Category Archives: review

Cooper Hewitt

Lou Romano, colorscript, "The Incredibles," 2004. Digital painting.

Lou Romano, colorscript, “The Incredibles,” 2004. Digital painting.

My son had a random midweek day off in November so we took a day trip to New York. The main draw was the Pixar show at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. I was hoping it would be something like the huge show at the Oakland Museum but even if it wasn’t, I was looking forward to both comparing and seeing new items from the 5 years of movies released since the Oakland show.

It wasn’t as good. But it was still fun. Whereas the Oakland show was about the artifacts and explaining the whole process of making the movie, the Cooper Hewitt show was much more interested in being interactive and getting visitors involved in the process of designing the movie. I actually prefer the Cooper Hewitt approach except the room was very small and relied on a lot of digital artifacts rather than letting us see all the sketches and maquettes and things.

My son though loved doing the sketch activities and playing with the giant interactive tables. And he enjoyed seeing the few artifacts they did have on display. A little bit of wonder goes an amazingly long way with kids and he was very happy to see is “friends” in a museum.

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We also wandered—sorta quickly—through the rest of the museum. There was a fantastic exhibition on Heatherwick Studio which, even if I didn’t have a hungry first grader in tow, I probably wouldn’t have as much time as I wanted to really study everything. A lot of the things here looked like crazy pipe-dream architectural concepts* except that low and behold many of them have actually been built.

*Similar in wonder and the apparent impossibility of execution as Lebbeus Woods’s mind-blowing stuff.

I particularly like the experiments into expandable furniture as well as the way they use multiple repeated small structures to create a cohesive object. But everything feels like playing with materials, manufacturing, and space in ways that aren’t just “hey look what I can do” but are really thinking and exploring how these materials and methods can inform the way we interact with buildings.

There was also a poster exhibition which worked as a great primer on graphic design fundamentals. The print nerd in me really liked it too since it went into some of the nitty gritty of manufacturing in addition to covering a number of the basic design principles that designers return to.

After the museum we wandered back to the subway through Central Park. It was a wonderfully nice fall day so it was good to just be outside in the last of the fall color.

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Grounds for Sculpture

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While I finally made it out to Grounds for Sculpture last fall, I’ve put off writing about it until now because I’ve been working out my feelings about it. Not in a good way. I don’t want to blast it because it’s a nice place with nice grounds to walk through and some nice artwork—a perfectly pleasant place to spend the day and one I’m looking forward to bringing my kids to see. At the same time, I really didn’t like it. At all.

The feature attractions are all Seward Johnson sculptural versions of famous* paintings. Basically kitsch. Fun for the moment you recognize what it is but after that brief moment there’s not much there. Part of my problem is that I don’t particularly like the original pieces—I recognize their importance but it’s never been the kind of art I like. In addition to their cliché value, they also anchor the “art that people are comfortable praising”** wing of the museum. Remaking them needs to add a level of commentary or coöpt the work into something new. We’re a much smarter visual culture than what these works give us credit for.

*For a very narrow definition of famous in terms of the Western Art History pictorial canon.

**Something I touch on in the Caille Millner section here.

It is kind of fun to watch other people interact with them* but even there the interactions are almost all the same kind of posing/mimicking the presented tableau. The whole thing is just too obvious for me. This is especially a shame because Seward Johnson’s work can be wonderfully subtle when it’s just dropped in an urban setting where people don’t realize immediately that it’s a sculpture. Here though everything is called out.

**One nice thing is that you actually can touch many of the works here.

The other sculptures are often nice but, as with Johnson’s work, displayed in a manner that destroys a lot of what I like about sculpture. Many of these pieces need more room to breathe or at least a setting where they can be discovered rather than being right on the prescribed route through the grounds. There’s also very rarely any sense of how pieces should interact with each other.

Also, too many of the sculptures feel like civic art—in a bad way—to the point that much of the grounds feels like a holding pen for pieces that are slated for distribution to municipal suburbs across the US. One or two of these pieces might make me homesick for my own suburb. Seeing so many of them together emphasizes a certain genericness in the type.

Still, the grounds themselves are very nice and I can see kids enjoying running all along the paths and over the bridges and getting their introduction to art canon/cliché here. It’s just that I have to remind myself not to think of it as a museum.

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Willard Worden

Willard Worden. Midnight in Chinatown 1903

Willard Worden. Midnight in Chinatown, 1903

Willard Worden. The Portals of the Past (Ruins of the Towne Residence, California Street), 1906

Willard Worden. The Portals of the Past, 1906

Willard Worden, The Arch of the Rising Sun at Night, 1915

Willard Worden, The Arch of the Rising Sun at Night, 1915

While I was in California for the summer, I had a chance to stick my head into a small exhibition of Willard Worden’s photographs. The show is especially interesting from a documentary point of view since many of the photos show San Francisco both immediately before and immediately after the 1906 earthquake. I particularly enjoyed the photographs of the original Chinatown.

