Saturday, August 30, 2008

Thomas Struth - Making Time

Thomas Struth: Making Timeis a catalog for a show by Struth at the Prado, as well, with a bit of perversity, a documentation of Struth's show at the Prado. There is some wit in this: the catalog, rather than representing a simultaneity between show & catalog, depicts it in the past tense. The show had to be up, & photographed, for the book to be made. Photographs of the installations become "Struth photographs" along with the existing Struth photographs placed throughout the museum.

When I first saw Struth's museum photographs I found them striking - perhaps mainly because of formal aspects such as color & the luminosity of the printing, which is sober but rich. & also my voyeuristic interest in seeing old master paintings was satisfied. I don't know if my satifactions have been sustained by the work, however.

The work in the Prado, like the Pergamon Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, wherever, has its greatness, its indisputable status as classic. That's not quite the subject of the photos - the photos detail the morgue-like setting of the museums as a site of spectatorship & also a kind of aesthetic enthrallment. I'd say at this point I find myself withdrawing from the work as I can't abide what seems a near single-minded focus of the museum-goers on the art, in a timeless state of contemplation, as a common scenario. The temporal spectator face-to-face with the eternal masterpiece: Vita brevis, longa ars. This seems an idealized, unrealistic assessment of a contemporary museum experience. Even in the thick crowds depicted, which in "reality" would be loud with noise & distraction. Struth's cool, sober formalism shuts out any sociology of a museum experience. I can't help but think that a more satirical & social photographer such as Martin Parr might be an interesting counterpoint in such a situation.

There have been rather silly images of "art-viewing" in the history of photography. The most reproduced one I can think of is the Robert Doisneau image of an older couple looking in the window of a gallery, on the wall there is a painting of a naked lady - the viewer recognizes that the "nude" is really "naked" & there for a prurient gaze from the man. This is a kind of visual joke that was more popular in the world of picture magazines, w/ images by Doisneau, or Elliott Erwitt. Well - maybe the sociology I miss in Struth is actually rather stupid & magazine-like, after all.

Am I positing 2 extremes merely for effect? The mocking vulgarity of the mass culture magazine, in which high culture is meant to be "brought down" a notch or so, as not being quite what it purports to be. Versus the humorless, solemn & all too beautifully pensive images of Struth, wherein the art experience still has an aura of "elevation." Perhaps.

Still, I find myself bristling a bit w/ the Struth museum images in that they hold back any meaning in an opaque formal way. Orson Welles said that one could never believe a (filmed) image of someone praying; likewise I doubt any image of an elevating visual experience. Even if in theory it is a reflective state I seek rather often (I doubt it would look like anything however).

This may be an overstatement. It is intriguing that the Prado, or any museum, would exhibit photographs of its galleries in its galleries. Such "self"-reflexivity (the institution as a kind of self - a little too museum for my comfort) is a kind of reactionary version of something like Daniel Buren's installations in galleries in the 1970s, which baffled the ideologies of galleries by drawing attention to them, and reducing them to generic geometric flows. In the Struth museum images, which can seem a bit marvelous, and offer a lot of seductive visuality, one is unable to understand much beyond just that. While the lack of anecdote or narrative, & the resolute formalism of the images is of interest, and easy to "enter", again my mind wanders to work which is not quite so visually pleasing but of much more interest in looking at art: from the installations of stripes by Buren, to the photographs of art in its settings by Louise Lawler, in which art is a status symbol, a possession, a decoration, an example of taste - in which there is a negation of any metaphysics or inner-experience.

I try to remember first seeing Struth's work in galleries, in the 1980s. It was a different experience than now & I do not believe that is just an example of my own aging. When first seen in NY, for instance, Struth, along w/ Andreas Gursky & other students of Bernd & Hilla Becher, utilized a technological objectivity which initially dated from experimental photography in the 1920s, & which had been reinvigorated by the Bechers, given a conceptual rigor lacking in magazine or artistic photography of the past decades. Still, it is almost shocking how someone like Struth can "cross the street" so effortlessly & go from the avant-garde to the academy, & look quite the same, doing so.

