gelatin, and photogravure prints set up so we can compare the differences in detail and contrast each method allows for. Mixed with these comparisons are discussions about how his cameras impacted his working methods and different printing methods impacted distribution.

It was nice to see an exhibition which realized and explained how much the tools of photographic capture and print production impact the art. It’s even nicer to see an exhibition discuss issues of distribution and display. While his prints are great, that Strand eventually settled on books as the ideal form for his photography puts a very different frame regarding the intended audience of the artwork. Most things we see in museums are elite objects for elite people. Strand’s work is more populist. It’s only fitting that I’ll be aware of his influence everywhere I look now.

Lingerie, Dance, Silhouette, and Movement

My sister works in costuming and is big into fashion. After visiting MoMA, we wandered over to FIT since it’s the museum in New York which is most in-line with her interests. As a design/use junkie, I also enjoy fashion and clothing exhibitions since clothing is one of those universal things. Even if it’s fashion, it’s meant to be worn and reveals a lot about how society views the human body. The two exhibitions on display when we visited—Lingerie and Dance—both explicitly discussed issues about how much of clothing’s intent is to either emphasize or alter the body’s shape and movement.

FIT_Exposed

The lingerie exhibition was more interesting to me—especially as a social history. The main takeaway for me was confirming that demonization of underwear in the late 1960s was indeed misplaced. Underwear gives structure to the silhouette—something which changes with the fashions of the time. Looking at this structure allows us to extrapolate a lot of other things about the fashions of the time, but it also reminds us that the way people look in clothes often has very little to do with how they look out of clothes.

For most of history, structured undergarments allow for clothes to fit “correctly.” And it was understood that the undergarments were doing most of the heavy lifting*—In other words, it wasn’t “cheating” to wear a corset or bustle or crinoline. Comparing this to today where wearing a padded bra or Spanx seems to feel dishonest** because women are supposed to be able to exercise or diet to be able to achieve the desired silhouette in a “natural” fashion and I can’t help but conclude that focusing on the undergarments as “instruments of female torture” may have misdiagnosed the target that should have been protested.

*Or squeezing or padding or tucking.

**Shit, getting surgery to minimize or maximize certain body parts feels dishonest.

It’s not the underwear which is the problem. The problem is the desire to have a specific silhouette—and the fact that what is desirable changes every decade. At least you can change your underwear easier than you can change your body.

That said, looking at the history of lingerie also makes it clear that even before those protests started, underwear—and the clothing being worn over it—was getting less and less complicated and revealing more and more skin anyway. I found it somewhat ironic that the late 1960s through the 1970s in fact had the least restrictive and softest-structured undergarments in the entire show. We’ve swung since then to more structured bras and increased padding and even corsets again. Though a lot of that has become outerwear as well.

The other interesting thing in looking at lingerie was seeing how the technology and materials changed and the number of different ways we’ve tried to accomplish the same sorts of goals. The exhibition goes from whalebone corsets to padded underwire bras and touches on many other kinds of ways to shape the body. It’s amazing to see how much lighter and more efficient everything has become. This is extremely intimate technology intended to be worn for long periods of time up against the skin. It’s kind of a shame that it’s relegated to fashion museums since not only does it concern half of humanity, it’s also just a fascinating design challenge.

FIT_Dance

The dance show felt a bit forced to me. It’s a great concept but there were too many pieces which felt shoehorned in as possibly dance related. Which is too bad since I was liking the comparison between the dance costumes and the lingerie exhibit—in particular how these costumes were explicit about how they were intended to impact the body’s movement in the same way that lingerie impacts the body’s silhouette. These are two sides of the same coin and both need to be kept in mind when thinking about clothing and how it works.

Dance appears to have two distinct ideas about how fashion and costume should be. One is that nothing should get in the way of the human form and how it moves. The other is that by altering the form and restricting its movement through costume, other interesting things can be revealed. Both views are valid though the second view results in the costumes I find more interesting.

The costumes that stay out of the way end up being more decorative—some fabulously so—but mostly things that we can get a sense of when seeing them on mannequins. The costumes that rely on restricting or hiding movement though need videos so we can see them in action.* I could kind of picture some of them with basic movement. But dance isn’t basic and that intellectual leap was more than I could muster.

*Although, really, more video in general would be nice since this is, after all, a dance exhibition.

Christopher Williams

MoMA_Williams

The third big exhibition at MoMA was the Christopher Williams show. This one was a mixed bag in terms of how I responded to it. On one hand, it was a bit of a fuck you to the audience since a lot of it felt like an in-joke that most people won’t get.* At the same time for me it felt like an exhibition which worked really well with Gober. Many of the photos were a little bit surreal or odd. And the whole show played with converting non-art objects to art objects.