One of the weird things about San Francisco is how, despite being a relatively old settlement in American terms, it has reinvented and rebuilt itself over and over again. Sometimes these reinventions and rebuilding are true boomtown cycles. Other times they’re by acts of god. But where Los Angeles seems to be about layering and papering over and appropriating its past, San Francisco doesn’t seem to care.

Which is why it’s wonderful to see photos that show what things were like right before they were destroyed.* The old San Francisco, and Chinatown, photos show a city that I don’t recognize at all today.

*On this note, I should have grabbed a copy of Janet Delaney’s South of Market from the gift store. But I needed to travel light since I was already all packed to travel back to New Jersey.

Worden is also a master of night photography—taking advantage of wet streets and any available-light he could find. This is most evident in his photos of the Panama-Pacific Exposition grounds. Even as low-contrast prints they’re incredibly dramatic.

In many ways offering a closing chapter on the earthquake since the expo was intended to demonstrate San Francisco’s rebirth, these photos also fall into the same category of depicting things that have been destroyed and paved over. The Exposition grounds were temporary and only the Palace of Fine Arts remains—and even that had to be torn down and completely rebuilt in order to do so.

Willard Worden. Poppies and Lupine, ca. 1915

Willard Worden. Poppies and Lupine, ca. 1915

What I ended up thinking about the most in this exhibition though is the idea of photographs as consumable objects. Worden was a working photographer who wanted to sell prints. Lots of them. In whatever size you wanted. This exhibition includes portfolios and pricebooks for selling prints as well as information about which images sold well—though even with so much documentation, I still approached the photos as I do most photographs—looking at the technique and appreciating/critiquing the image.

The colorized photos on the other hand forced me out of that approach and into one where I had to think of the image as an object—how it was intended to be used, by whom, how it was manufactured, etc. I didn’t like the colorized photos—heck, I dislike colorized photos in general—but I loved seeing them here. Worden worked at a time when photography wasn’t considered high art so his market was the middle class who couldn’t afford proper painting. The colorization operation reminded me a little of Thomas Kinkade in how precisely craftsmen had to work on the photograph to make it more paintinglike and acceptable as an object.

Though the Kinkade comparison is a bit cruel of a comparison to Worden,* it’s refreshing to see these objects in a museum displayed as both art and as consumer artifacts—where they can prompt us to think about what kinds of “art” we’re willing to display in our homes and how we judge what other people choose to display.

*Most of Worden’s work is honest about being photography rather than trying to emulate a different medium.

Fine art photos are high brow now. Being reminded of a time when they weren’t reminds us of how high brow taste changes just like any other fashion. Museums tend not to mention this side of things. Art is typically treated as art for art’s sake—even if the museum is showing an exhibition of a specific collector’s holdings. We don’t think about the market and who’s allowed to dictate what’s “good” enough to be allowed into a museum. And museums don’t like us thinking about who they’ve excluded and why.

Covert Operations

Jenny Holzer. Phoenix yellow white (detail), 2006

Jenny Holzer. Phoenix yellow white (detail), 2006

While I was in California this summer, I visited the San José Museum of Art to see the Covert Operations exhibition. Only part of the show was on display when I went* so this post covers both what I saw in the museum and what I’ve gotten from the catalog.** I’m used to treating catalogs as reminders of an exhibition so it’s a bit weird for me to be using one as a stand-in for portions of one. Thankfully, I saw most of the videos and video games in the show and have been using the book for the photography and painting—both of which translate much better to book form.

*It’s all up now.

**Which I flipped through in the museum to determine that it was worth getting. I have since spent a lot more time looking and reading through it.

On National Security

Trevor Paglen. Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010

Trevor Paglen. Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010

While the theme of this exhibition is covert operations, most of the work is actually about National Security and the things that government does under that aegis. A lot of work, such as Jenny Holzer’s redacted Freedom of Information Act request prints and Trevor Paglen’s Defense Department investigations offer glimpses of what’s going on when National Defense world intersects with the civilian world.

Holzer’s work takes advantage of the Freedom of Information Act and the theoretical ability of any citizen to request government records. The resulting documents are anything but transparent as they arrive covered with redactions. Holzer enlarges the documents to the point where they feel like Abstract Expressionist paintings—where text, redactions, handwritten notes, etc. all feel like they’re working together in a cohesive piece. Only instead of being abstract, these very clearly show, despite the redactions, many of the ugly details that go into providing what we think of as security.