At the risk of sounding too harsh re Struth, I can also state that in the glorious galleries of the Prado, w/ Las Meninas & The Spinners, along w/ other Struth photographs "intervening" among the old masters, there was also one of my very favorite portraits by Struth, of the art historian Giles Robertson (there is also a very great double portrait of Robertson w/ his wife). & that meant something to me somehow - a photo in a photo in a book of a show - these curious mediations we take to see ourselves & our worlds.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Andy Warhol - Portraits and Landscapes

There is a Sufi story about a group of blind men feeling an elephant, each at a different part of its body, each trying to describe the totality if the animal, from the point at which they touch it. The story being that none fully describe it. Andy Warhol as an artist seems as perplexing as this hypothetical elephant. What did he do? What did he mean? I can think of few artists who can embody so many contradictory practices and tastes - someone held in esteem both by the editorial board of October, & family members of the deposed Shah of Iran.

Depending on what work is seen, a different Warhol appears. If I were to have seen only the installation at the DIA Foundation in Beacon, for example, with its enormous gallery of abstract shadow paintings (which I found rather uninteresting except in the excesses of the installation), it would be different from the more spectacular gallery in the Hamburger Banhof in Berlin, with its enormous Mao, its even larger camouflage painting, & some of the Disaster silkscreens.

Or I think of one of the first paintings I can recall clearly from my childhood, a painting entitled "A Boy For Meg" - a painting of a NY Post headline about Princess Margaret. It is now in the National Gallery in Washington, but was on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts, when I saw it. An early lesson in camp for me.

Or the films, which are wonderfully terrible as drama (Vinyl, Poor Little Rich Girl), & mesmerizing about the "film" experience.

Or the very ambiguous celebrity portraits. Was Warhol a court portraitist to a global power-elite?

To add to the bewilderingly prismatic Warhol bodies of work is a great catalog of a show at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London of black-&-white photographs which was curated by Steven Bluttal.

"Portraits & Landscapes" is a collection of black-&-white photographs done over an extended period. The title refers to the layout of the images - portrait is vertical, landscape is horizontal. Unlike previous collections of Warhol's photographs which relate to work such as the silkscreens, or were exhibited independently, such as the stitched photographs, the images in the show do not represent any any specific artistic project per se. These are random photographs. The Warhol we see in this is near anonymous - this is the work of an active snapshooter. We look at them because Warhol's name is attached to them. The Warhol we see can baffle us further: a photographer accumulating images, shooting constantly. This is about bulk, much more than a studied delectation. The camera becomes a tool of acquisition.

The design of the book is based on the Ed Ruscha book Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Like the Ruscha it is an accordion book, in a foil-covered slip case. The images are reproduced at the top & bottom of the pages, counting to over 200. It's a genuinely lovely book, well-done. There are other books which parody or emulate Ruscha's self-published books, such as Louisa Van Leer's Fifteen Pornography Companies, which wear a little thin in such recognition. The catalog from Timothy Taylor is both similar & different enough to exist independently as a book, even in the long tall shadow of Ruscha.

Steven Bluttal is also the editor of a book of images of the designer Halston - it is a thick brick of a book of ads, editorial images, & other visual ephemera. Bluttal is bright & sensitive to the fascination of materials which could very easily be overlooked. Given the excesses of what is coming out of the Warhol Museum, one can only hope for more & different work to emerge.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

LA Plays Itself by Fred Halsted

Last night at Light Industry in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, I attended a presentation by William E. Jones of 2 films made by Fred Halsted, Sex Garage and LA Plays Itself. LA Plays Itself is almost a "lost film" in that no fully extant version of it exists currently, except perhaps a film in the film department of MoMA, which does not circulate. Jones has made a provision reconstruction of the film which includes a fisting scene at the end which was removed when the film was transferred to VHS way back when.

Another issue, discussed by Jones after the screening, is the squeamishness on the part of some institutions and individuals in involving themselves with research & reconstruction of a gay porn film. This involves both commercial video companies as well as remaining family & colleagues of the late Fred Halsted. In the commercial film industry, porn exists as a quasi-invisible parallel universe to the corporate fantasies of giant entertainment conglomerates, & as such is kept distant, or ignored, or denied. & if it is gay - one can exponentially increase that disdain.

I had never seen LA Plays Itself. There is a brief excerpt of it in Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself - in addition it gave Andersen a title for his film. Made in a span of 3 years, from 1969 - 1971, released in 1972, LA Plays Itself now exists as a kind of archaeological find of gay porn. In photographic terms, I would say it is comparable to looking at the work of Hill & Adamson, early calotypists making portraits in the 1840s, in an exploratory, ad hoc manner, in contradistinction to the later industrialized commercial portrait studios of Paris, London, New York, churning out mass-produced cartes-de-visites.