*Not the biggest fuck you I’ve received in a Museum exhibition. That honor is still held by Santiago Sierra who, while I get what he was doing, still produced an exhibition that blew off anyone who attended it in favor of the statement that he was making.

In Williams’s case, he’s playing with the concepts behind stock and “professional” photography—bringing photographic muzak into the museum by suggesting alternate readings of the image and revealing some of the artifice in how it was produced. The alternate readings are obscure and stretched and, to my mind, not even that important. I’ve worked in printing, production, and design long enough to understand how everyone includes in-jokes in the process—the more obscure the joke the better so as no one else will notice. That we know he’s winking or enjoying a self-satisfied giggle here is enough for me even though I can totally understand how other people would be upset by this.

Revealing the artifice behind the stock photos is more interesting to me anyway. That so many of them feel a little off makes us question our expectations and points out how much of this photographic language we’ve absorbed even though this kind of photography is universally unmemorable.* Getting into and figuring out why they feel off though is almost impossible. They’re not off in a bad or incompetent way, they’re just somehow less commercial than we expect even while looking completely professional. Some of this is definitely because they’re in a museum rather than a magazine ad. But a lot of it is based on our collective snap judgements against a standard of professionalism that we can’t even articulate.

*It’s interesting to compare Williams to what people are currently calling Hipster Photography. Hipster photography appears to ape the unmemorable product consumption images only without being about the product. Williams makes the product more explicit but tweaks the delivery so it isn’t as unmemorable.

This isn’t “that’s not art” kind of art because it’s giant or made from expensive materials or being trangressive and saying “yes this is art.” Instead Williams directly triggers our “that’s not art” reflex only to have us immediately realize that we may jumped to that conclusion too quickly. I love this kind of category blurring.

I also love all his photos which intentionally include production elements in the frame. I’m a backstager by heart who tends to sympathize with all the unseen stuff that goes into making anything. It’s very easy to forget or be ignorant about all that process so any artist who tweaks the ideas of what belongs offstage* is okay by me.

*For example, Baz Luhrmann’s stage direction.

Matisse Cutouts

MoMA_Matisse

The big exhibition at MoMA was the Matisse show. Unlike Gober, Matisse was packed full of people who like his artwork—and who were visiting the museum to indulge in how much they liked it. It is indeed superficially easy to like: Bright colors. Fun shapes. A famous name. Some iconic pieces.

I liked it too, but the main appeal to me was that it was, in many ways, an exhibition of process documents instead of final products. Many of the pieces on display were actually about designing for a different medium. Maquettes for murals,* printed books,** ceramics,*** and stained glass. Cutouts eventually realized as silkscreens. Even the pieces which remained as cutouts went through multiple iterations before ending up in their final arrangements.

*The Barnes Mural

**Jazz

***La Gerbe

The exhibition does a great job at showing how the cutouts evolved and interacted with each other as Matisse worked on them. There are photos showing different arrangements and the displays go out of their way to emphasize the pinholes and other ways that the pieces were held together and rearranged. This is distinct from other process documents where multiple iterations are created and can be preserved. The fluidity of composition in the cutouts is fascinating to see and think about and there’s something wonderfully tactile and evocative with cut shapes stuck on a surface where we can see the possibilities of playing with everything.

Which made it especially interesting to see how despite the ephemeral nature of the cut outs, they were all also presented as being finished and final. The maquettes might be final proofs but they’re not the final piece. Some of the cutouts were indeed intended to be final pieces but many of them were living on Matisse’s walls and there’s a huge difference between being in the state Matisse’s death left them in and having it be finished complete works of art.* I can appreciate them as being finished enough, but declaring them as complete—and seeing people view them as complete—got me thinking some more about how we conceive of art and the role that presentation plays in how we react.

*It’s worth mentioning an exhibition on sketches I saw at Princeton here for some additional thoughts about process documents and unfinished pieces in the museum.

It’s an exhibition of Matisse Cutouts, not an exhibition of maquettes for Matisse Prints or Matisse Ceramics. So cutout as final form is the expectation going in.

And that’s fine too. Many of the pieces are a joy to look at and the form itself is fun. Squiggles where you can see both parts and try and match up the original paper pieces across multiple compositions. Vaguely botanical shapes that remind me of Hawaiian quilts. Some remarkably effortless and graceful forms such as the parakeet which show how much a single confident line can convey.*

*And other equally effortful forms, especially his human figures, which show that this medium is a lot harder than it looks.

There is so much here which I want to show my sons as basic art education. How to explore colors and positive and negative spaces. Being able to move compositions around before committing to their placement. The willingness to just try a line or shape and see what happens with it. The fact that this is just cut pieces of colored paper means it’s simple and cheap to try.