Paglen’s photography looks almost conventionally pretty—star trails and sunsets—except that there’s one small detail which is off. Maybe it’s a Reaper Drone way off to the side. Maybe that non-star streak is actually a CIA satellite. His other work—in particular Code Names—similarly explores the small ways that the Security Apparatus intrudes into our world.

Meanwhile, other things aren’t really covert at all and just exist outside of the awareness of regular Americans. In particular, David Taylor’s Working the Line documents the security—and the security theater—on the US-Mexico border. There’s nothing especially confidential here, nor is there the sense that there’s a whole bunch of other infrastructure at the border that we’re not seeing. Still, the extent of physical security at the border and the way it’s actually implemented is quite different than the way that we think of it.

Taryn Simon’s photograph of the Alhurra studio is also something non-covert that we just aren’t aware of in the US. The entire point of this network is to be seen by Arab communities so it’s anything but a secret. Yet it’s not allowed to be broadcast in the US despite being based and funded here.

Taken together, all these pieces describe a massive amount of infrastructure and bureaucracy that we’re not aware of. Revealing only the tip of the iceberg allows us to think about how much is going on that we aren’t seeing at all. The way that much of what we do see is already horrifying should also make us really think about how much worse—whether in scale or in degree—the truly hidden stuff is.

But even the non-awful images reveal an apparatus that treats our safety as something where we don’t really want to know the details and assumes that we’ll sign off on anything in the name of security. It’s this assumption that disturbs me more since it’s carte blanche for security agencies to do whatever they want in the name of security while not informing us what it is that they’re doing. It also makes it very easy for those agencies to dismiss critiques and questions by referencing our ignorance of what’s “really” going on.

We’re assumed to not want to know, kept from knowing, and then criticized for not knowing. All in the name of our own safety and security. So I’m glad that people are calling out and highlighting what we can know. I love that many of these people are artists since it makes the glimpses much more accessible and the more of us who know, even a little bit, the better.

On Weaponizing Art and Games

Harun Farocki. Serious Games I: Watson is Down, 2009

Harun Farocki. Serious Games I: Watson is Down, 2009

Another extremely interesting concept in this exhibition is how it demonstrates the way art, photography, and video games—things which often get criticized as being inherently non-useful—can actually be effectively weaponized or used as diplomacy.

Photography is the most obvious example due to its interaction with surveillance, intrusiveness, and privacy issues being one of its defining characteristics since day one. That much of photography’s acceptance by the public has been a steady erosion of sensibilities regarding these issues is already scary. But even today, much of the concern is about photographs by other individuals rather than the government—we accept security cameras everywhere but freak out about a stranger with a cell phone. Yet it’s the security cameras which are more intrusive since they feed directly in to monitoring by the state. Which is why it’s important to keep in mind where security cameras get installed, who they’re actually monitoring, and whose interests they’re protecting.

The use of modern art as cultural diplomacy is less obvious but is explicitly mentioned by Taryn Simon’s photograph of the CIA art gallery. The connection between art and culture and the idea that “good” art demonstrates a superior culture is shocking to see laid out—even though it’s used by many people now to malign* art which has not been accepted as “good” in the West. It also forces us to really question our understandings of our own taste and how we learned what we like. I certainly didn’t even consider that it could reflect Cold War indoctrination about what is “American” (or at least non-communist) even though thinking about it now makes complete sense.

*Or the similarly-related phenomenon of only praising “foreign” art that feels western and familiar.

Video games get a lot of play here as well. Harun Farocki shows how, instead of being entertainment, they’re now used for military training—which is pretty cool in that it allows for a safer and more varied training experience. At the same time, it’s disturbing how easy it is to go from a medium of pure entertainment to something that’s life and death and literally training people how to kill other people. There’s no noticeable difference in the form, just the use case. That many of these training videos look less realistic than what’s currently on the market is the kind of thing that makes it very easy to see the defenses of video games as being “just a game” as being somewhat hollow.*

*I’m not anti video games, but I’m increasingly critical of everything about them as mass entertainment. 

On the positive side, the way video games are also used as therapy for soldiers recovering from the stress of battle is both interesting and promising. They’re not fun here either, but seeing them used in a much more life-giving situation is nice to see. Still, it’s interesting to note the differences in quality and how there is more effort spent on training than on rehabilitation—but that’s a comment on the military’s priorities and not the medium itself.

