War is Surreal

Posted: June 24th, 2010 | Filed under: galleries, photography, San Francisco | 1 Comment »

The more that war or combat is portrayed in various media the less I feel like I will ever really be able to understand what the experience is like. If that is true, is it possible to truly prepare our service men and women for what they will face? They may be prepared with the best physical and technical training, but how can we prepare them psychologically for something that can’t really be simulated? And, if we can’t prepare them psychologically, how will we deal with the inevitable post traumatic stress some may encounter on their return home. These are all questions that came up as I view two well-paired bodies of work currently hanging at SFCamerawork dealing with different aspects of the prosecution of war.

Christopher Sims, Theater of War
Mother with Babies, Fort Polk, Louisiana from Theater of War
© Christopher Sims

The first, Theater of War by 2010 Baum Award Winner Christopher Sims, is a combination of portraiture and environmental images that shows us an aspect of soldiers preparation before deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Sims shows us a glimpse of the fake villages the military creates and populates with “actors” to provide a stage upon which various scenarios are acted out. Despite the fact that, as Sims’ artist statement sates, “The designers and inhabitants of these worlds take great pride in the scope and fidelity of their wars-in-miniature,” the absurdity of a woman sitting in a folding chair spinning wool next to a RPG only makes me think there is no way to properly prepare soldiers for what they will encounter. It also highlights the near impossible task regular armed forces face when they’re up against irregular forces, especially in a populated area. Even if you take the military aspect out of it the images are representation of a simulation. They are one person’s edited view of an interpretation of a foreign place and people which calls into question, more so than usual, the veracity of photography.

Jennifer Karady, Soldiers'  Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan
Captain Elizabeth A. Condon, New York Army National Guard, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with daughter, Kate, and mother, Elizabeth, Troy, NY, June 2008 from Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan
© Jennifer Karady

In contrast to the careful preparation prior to deployment, the second body of work shows us the aftermath of deployment, the psychological damage, and the sometimes faulty support system that soldiers face on their return to the US. Jennifer Karady‘s Soldiers’ Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan show soldiers reenacting  traumatic situations from their deployment, but in their home setting, often with friends or family members in the scene as well. Though perhaps not as intricately staged as Gregory Crewdson’s work, I feel that Karady’s work is more immediate. By that I mean that though both artists construct staged narratives replete with psychological drama, I think of Crewdson’s work as being more removed and clinical, lacking the emotional weight of Karady’s work. A lot of that may have to do with being able to read the soldiers’ recounted descriptions of what they were feeling or the situations they were reenacting. Yet even before I read the accounts, I looked at the images and wanted to learn more about the people pictured. Not something I often feel with Crewdson’s work.

Gregory Crewdson, Twilight
from Twilight
© Gregory Crewdson

All in all, a really smart paring of two thought provoking bodies of work. Both are up through the first week in August, so if you’re in San Francisco this summer, check out the show.

Verbal Vivisection

Posted: October 18th, 2009 | Filed under: art, books, galleries | No Comments »

Brian Dettmer, Amerigo, 2007
Brian Dettmer, Amerigo, 2007

On the front of the Week in Review section of this week’s NY Times, illustrating an article on National Book Award nominations, was a photo of a book with part of the cover removed revealing a latticework of words and images carved into the interior. The work, Modern Progress by the artist Brian Dettmer,  gives the impression of  a body with the skin peeled away laying bare the veins, bones, tendons and organs hidden within. It also reminded me of some of the pieces from a Maya Lin show where she carved topographies into old atlases. A quick search led to more book works as well as modified maps and sculptures made from old audio and video tapes. There’s a great selection of images on Toomey Tourell’s site where I also learned that I missed his September show. Rats.

“Items I Thought I Needed”

Posted: May 1st, 2009 | Filed under: collecting, galleries, San Francisco | No Comments »

Have you ever been seized by the urge to just rid yourself of all your possessions? You may not actually do it, but there’s this desire to purge that’s a counterpoint to the urge to collect. In a recently opened show at the Haines gallery called The Relative Value of Things Nigel Poor examines these two competing desires. The work on display was created during a residency at the San Francisco Center for the Book, but reflects the ongoing examination of the idea of collecting. By collecting things that have no value (hair and lint) and keeping a record of all the things she has discarded for a number of years she prompts the viewer to examine their own choices about what they keep and discard.
Nigel Poor: 18 Years of Date Books
Nigel Poor, 18 Years of Date Books

The show consists of three twelve book sets, eight triptychs that combine text and image, and a wall of compositions made of either hair or lint set up salon style. All three sets of books are mounted on the wall in a way that there covers combine to form a single large compositions. Like the salon wall, one set of book covers is compositions done with lint and the second is done with hair. The final set of books displays the shared back covers that form a single large image called Someday I will be as Insignificant as a Swarm of Summer Insects. This piece is composed of the same tiny handwriting that appears in the triptychs.

