Spring 2014

Tuesday 04/29/2014


What Have We Here?: Focusing on the Blurred Lines of Photography at the ICP

Gerhard Richter, 16.3.03 (2003). Oil on color photograph. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, NY

The artistic impulse featured in “What Is a Photograph?” at the International Center of Photography is that of photographers to explore what curator Carol Squiers terms the “imaginative possibilities” of their medium. Engaging with the works on view in the exhibition suggests that the generative force behind this impulse is photography’s continued uncertainty concerning where to situate itself in the pantheon of canonical art forms (painting, sculpture, drawing, etc.). Judging from the innovative works featured at the ICP, I would say: so much the better. Photography’s existential crisis regarding what kind of medium it is seems to have had the very positive effect of motivating its practitioners to try new ideas and challenge rules that are still pliable. While not all the works produced in this spirit of freewheeling invention are excellent, one senses that all the artists included have at least tried to do something they were not quite sure they could pull off. This willingness to explore the limits of what can be done with an art form is invariably commendable.

Part of photography’s identity issue stems from what might be categorized as a form of inferiority complex it has in relation to painting, which it simultaneously seeks to emulate and to supplant. Photography’s quest to calibrate its relationship to painting has had varying results, and the gamut of these outcomes maybe seen in “What Is a Photograph?”

One of the most direct and effective explorations of the painting-photography complex is a series of works by Gerhard Richter that consists of 4 x 6-inch color snapshots largely covered with thick layers of oil paint. Most of the photos are reminiscent of those unflattering, inconsequential vacation pics taken on disposable cameras, which simply serve to remind you that you’ve been somewhere. By effacing a sizable portion of the photograph with paint, Richter asserts the medium’s presence rather than the memory it preserves. In one photograph, depicting what looks to be a mom and her son at the beach, Richter covers roughly two-thirds of the image with teal-colored paint. Only partially mixed, the paint has streaks of brown, yellow and white that reprise the colors of the beach setting, making it seem as though the scene is melting. The contrast between the two mediums heightens properties of each: the viscosity of the paint and its not-quite-mixed colors offset the glossy surface and naturalistic colors of the photograph in a way that makes each appear more striking than they would alone. In addition, the paint covers up most of the bodies of the two figures in the photograph, leaving only their eyes visible.

This hiding of what traditionally would be the most important part of the image, the people, highlights the opposing natures of photography and painting––one a negative impression produced by reality, the other a positive representation of reality. There is an interesting distinction between a photograph’s form, determined by the reality it represents (the light that strikes the film, for example), and painting, which actively creates a new reality—even if it represents a real-life subject, it is the artist who creates the image rather than a camera that records it. In other words, the photograph seems to absorb while the paintings seems to produce. Richter’s works, however, trouble this opposition: painting takes on a negative quality by removing rather than producing information. The wall text accompanying these photo-paintings cites Richter’s interest in the “two realities” embodied by painting and photography. On the one hand, the photograph seems to reveal everything in impressive detail, while on the other painting can’t help but be an abstraction, only ever acting as the agent of the artist’s perspective. In pushing these realities together within the same frame, Richter creates a potent tension between known and unknown.

Marco Breuer, Study for (Metal Day), 200. Gelatin silver paper, burned. Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, NY.

Other works at the ICP exhibition take a different stance on the relationship between photography and painting by employing abstract forms that bring to mind Abstract Expressionist paintings. Two examples of this tendency are Eileen Quinlan’s Chore Boy and James Welling’s series of untitled color-field photographs. In both cases, the artists abandon the goal of capturing reality, which was originally the sine qua non of photography, and instead concern themselves with the interplay between textures and colors. This has a subtly uncanny effect. In Welling’s Rothkoesque photographs, saturated hues blend seamlessly into one another, with, for instance, saffron gradating to a deep tangerine color—colors Rothko himself favored. The uncanniness arises from the fact that these photographs do what painting does better than painting ever could. In this sense, it is like computer animation that makes one feel unease by imitating life just a little too closely. Likewise,  Quinlan’s Chore Boy recalls the gestural splatters of Jackson Pollock’s paintings through scratches represented in a black-and-white photograph of something that is unidentifiable yet has a distinct woven texture. As with Welling’s exploration of color, Quinlan’s use of texture evokes the tactile presence of paint, but the unbroken surface of the photographic image prevents these textures from being a reality: the perfect smoothness of the photo bears no impression of the tactility it depicts.

Still other artists featured in “What Is a Photograph?” invite an association between photography and painting by asserting a greater presence of their ‘hand’ in the work and consequently, also, the materiality of photography. One such artist is Marco Breuer, who manipulates photographic paper by folding, scoring, burning, scouring, biting or striking it. The effects of these unconventional methods are curious and beautiful abstract designs. And unlike the works of Welling and Quinlan, Breuer undermines the glossy surfaces of the photographs, which lends them an assertive physicality. Not only does the work appeal to the viewer’s sense of touch, but we are also made aware of Breuer’s physical handling of the image. In removing the mediating apparatus of the camera, Breuer evokes the direct mark-making technique that painters employ on canvases.

While the identity crisis of photography brought to the fore by the ICP exhibition might easily be considered a shortcoming of the medium, to my mind it seems an extremely positive conundrum to be facing, for both artists and viewers. For artists, it provides incentive to traverse the given horizons of photography and to sort out for themselves what the distinction is between photography and painting. For viewers, the ambiguous nature of these photographic works keeps us in a productive state of uncertainty, constantly questioning what it is we are looking at as well as pushing the main question raised by the exhibition, “what is a photograph?”  To ask these questions is to be engaged with what we see and what we know, and this, ultimately, is one of the most powerful possibilities art presents.