I’ve long been used to technology’s give-and-take with the military. One of the best ways to really refine a technology is to push it to its extremes and the military is great at this. Much of what we take for granted today either started as a military project or got refined there. Art and culture are no different except that many people don’t understand how they’re useful.

Amazingly, the military does. And the way that the military uses art and culture should show us how dismissing them as a waste of time is lazy and incorrect. Art matters. It’s how we know and demonstrate who we are. It’s how we convert other people to our way of seeing the world. Entertainment matters. It’s how we interact with the world and the easiest way to introduce ourselves to new worlds. It’s a shame that for the military, new worlds have to be approached with a gun in hand, but that, again, is more about the military’s priorities rather than the medium.

Rethinking Evidence

David Taylor. Seismic Sensor, TX, 2007. From the series "Working the Line

David Taylor. Seismic Sensor, TX, 2007

One last thing about this exhibition is that it has me rethinking Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence. Many of the photos in Covert Operations are similarly bizarre in the way they show objects and places that exist outside of our understanding—except where in Evidence I found myself making up my own narratives and finding the humor in things, the Covert Operations photos biased me toward looking at the dark side. I have an inkling what they’re about but I’m still scratching the surface and know that there’s a lot more sinister stuff lurking underneath.

The result is that I can’t help but see Evidence now as a more innocent project* and which has made certain tradeoffs in opting for a fictional sequence rather than revealing or critiquing something real.

*Similar to how looking at Robert Adams’s later work has me rethinking the New Topographics.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like humorous work. It’s just that while I understand and enjoy the impulse to poke fun at banal government photographs, I’ve also come to realize that opting for humor—especially the “WTF this is so bizarre” humor of Evidence—is a choice that tends to rule out critiquing what government is actually doing. And so the next time I view Evidence, I’ll keep in mind how the recontextualization gives a free pass to the ways that the baby boomers were pulling up the ladder on the next generation.

Portraits and Other Likenesses

I made it up to San Francisco last week to see SFMOMA’s Portraits and Other Likenesses show at the Museum of the African Diaspora. I always love seeing shows which include photos, paintings and sculpture all in conversation together. As a photo-leaning person it’s especially nice to see photography taken out of its own little bubble. This show mixes all media together under the umbrella of portraiture—in this case taken broadly as any artwork that represents a person or people. I’ve seen a few SFMOMA on the go shows now that have done this and I hope it bodes well for the approach the new and improved museum will take when it opens next year.

I am increasingly interested in issues involving portraiture and representation and how frequently-stereotyped communities choose to represent themselvesNavigating the tropes of how they’ve been represented and othered is both difficult and fertile territory. The individual pieces on display aren’t always directly about representation but the entire show, by consisting of representations of blackness by black artists, is.

This is difficult territory. There are so many representations on display— costumespersonalstereotypes, etc. And there are multiple levels of thought behind all of them. This show invites me to look and stare without flinching. As a non-black person of color I ended up both confronting a lot of my socialization as to what my instincts are when viewing black people while simultaneously sympathizing with the amount of effort it takes to present yourself to the white world.

Stereotypes suck. Especially in how they make you second guess and overthink everything in your self-presentation.* Do you avoid the stereotypes even if you happen to enjoy some of them? Do you have to dress extra nice whenever you go out? Is your presentation of beauty based on white beauty standards?

*Man do I wish SFMOMA had a copy of Carrie Mae Weems’s Ain’t Jokin in addition to Boneyard. Also, I wish there was more by Fred Wilson than Me and It. Sadly, SFMOMA appears to be thin on both of their work.

Consuelo Kanaga. Annie Mae Meriwether, 1935.

Consuelo Kanaga. Annie Mae Meriwether, 1935

And at a certain level almost everything on display is intended for white consumption. Who else buys art? So while there may be important statements in a piece, the way the art market chooses to frame it ends up being out of the control of the artist—no matter how intelligently-considered the representation is, at the end of things it’s still warped by being put in a museum. I wish I could remember the full details of Annie Mae Meriweather’s* story but the story of Consuelo Kanaga’s portrait of her being reduced to just its beauty demonstrates how cruel the market is.

*Google does turn up a Woody Guthrie story related to her but nothing about the photo.

I have similar feelings of guilt by how much I love Seydou Keïta’s work. I’m reacting to the image because of its almost-effortless grace and beauty* while at the same time not knowing, or even really caring, about the subject—who he is, why he might be having his portrait taken, what was going on in Mali at the time.  Yes, there may be perfectly legitimate reasons for the erasure of much of the contextual information, but at the same time I’m still consuming his image** in a way that embodies a lot of the things I dislike about photography. I don’t like erasing the humanity of the subject and while I try not to do it here, I find myself slipping each time I view it and swoon at its beauty.