One frustration I had with this, and pretty much any show of book art, is the inability to turn the pages*. In this case the books are mounted on the wall, the only hint we get about the interior is from the cell phone tour. It states that the interiors are much like the triptychs which combine two photos of discarded items with a fraction of the written list of discarded items. Which brings me to my second quibble, I wanted to see more. There are only eight triptychs to represent the entirety of years of discarded objects. I don’t know if it was a function of the space available (Poor’s work is in only a small section of the gallery), but I would be interested in seeing more of this facet of the project and, even if I can’t turn the pages, at least one spread of a books interior.

Nigel Poor: S'Rilla #2
Nigel Poor, S’Rilla #2

That said, I appreciate the way in which Poor’s work is often a combination of the intensely personal and the participatory. For this work, in addition to keeping track of everything she has discarded, she is inviting people to contribute their own stories and images of discarded items at www.nigelpoor-relativevalue.com. The lint and hair were also gathered from other people, putting yet another strange spin on the idea of collecting.

I knew going in that, both visually and conceptually, the work would be right up my alley and my minor quibbles with the set up of the show did nothing to change that. I’m looking forward to see how this project evolves and what will catch Poor’s collector’s curiosity next.

The show runs through June 13 with an opening Saturday, May 2 from 3:00pm to 5:00pm.

I went to the opening this afternoon and maybe I missed it the first time, but there were copies of the book available at the front desk that you could look through upon request.

After the Revolution

Posted: April 27th, 2008 | Filed under: galleries, San Francisco | 1 Comment »

If you happen to be in San Francisco on a weekday between now and June 27 you may want to check out a show of photographic work from young Iranian artists called After the Revolution. The ‘revolution’ in the title is the 1979 Iranian Revolution and all the artists were born that year or later and live in either Iran or California. The show is being presented by the San Francisco Arts Commission and hangs in City Hall which sets up an interesting dialogue between Iran and a representation of US government. Before I even saw the work, the juxtaposition had me thinking about things like censorship and freedom, fear and security. Thoughts that were reinforced when I passed through the metal detectors to see the show.

The work hangs on both sides of two long corridors that radiate from a central space. I’m describing the space because the dialogue that began with the building and art continues between the work of different artists within the show. In several cases the curator(s) have set up photos by two different artists across the hall from one another and this viewer can’t help but make relationships between them.

Amir H. Fallah
from Fort Series, Amir H. Fallah

The first pairing is Meysam Mahfouz’s sensitively observed series The Interiors (2007) from Tehran with Amir H. Fallah’s Fort Series (2007) in which the photographer and friends constructed forts in their homes using everyday objects. Both play with the idea of interior and exterior, but more specifically with the idea of a safe haven. Especially when you take into consideration Mahfouz’s artist statement saying that the photographer work exclusively indoors. Why is that? Is there something to fear in photographing outside or is that just the artist’s preference? In Fallah’s series there is the sense of play that comes with fort building, but in the context of this show one can’t help thinking of the military connotations of the word. Are they built for protection, an outpost in an unfamiliar land?

The topic of interior and exterior is continued in the work of Morteza Khaki, but his series Purse Snatching (2006) is also more explicitly about identity. In his series of wallets and purses that are photographed open you can see both public faces (ID cards) and private ones (personal photographs). This duality of public and private persona is the most frequent topic of the work here and shows up in the next pairing as well, Naciem Nikkah’s A Private Rebellion (2007) and Mahoube Karamli’s The Girls (2006). Nikkah’s work is a series of images of desktops from an Iranian school with the layers of writing and drawing that have been left behind by students. The image brings to mind a similar one from Catherine Wagner’s series American Classroom showing that the girls of Manzandaran high school in Iran have many of the same concerns as young people in the US. Karamli’s series also portrays young women in Iran, but this time they are themselves in the private spaces of their rooms rather than traces scribbled on a desk. Switching from the portrayal of others to the portrayal of self, Shadi Yousefian deals with the idea of different selves in a much more visceral way. Her Self-Portraits (2003) are collaged together from roughly cut or distressed parts and the central space in the exhibit holds two close to life size portraits, The Two Standing Shadis (2003), cobbled together on metal plates, one in traditional dress, one in Western dress.