What is so striking about LA Plays Itself is its affinities to experimental films as well as its raunchy hubris. Kenneth Anger without any occult. Stan Brakhage in a backroom. Discontinuous editing akin to Soviet experiments of the 1920s. I don't know if Halsted had any experience of any of this kind of film, & it doesn't really matter. What is apparent is Halsted's extreme engagement with the material, his radical "focus" (excuse the pun) on desire, lust, carnality, & how that shapes the provisional narrative - that really is the narrative as such. There's also an amazing array of other "things" in the film, scenes of nature in Malibu Canyon, flowers, insects, fish, & the streets of Los Angeles, & also a rather "Pop art" use of billboards, advertising & newspaper headlines to punctuate scenes. This recalls a similar use of billboards & advertising used by William Klein, in his film Muhammad Ali: The Greatest or the advertising copy which becomes party dialogue & also visual commentary in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou - Criterion Collection ("put a tiger in your tank!"). The newspaper headlines involve the Tate-LoBianca murders & Charles Manson, which become ominous in lieu of the last part of the film which involves an s/M scene between a youth & Fred Halsted in which they are intercut, leading up to the now fragmentary, partially lost fisting scene.

Both Malibu Canyon & the streets of Los Angeles as scenes of cruising, either solitary or in general groups (Selma Ave. was the hustler strip at the time as per Jones) become existential theaters. In daylight they seem still isolated, interior. While the "nature" scenes are lush & fecund, the streets seem infernally shabby. The streets are senseless, cruel, mocking. There is a repetitious Warholian dialogue overlaid on the scenes of street, of Halsted speaking to a young Texan hick, new to LA, telling him to be careful hustling on the streets. There is a sardonic aspect to this as it leads up to the extraordinary 2nd sexual sequence of the film, of a boy being dominated by Halsted - forced to climb stairs on hands & knees, tied to a bed, worked over. At the risk of casting it in negative terms, the film is not joyous about sexuality, although it is certainly obsessed with it.

Contra contemporary porn which has a great deal of polish, a fully illustrative manner in detailing sex acts, routine conventions & a fairly predictable schedule of sequencing, Halsted's films look hand-made. Although made for public consumption, there's a degree of angst to them which in commercial terms is very different from "product". The camera movements are hand held, blurring & obscuring actions. It is often difficult to follow what is going on, or to understand the narrative (jump-cuts a la Antonioni for instance). This can seem intentional, in rendering the sexual violence as truly dangerous. & when it is more oblique, we the viewers are forced into an existential immediacy of consciousness, which seems the true "story" of the film. The images pulsate in & out of near abstraction. In art photography, especially nude "erotic" photography, abstraction is often a kind of visual brake to keep the sexuality of the images contained & controlled, to elevate it to an aesthetic level of "tastefulness". In Halsted's use of abstract framing, with its kinetic force, it instead amplifies a heated voyeurism, or extends the sexuality to that which is not directly sexual or genital related - the lilt of hair, a shoulder, the curve of a back. One could say that this relentless looking of the camera pulls EVERYTHING into a sexualized tension - including the flowers, insects & rocks (& of course the gritty streets): A low-down heated-up frenzy.

Looking at men erotically in our culture has been commercialized so successfully, whether it be a Falcon video, or an Abercrombie & Fitch ad campaign, & so thoroughly identified as such (along with appropriate product placements), it is invigorating to see something like Fred Halsted's films, which are so much more delirious & messy & complex an experience. Our "real" commodified, defined world looks truly shallow in comparison.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in Los Angeles Photography

This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in Los Angeles Photographs at the Huntington Library in San Marino is a large exhibition. "Los Angeles Photographs" as a category is actually an eclectic array of work: albumen cabinet cards and cartes-de-visite from the 19th century, commercial studio work, news photographs, publicity images, & a variety of artistic processes. Likewise, "Los Angeles" itself is posited as a cultural imaginary as much as a location on a map. The exhibition is organized by loose themes, Garden, Move, Work, Play, Dwell, Clash, and Dream, as opposed to epoch, style or author. As such it becomes quite open-ended in presenting a kaleidescope of images and meanings. The images exist in & of themselves, but also are recontextualized in a tapestry of what would be our imaginary Los Angeles.