*There are days when this is my favorite photograph ever taken.

**I’ve seen this image described on occasion as a self-portrait. I’ve never seen this description though in an actual museum. And I’m not sure if his official website is treating it as a headshot or just the best example of his work. If it is indeed a self-portrait I’ll feel a lot better about liking it.

This is potentially bad behavior with many subjects but with black subjects it’s especially awful. The spectre of Black Lives Matter and all the police violence in the news over the past few years is unavoidable. Pieces here touch on issues of presenting and demonstrating and claiming humanity in the white world—actions that shouldn’t be necessary but frustratingly are. And despite all that it’s still frightening easy to erase their humanity and see just surfaces and tropes. This is deadly and violent behavior.

Which is why Glenn Ligon’s Narratives is my favorite piece in the show. They don’t just reference slave narratives and how humanity gets mediated by whiteness. They also, through their size, suggest fugitive slave posters and the erasure of humanity by whiteness. Yet they’re written fully by Ligon so it’s clear that he’s in control and crafting his own story—explicitly bringing together many different threads of the performative aspects of race, americana, assimilation, and authenticity.

The entire content of the pieces are details about Ligon’s humanity—details you’re invited and encouraged to look closely and really observe. It’s a presentation, and representation, that is difficult to erase. That it’s often wickedly funny is the icing on the cake.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Sapphires Under Cotton, 2013.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Sapphires Under Cotton, 2013

Caille Millner

I timed my visit to correspond to Caille Millner’s short talk on the exhibition. I’ve been following her on Twitter and Tumblr for a few years now and I was interested in her observations. I was not disappointed. She discussed two of my favorite pieces (Keïta and Ligon) and I especially loved her comments on Keïta where she placed the image as exemplifying, for her, Mali’s belle epoque and the brief joyous period when independence from France was coming but the the realities of being an independent country and undergoing a military coup hadn’t blotted the horizon.* Comparing Keïta and James Van Der Zee by contrasting the societal context and internal migrations going on when each photograph was taken is a great way to think about them

*It helped that I was standing in front of a case of 1960s Malick Sidibé photos while she was making these comments.

Millner also had some nice comments on Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the idea of portraits of non-existent people. Yiadom-Boakye’s work is also complicated—in a very good way. I share Millner’s concern about how making people up as a way to address a lack of representation may not be the best way to address an erasure. At the same time, there is something to appropriating classic western/white techniques and making them your own. I also thought of Medieval People of Color’s ongoing work in highlighting the black servants in these classic paintings and how those servants are often crushed into unrecognizable shadows in photo reproductions of those works. There’s an aspect of this piece that I see as being the painting equivalent of fighting against Shirley and learning to depict black skin.

The audience discussion about Yiadom-Boakye and Van Der Zee though had me shaking my head and thinking about white comfort. Van Der Zee is a name. When The Met digitized all of its photography holdings, a number of us started counting and confirmed that he was the exception to all their non-white photographers. He’s someone you’re supposed to know and boy did the white audience know him. Lots of comments, most of which seemed intended to demonstrate that they’d heard of him and accepted him as a master. Similarly, Yiadom-Boakye seemed to relax those people because it looked familiar and like other things they’d learned to think of as good.* It was safe and comfortable to appreciate it.

*Reminding me a bit of watching Death and the King’s Horseman at Ashland and how the audience was super-uncomfortable for most of it until the white characters came on stage.

Which frustrates me because this was a museum of black artists. As a visitor, you’d expect and want to be introduced to people you’ve never heard of in the general museum circuit and to gravitate toward the names and styles you recognize misses the point.

Sargent Johnson. Forever Free,1933.

Sargent Johnson. Forever Free,1933

Note on SFMOMA

One piece that caught my eye was Sargent Johnson’s Forever Free. I really liked it because of its depiction of black motherhood and how it captures the pride and strength of black women while also acknowledging the vulnerability they feel because of how their children have to navigate society. I’m sad that I can’t remember seeing it before at SFMOMA despite it being one of their founding pieces. I’m hoping it’s more likely to be on permanent display in the new building.

The Anderson Collection

Anderson Collection

During my trip to the Bay Area I was also able to visit the new Anderson Collection at Stanford. I’ve been watching the building go up for a while* and I’ve been looking forward to an expanded modern art selection at the Cantor Center. I’m very glad I went. I’m…not sure I need to go again.

*You can see where they broke ground in the background here.

The new Anderson building is wonderful. Open, airy, and well-lit with plenty of space for each piece to breathe, it’s a great place to look at art. The art isn’t bad either. The collection is a great primer on the modern art canon and does especially well emphasizing local, Bay Area movements* which often don’t get as much focus locally as they should.