 University of Virginia, Humanities Classroom, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1986 from American Classroom: Catherine Wagner
from American Classroom, Catherine Wagner

Mehraneh Atashi
from Bodiless I, Mehraneh Atashi

To me the most interesting work was Mehraneh Atashi’s Bodiless 1 (2004). A series of images taken by a young woman at a zourkhaneh, a traditional gymnasium where men train for both physical and spiritual strength. That in itself would be interesting, but she also uses mirrors to view the men and place her own image in the frame. The negotiation that must have been involved to gain access to this society of men is accentuated by her own image wearing a head scarf and holding a camera. You are conscious of both her gaze, that of the men and their awareness of her gaze. On top of all this, many of the images show that the walls of the gym are covered with portraits of very serious (religious?) men looking down on the happenings. I can’t help but wonder, would they approve? I also wonder what those serious men would think of the work across the hall where we have a different take on the mirror, identity and the idea of self-improvement, this time with the focus on Iranian women. Parisa Taghizadeh’s series Make-Up Iran (2001) focuses the lens on the daily ritual of applying make up that is most likely unknown to men outside their immediate family.

Parisa Taghizadeh
from Make-Up Tehran, Parisa Taghizadeh

The final pairing is Parham Taghioff’s Passage (2007) and Elhum Amjadi’s Makeshift Motherland (2005). On the one side you have images of a market in Iran, shops shut, covered over with colorful cloth. On the other you have images of a Persian market in California, shop keepers, people conversing, reading books, etc. The images are black and white, shot in a documentary style, but they also take on characteristics of nostalgia. They show a world that is a recreation of another time and place. It’s a place that you wonder, when looking across the hall, if it still exists.

Parham Taghioff
from Passage, Parham Taghioff

Nostalgia isn’t restricted to the photographers living outside of Iran either. Working in the streets of Tehran Manboube Karamli documents the destruction of older buildings in his series The Walls (2007). By photographing the walls of the buildings that remain when the neighboring building is razed he reveals the traces of what has been lost, making what is left behind all the more poignant.

In the end I feel like the importance of this show, more than the work of any individual artist, is in the dialogue that it engenders between two cultures, past and present, public and personal, male and female. It is a reminder that dialogue is the key to understanding.

Memories of Play

Posted: December 19th, 2007 | Filed under: galleries, San Francisco | No Comments »

With Christmas coming up I’m a bit prone to nostalgia, thinking back to a time before I was aware of the rampant commercialization of the holiday. The arrival of the Sears Wishbook that officially kicked off a season of acquisitiveness, the anticipation of Christmas eve, tearing open the presents on Christmas morning, a time when toys were the order of the day. I never really thought about the meaning of those toys then. How toys for boys generally centered around construction and war while girls’ toys often were about child rearing. Katsushige Nakahashi, on the other hand, has spent quite a lot of time thinking about his childhood and the things he played with.

Katsushige Nakahashi: Zero
from the University of Hawaii Zero Project, Katsushige Nakahashi

Nakahashi is a sculptor who uses photography to generate the building material for some of his projects. In 2006, at the University of Hawaii he built a full-size replica of a WWII Japanese Zero out of roughly 25,000 photographs. The photographs where taken of a 1:32 scale model, a toy. Nakahashi constructed such models as a child, so the work is partly about the memory of those times and the sense of play, but the objects represented are so loaded there are bound to be multiple readings. It seems Nakahashi has run afoul of these multiple readings and has the following to say about his work.

My memory of war was making a plastic model of a Zero fighter, and playing with it. I am not a historian, nor am I a politician. I am frequently asked to clarify my status, whether I belong to the right or the left. The fact is that answering these questions is not what I am asked to do as an artist. Judging right from wrong doesn’t make any sense to me either. On the contrary, questioning people from a lot of different dimensions through my work, bringing those questions to light, is what I am aiming at. Through the process of doing so, I sincerely believe that by looking back at the past, a spirit of forgiveness, intelligence, and respect for a better future will emerge.

In the past few weeks I spent two separate occasions taping together photographs for his upcoming show at SF Camerawork. This time Nakahashi has photographed a 1/30th scale model of a WWII suicide sub (kaiten) in minute detail. When the photos are taped together they will create a 3D replica at actual size (roughly 15 meters). Unlike past projects, where he has photographed commercially available models as a connection to his childhood, he had to have this model custom made. I don’t know that this fact changes the tone of the work because, to me, the whole project is a replication of that sense of construction as play. In this case the materials are not plastic parts and glue, but photographs and cello tape. The show opens January 3rd and runs to March 22nd with an opening reception January 15th.