In its categories & recontextualizations I am reminded of 2 other works (both non-photographic), Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, and the Thom Andersen film, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Loosely, of course. The Banham comes to mind in its "revisionist" reading of Los Angeles as a complicated, potentially marvelous place, contra its mass-media image as a gigantic air-headed suburb. The exhibit at the Huntington ranges from exquisite carte-de-visites by Carleton Watkins, to large color prints of San Fernando Valley porn film shooting sites. My friend K. & I were most delighted w/ 3 photos by Allen Ruppersberg with accompanying dialogues typed on paper (unfortunately not in the catalogue). I was also struck w/ the modernist topographical images by Max Yavno, & a commercial studio which has a very whimsical name, the "Dick" Whittington Studio. Pictorial work. Physique Pictorial work. Bruce of Los Angeles. Catherine Opie. Ed Ruscha. Julius Shulman. William Garnett. William Claxton. William Henry Jackson. Edmund Teske. Joe Deal. Karin Apollonia Muller. John Divola. Edward Weston. I could go on. It's a large show but in a way I wish it were larger. & that the catalogue were printed better, although it's certainly a great read.

In its eclecticism, the images of Los Angeles constitute a collage of meanings which touch on beauty, aestheticism, land surveys, boom & bust economies, anarchy, riots, ecology, architecture, conceptual art, show biz, pornography.

Now back in New York, I have been trying to consider whether such a show could be made of New York City. I do not think I am merely being boosterish in claiming that NYC is one of the most photographed cities in the world & as such is extremely recognizable. & there have been shows, such as Max Kozloff's New York: Capital of Photography. Still, looking through the Kozloff book - it's not quite of the range I find in the Huntington show, it's still a modernist photo collection, sealed off from "other" or "outside" meanings - one sees photos, not an exploration of NYC itself. Perhaps NYC is too much a "dominant" site on the map to sustain a fluid & poetic remapping of a real & imaginary city, as constituted in the exhibition & book by Jennifer A. Watts & Claudia Bohn-Spector. & while Los Angeles was built of hucksters & boosters, & has been in a state of being perpetually for sale, it does not have the symbolic totality of Manhattan (contra something like Sarah Morris' video, Los Angeles, which constitutes a fragment of a bit of local "color" e.g. the entertainment industry). For all its capitalistic excesses, Los Angeles has also been a site of remarkably varied forms of dissent and exploration. Whereas NYC, with its checkered past, it's excess of representations, now seems quite homogenized, packaged, wrapped-up neatly. A NY of differences is now a kind of theme park nostalgia. Curious.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Friday, August 8, 2008


In Long Life Cool White: Photographs and Essays by Moyra Davey (Harvard University Art Museums)one of Moyra Davey's essays is entitled "Notes on Photography & Accident." The accidents she refers to are what Roland Barthes termed the punctum of a photograph - contingencies which exist in an image almost unconsciously, overlooked, ignored, that which was not the intent or purpose of the photo. Davey cites Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Janet Malcolm, Susan Sontag, Rosalind Krauss in a very thoughtful consideration of qualities about photography cited by these authors. Davey also ponders whether the contingencies and "accidents" cited are now obsolete in the current art world.

Here I am guessing Davey is referring to both the advent of digital technologies as a primary tool in the use of cameras & printing (in which case the "mistake" can be fixed in photoshop), as well as the appropriation of "photography," formerly a bastard technological medium of low artistic value outside its own smaller art ghetto, into the mainstream art world in which case it now functions not as a tool of any sort of realism, yoked to its subject, but exists simply as another mode for an aesthetic gesture, any gesture. A plaything for those who have the ability to own it.

Davey's writing is structured in fragments, akin to Walter Benjamin, & also the title alludes, at least in its grammar, to Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp." I feel a dread in trying to discuss Davey's ideas in so short a form as a blog: for as seemingly terse & brief as her pieces seem, the writing is extremely expansive, thoughtful, rich, and with great economy, very moving. There is a gravity in her writing, a kind of morality, which is outside the pleasure express of our mediatized culture. I find myself re-reading the same passages repeatedly, simply for the pleasure of doing so. My one complaint would be: More! I want more!

Although there is no discussion of vernacular photography in the book, the thoughts about photography & accident also bring to mind what it is in snapshots which draws me "in" - akin to the Surrealist "found object", & a sense of lost time, the accident being the hallmark of something better than perfection. Perfection is death, & the "flaw" is that which is unique & meaningful.

(note to self: re-read Diana & Nikon).