*Specifically: California Light and SpaceBay Area FigurationBay Area Abstraction, and Funk.

At the same time, it’s a primer. It will clearly be a fantastic teaching resource for introducing students to art. It just doesn’t feel like there’s anything more going on than an introduction. I’m not seeing things in a new way. I don’t get the sense that this collection will mix or interact with other pieces in the Cantor. Nor does it look like there’s a lot of potential for changing the way the existing pieces are displayed.

I think that what I’m reacting to is the absence of curatorial voice. I’ve seen more than enough personal collection shows* to realize now that a collection of art that a rich person liked—or was instructed to purchase—isn’t enough to hold my interest without additional information about who the collector is or how the collection is in conversation with art in general. Just giving me a collection without comment or context isn’t enough unless the idea is for me to look through and see the few pieces that really stand out to me.

*Previously on this blog: the Logan Collection, the Emily Fisher Landau Collection, and Shared Vision.

What I did really like though was Leo Holub’s Artist Portrait Project. The Andersons commissioned Holub to take portraits of the artists* whose work they owned. Besides being nice black and white portraits, the resulting series personalizes the collection by acknowledging that the art is about the artist as much as the piece on the wall.** I’m not sure why seeing an image of the human responsible for making a product matters so much. But it does.

*These portraits also make it very easy to do the quick headcounting/confirmation of the number of white men present versus anyone else.

**I regret not looking to see if Holub included a self-portrait in the series.

Secondhand at Pier 24

On Context

Archive of Modern Conflict

Archive of Modern Conflict

While Ai Weiwei wasn’t on my list of things to see at all, Pier 24 was at the top. I’ve been jonesing to go for years and just never managed to get my plans in order to get there. The current show features appropriated photos which, while something I’ve enjoyed intellectually in small doses, I was not sure I was ready for a full-on overload of.

I shouldn’t have worried. The space itself is awesome and the collection is more of a “physical version of a huge website”* in that is seems to have any photo series or print which you’d want to see from the canon.** It’s especially focused on photo series. Many of the rooms have at least one complete series of images. Since I’m used to seeing only one or two prints from each series in a museum, I loved being able to see the complete groups for a change. I can really get into what a specific photographer is doing, both from a sequence and a grouping point of view. It also assuaged a lot of my concerns as a context guy since Pier 24 is also known for its absence of context.

*A description someone much smarter than me came up with but which really captures the scope of the place.

**Comments about the demographics of the canon are best left for a different post.

Pier 24 doesn’t have wall text so you have to open up the exhibition guide to figure out what you’re actually looking at. The guide meanwhile only has super basic information—artist identification and a single project statement. As a result, a lot of people hold up Pier 24 to demonstrate how “only the image matters” or “context is irrelevant.” Inside Pier 24, I can see how that argument holds water. But that’s only because the space provides the context. Displaying the full series all together eliminates a lot of the descriptions that have to accompany a single image displayed by itself. Similarly, the way the different series on display interact with each other provides additional context.

Much of the appeal photography holds for me is in how it’s basically an exercise in recontextualization. As soon as you take a photo, you’ve taken it out of context by choosing what’s in, and out, of the frame. The way you choose to display or share the image after taking it is a new context.* There can be no true absence of context—although I would completely agree that context can be meaningless or unhelpful. In the case of this exhibition, since it’s about appropriated photos and recontextualization, the initial decontextualization serves the general theme.

*As can be the way the world changes after you’ve displayed the images.

The most interesting room in Pier 24 for this is the series of rooms of the Archive of Modern Conflict. These rooms are pretty dense with salon-style hangings of all kinds of photographs. Vernacular photos are mixed with art photos are mixed with functional photos resulting in all kind of new connections between images despite there being no context about the origins of each specific image.

At the same time, something about these rooms doesn’t hold up for me. Without any information, I found myself looking at the images with the half-awake, short-attention-span mindset I look at things on the web. If it doesn’t grab me right now, why bother looking? I wasn’t just missing the original context of the images, I wasn’t finding much compelling in the new context.

Which gets at the dangerous thing about buying into the no-context-needed mindset. Poorly-thought-out context invites short-attention-span consumption. This is easy enough to default to without any additional encouragement and, while a legitimate way of approaching a lot of media, is not something I like museums and other places that typically intend to encourage more thoughtful looking (or, at least, that’s why I go to them) to engage in.