For more information on the upcoming exhibition, including volunteer sign-up for the construction of the project, click here.

Still Life with Dead Animal

Posted: November 14th, 2007 | Filed under: books, galleries, museums, New York City, photography | 1 Comment »

On a recent trip to NYC I went to the Met to see the show of Dutch paintings from “The Age of Rembrandt”. First of all, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to the Met and I’d forgotten how huge the place is. It also now includes a new gallery for modern (since 1960) photography, but I was really there to see the paintings.

Jan Weenix: Falconer's Bag
Falconer’s Bag, 1695, Jan Weenix from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last spring I saw Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and it knocked me out. I know, I know, Vermeer is one of those artists whose work is so well known that it’s easy to feel blasé about the whole thing, but seeing that particular painting in person (even more so than the Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis in the Hague) was a memorable experience. So I was looking forward to seeing the five Vermeers that the Met has as well as any still life that might be there. On the whole the show was quite good, though I was disappointed that there were only a limited number of still lifes among the many portraits and landscapes and the Vermeers weren’t quite up to the Kitchen Maid. Maybe my expectations were too high. Anyway, that sets the context for the work of another artist I saw later that day.

While thumbing through a copy of Photograph at a gallery in Chelsea I came across a photograph that reminded me of the Dutch still lifes, but instead of the usual rabbit or game bird this image contained a wallaby. Needless to say I was intrigued, so I made a point of seeing the images in person.

Drew: Wallaby with Tarpaulin
Wallaby with Tarpaulin, 2006, Marian Drew

The artist’s name is Marian Drew and she finds these subjects by the side of the road in her native Australia. The gallery notes say that, opposed to the bounty portrayed in traditional still lifes, her images are a commentary on human wastefulness and disregard for wild animals. I don’t know that I get the wasteful aspect of it because the images themselves are generally quite minimal, seldom is the table overflowing. I do however see roadkill a comment on the intersection of the wild and the developed, the often disastrous consequences of that intersection, habitat loss, etc. Despite the somewhat gruesome subject matter there are some wonderful images.

Drew: Wombat with Watermelon
Wombat with Watermelon, 2005, Marian Drew

That said, seeing the images in person there was something I hadn’t noticed in the smaller image in the gallery guide. In many of the images there was a halo around the objects on the table. A kind of spotlight effect that I found distracting. I feel her best images are the ones where this effect isn’t as strongly evident. Later I learned from the gallerist that the effect was due to the fact that Drew photographs these images in complete darkness and illuminates the objects with a “torch”. She doesn’t know herself exactly how the lighting is going to turn out until she sees the image. Personally, I would rather have the images lit with a more natural light. I don’t know that her method adds anything to her intended meaning. It would be interesting to know the reasoning behind shooting the images in this way.

The intersection of man and animal (and being in NYC) got me thinking about Alessandra Sanguinetti’s from On the Sixth Day. I saw some of those images at the ICP show Ecotopia last year and finally got around to buying her book at Dashwood Books (an excellent shop with a very strong section of Japanese photography) the same day I went to see the Drew show. One of the images from the series is also a still life, though much more naturalistic than either Drew’s work or the Dutch paintings.

Alessandra Sanguinetti: Still Life
Still Life from On the Sixth Day, Alessandra Sanguinetti

Beyond the visual difference there is also a considerable difference in the image’s meaning. Rather than the wastefulness and disregard for the natural world portrayed in Drew’s images Sanguinetti was photographing subsistence farmers in Argentina who are intimately linked with their surroundings.

For anyone who hasn’t seen On the Sixth Day, I highly recommend it. It is a visual tour de force and will definitely make you think about the origin of the piece of meat on your plate.

New Europeans

Posted: November 10th, 2007 | Filed under: galleries, photography | No Comments »

Men in tank tops or shirtless, close ups of hands, cigarettes, a girl who was sold into sex slavery at fourteen, Coca-Cola signs, kids playing harmonicas, the various languages and writing of the subjects, shop workers, a child on a straw mat on the dirt covered with flies. These are some of the things that make up New Europeans at Stephen Wirtz gallery, an ongoing project by Magnum photographer Jim Goldberg. The work is a window into the lives of immigrants and refugees in Greece and the Ukraine, but the issues involved are not unique to these two places, war, displacement, migration, racism, human traffic, torture, etc.

The multiplicity of stories and subjects is mirrored in their portrayal. There are images in both color and black and white, some tack sharp and others blurred. There are Polaroids, contact prints, large gallery prints, even a book dummy taped to a table. Some images are matted, some have mat between the image and frame, some images bleed to the frame, almost all the images are framed in black, but there is at least one case where there is an image pinned to the wall unframed.

Goldberg: Polaroid 2
Untitled, 2007, from New Europeans, Jim Goldberg

For me, the most powerful images in the show are a series of Polaroids on which Goldberg has had the subject write. Some write only their name, others write part of their story. In some cases the stories are translated and written on the back of another Polaroid that is placed in the frame next to the portrait. The portraits range from a straight on confident gaze to the mere suggestion of a face floating in blackness, but they are unified by the application of the touch of pen to image and the subjects willingness to share their stories. This inclusion of the subject’s voice is something Goldberg has been doing since his earliest work, Rich and Poor and his ability to get people to open up about their lives is astounding.

My first real exposure to Jim Goldberg’s work (that I can recall) was this past summer when he came to talk to a class I was taking. As part of his presentation he showed various stages of his book, Raised by Wolves. He had a couple of Xerox dummies as well as a couple of dummies made from taped together 4×6 machine prints of the potential page layouts. I thought they were fabulous, both as objects and as a way of working. The form seemed to fit really well with the subject matter. Unfortunately, some of the tactile immediacy was lost in the actual printed version of the book. I understand that it was a necessary step to reach a larger audience, but I can’t help feeling that the final piece was too polished. I feel the same way about parts of the New Europeans show.

For example, there is a group of dozens of small photos taped together that in itself is great, but then the whole thing is put behind glass in a huge frame that must be ten to twelve feet wide. Again, I think I understand why it is done, but it distracted me from the images. There are also some large gallery prints that gave me pause. There is a feeling of intimacy in viewing the smaller images and reading the stories of the subjects. Even the smaller images without text have a personal quality to them. I feel like I’m looking through someone’s shoe box full of photographs. It is this feeling of intimacy that I associate with Goldberg’s work, the need to get up close and examine it, that I don’t get from the larger gallery images. As compelling as those images may be, they feel a bit out of place.

There are, however, places where the method of display added to the viewing experience. On one wall there is a grid of images, five rows of seventeen. The images are black-framed black and white contact prints with extra black around the images so the predominant feeling is a black grid on a white wall. The images themselves are mostly portraits and there are two white gaps in the grid where there are no images. This absence adds a poignancy that would not be there if the grid were complete.

On the whole a very compelling show. It will be interesting to see where it goes and what form it will take when it is shown in Paris in the spring of 2009.

In the Galleries: Photography, Taxonomy and Evolution

Posted: September 8th, 2007 | Filed under: galleries | No Comments »

The first Thursday of each month is the day that many galleries open new shows in San Francisco, so Friday I went to see a few.

At the Togonon Gallery there is a show called Elusive Subjects which has work from James Welling, Jun Shiraoka, Sanna Kannisto and Hiroyo Kaneko.

Shiraoka: Yokohama
Jun Shiraoka, Yokohama, Japan, November 2, 1996

Kaneko: Cherry
Hiroyo Kaneko

Welling: 031, 2006
James Welling, 031, 2006

Welling’s abstract plant forms bring to mind the work of Anna Atkins at the very beginning of photographic experimentation. The difference being that Welling’s aim is to create art and Atkins’, as a botanist, aim was to make a record of the plants form for scientific purposes.

Atkins: Woodland Horsetail (Equisetum sylvaticum)
Anna Atkins, Woodland Horsetail (Equisetum sylvaticum)

From it’s earliest days photography and science have been linked. Not only through it’s mechanical and chemical nature, but through a desire to categorize and catalog. Kannisto plays with this relation by “borrowing methods of representation, as well as working methods, from the natural sciences, from anthropological and archaeological practices” when she is making her art.

Kannisto: Leptophis
Sanna Kannisto, Leptophis ahaetulla, 2006

Another reference to 19th century science (this time to Darwin) occurred at Stephen Wirtz Gallery with the non-photographic work of Misako Inaoka. Her sculpture/installation work, The Origin of Species, is a charming combination of Frankensteinian creatures living in a Seussian world.

Inaoka: Evolution Tree
Misako Inaoka, Evolution Tree, 2007

Inaoka: Feet-antler, (Deer), 2007
Misako Inaoka, Feet-antler, (Deer), 2007