Reappropriating vs Mining

Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas

Pier 24’s Secondhand was an interesting double bill with San José’s Postdate. Both shows used repurposed photos but where San José involved reclaiming images from a colonial past—demonstrating a very activist way of appropriating—Pier 24 is almost all within the same sort of western tradition and feels more concerned with the surface of images rather than what’s underneath them.

A lot of the work,* focuses on mining archives and extracting keepers—whether sequences, groups, or individual images—that look interesting to us today. It’s tempting to call this kind of thing “curation” only there’s no illumination provided.** They’re generally not about what the photo means and are instead going for the “oh this looks interesting” reaction. Other work*** involves doing clever things to photos to create new, interesting things to look at but which don’t didn’t make me rethink the actual photos themselves.

*Such as with The Archive of Modern Conflict and Erik Kessels (more on him later).

**One of my pet peeves is the way “curation” has become used on the web as a way of describing collections which, while often very tastefully selected, provide no information or educational information about what the point is.

***Most notably for me, Daniel Gordon and Maurizio Anzeri.

In both cases, the results can look pretty fun without really saying much. This isn’t a knock on what was on display, just that after having seen another exhibit which really investigated how powerful appropriation could be—especially in the context of colonialism and the representation of the powerless—I found myself wanting to see more work which explicitly examines the cultural context of the images, presents other meanings, and brings the appropriated images from the past into the present.

The only artist on the show who really did this was Hank Willis Thomas. His work in Pier 24—as well as his recent Unbranded work—looks at more than just how the photos look and instead focuses on the content of the photos and how our understanding of that content has changed over time. His work in the show was also particularly relevant given how Black Lives Matter has been constant over the past couple years. Viewing a lot of the older, recognizable but still-charged images through the flag frames suggests how these are commemorated and remembered as accomplishments rather than as part of an ongoing fight.

Erik Kessels & Vernacular Archives

Erik Kessels. Album Beauty.

Erik Kessels. Album Beauty.

Erik Kessels. In Almost Every Picture.

Erik Kessels. In Almost Every Picture.

Erik Kessels deserves specific comment since, not only does he appear to be the main attraction in the exhibition, much of his work critiques our concepts of vernacular photography and makes us think about how we use images.

One of the things that bugs me about a lot of current photography writing is its tendency to state that people did a good job organizing their photos in the past. From what I’ve seen looking at my friends’s and family’s photos is that staying on top of the photo albums was as rare and difficult to do then as keeping digital images organized now is. Even most people who did do a good job making albums have boxes of decades-old images that they haven’t gone through yet.

Managing and mining this archive—whether digital or physical—is a daunting task. What I like about Kessels is how he suggests other ways of using images than the pure documentary mindset that governs most archives of vernacular photos. In Almost Every Picture has a number of series that pull a common theme—a spouse, a pet, fingers covering the lens, carnival prizes—out of a larger cache of images. The archive doesn’t have to tell a story chronologically, it can have a completely different theme and the chronology will still be accessible. People age, fashions change, we can sense the passage of time despite the focus being something else.

As someone who’s still working through doing something with my photos, seeing alternative ways to approach my own archive is great to see.

Album Beauty meanwhile made me start thinking more about vernacular photos as common memory. While extracting specific series or groups of interest out of a vernacular archive is a nice skill to create fun sequences which tell small quirky stories, much of the appeal of vernacular photos is in their entire corpus and how they show us images that remind us of moments in our own lives.

This is something that Colors of Confinement touched on as well. Because so many Japanese internees have a gap in their family photos from the internment years, the photos that do exist from the camps work to remind them of their own experiences. It’s easy to say how photos erode memories by replacing them with whatever’s in the photograph, looking at other albums demonstrates how photos trigger memories as well.

Vernacular photographs,* describe a sense of place and time in a way that allows for our own memories of that period to be part of the experience. We flip through the contents of an album and pause when we see something that reminds us of our own experiences—a location we also visited, clothing or hairstyles that made us look awful, toys we played with or coveted. Ideally we’re looking through the album with someone else so the pause can become conversation as we share stories. But even if we’re on our own, the pause and remembering and slight smile in recognition will occur before we go back to looking.

*Though this is also something that the “snapshot esthetic” can do too. Blake Andrews’s review of The Family Acid is very relevant here.

And it doesn’t have to be an album. It could be a shoebox of prints or a carousel full of slides. Those are just as much fun to look through and, in some ways are a better shared experiences than an album is since it’s easier to pass individual prints or slides around.

Which brings me to 24 hours of Flickr. This room gets mentioned in every writeup I’ve seen on this show. It didn’t do much for me. It kind of feels like a physical statement about how awful the current deluge of photos is compared to how great the nicely-organized albums of the past were. Yes, people upload way more photos than they’d have printed in the past. And yes, 90% of those photos are crap. But there’s nothing gained by seeing how many 4″×6″ prints a days worth of uploads translates to.

What I took away from that room was how respectfully I treat photographic prints. In a room full of prints, all of which were treated as basically disposable trash, I still found myself trying not to step on any of them—even the brick-wall test shots half-covered in a low-resolution watermark.

Photographs as Byproduct

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. Evidence.

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. Evidence.

Baseball halftone

Embroidered postcards

The rooms I liked best though contained photographs which were, essentially, byproducts of other ventures. Rather than being vernacular photos that people took to document their lives, these are things produced by governmentbig business, or a media company as part of an offered product or service. Some are intended as communication and illustration to accompany other information; some are merely an intermediate step of a production process; and others are artifacts that happen to feature photography but aren’t photos themselves.

The highlight is Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence. It’s one of the granddaddies of the field of appropriated photography and it’s awesome. Is it a bit superficial? Absolutely. But it’s funny and bizarre and simply a very well-selected sequence. I find it hard to believe it’s as old as it is since it still sets the bar for this kind of thing as an example for how decontextualization and recontextualization can work.

The photos in Evidence come from all sorts of governmental and industry archives. By themselves, in their original context, they would have been pretty boring, of interest to a small, specific audience—quite possibly boring to even that audience. Out of context and grouped together though makes these technically-competent photos anything but boring. Rather than wanting to know what’s going on, I found myself making up my own narratives and noticing things in the images that weren’t originally the main point—like the interactions between people in a group shot or the way a headless person is holding the intended subject of the image.

I also really liked Viktoria Binschtok’s work investigating the locations of Google Street View (GSV)photos. There have been a lot of GSV projects but I really like the idea of not just rephotographing the street view image but going inside and making the automated, corporate image into a real place. GSV in many ways demonstrates everything that makes for bad photography. It’s automated and distant and unedited and presents an unnatural point of view. But these are also what make it so compelling to play with. There is no existing editorial voice to contend with and you can sit down, dig though as much of the archive as you can handle, and do whatever you want with the results.

Most of the projects though have been either commentaries of GSV itself or attempted to find street view images that looked like “real”* photographs.  Binschtok though uses GSV as just the jumping off point to play with the concept of intent. Her photographs paired with the GSV imagery produce a result that makes both much more interesting. It reminds me a little of rephotographing Stephen Shore with GSV but rather than starting with the interesting, fully-intended image and showing how bland the location looks on Google, these start with the bland GSV images and force us to see how they can be transformed by looking with intent instead.

*Read, images that look like the accepted canon of “good” photography. This is also an idea that deserves a post all of its own.

The collections of photos that have been prepared for halftoning and printing are fascinating.* These are byproducts of the printing process. They’re not the original negatives nor are they the final halftoned prints. Instead they’re photographs which have been painted and marked up to improve the contrast and eliminated unwanted details so that they will reproduce well after offset printing.

*Especially given my background in printing. I’ve worked as a prepress operator at an offset printing shop as well as an OEM support lead for digital printing and so have lived the “how to go from paste-up (or digital file) to printed page” life for over a decade.

This is the kind of thing that would be called cheating today so it’s instructive to see how much manipulation was required in order to get a usable final image. None of these photos are lying even though they’re all faked. It’s also a reminder of how much image processing is always needed behind the scenes in order to make a decent photographic print.

Outside of being a reminder of how photographs end up on paper, these objects are also wonderful commentaries on photography as an exercise in recontextualization. They’re not just extracting what’s in the photo from what’s outside it, they’re also painting out details and reframing what’s in the photo as well—in-game action photos become posed studio images, group photos become headshots. And then they’re put on the wall of a museum where we no longer know who the players are you see what an editor selected decades ago as the most-important part of these images.

Finally, there are photos which are used as the substrate for other products. The embroidered postcards are beautiful objects and the ID badges are great fun to look at. In neither case am I really looking at the photos though. I’m seeing them as objects and remnants of a specific period of time. I appreciate seeing multiple specimens—Pier 24’s scale does most of the heavy lifting here—as I can get a better sense of the craft and usage of the pieces.

It’s no surprise that my favorite pieces at Pier 24 were these byproduct photos. They were useful objects which we can relate to—even after their previous functions are no longer needed or remembered, we recognize enough about how they were used. Recontextualizing them into a museum allows us to relate to them as useful objects and appreciate the new context along with the original craft. Looking at photography—or really anything else in a museum—needs to be more than just an academic surface-level exercise for me. I need to see what the photos are doing, how they’re being used, or what statement they’re making.