Come Together, Right Now
Bill Viola's Ascension (2000) is one of those pitch-black video installations where you have to feel your way gingerly into complete darkness. Then, a figure descends onto the screen. In slowed time, he enters the darkened water feet first, his shirt and pants flowing out around him, his arms outstretched in a Christlike pose. His arms and body relax and slowly bob to the surface of the water, which acts as a kind of ceiling. As the air bubbles up from his lungs, he slowly descends again, finally sinking away from the light and disappearing from view at the bottom of the screen. The light slowly fades as tiny bubbles meander to the surface. Water is a powerful symbol, especially for Viola, who nearly drowned at age ten. In his work water possesses a mesmerizing quality, rendering viewers little more than deer caught in headlights.
Viola's video presents an extreme example of the powerful role of photographically derived images in art. So it's no surprise that his work is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts as a part of "Spotlight on the Collection: Contemporary Art and Photography." The exhibition seeks to present photography in the context of contemporary art, but its very title illustrates the problem with that endeavor. Isn't photography contemporary art? Or do the curators mean "Contemporary Art and the Photographic Process"? Although photography and contemporary art are separate departments at the MFAH and many other institutions, today's pluralistic approach to artistic media is making the old categories of painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and photography irrelevant to contemporary work.
The show pulls the viewer in by juxtaposing "art" with arty photographs -- Aaron Siskind's photograph of the forms of chipping paint versus the painted forms of Franz Kline. And it continues with works that represent some of the myriad uses of the photographic medium: documenting earthworks and performances, paired with text in conceptual pieces, in pop art silk screens, in staged photographs, exploring gender, identity and politics, incorporated into sculpture, in the form of video, as the source image for sculpture It's pretty broad territory to cover, and the show comes close to being a simple survey of art trends over the past 50 years, via the permanent collection. And the inclusion of nonphoto work -- paintings, sculptures -- occurs sporadically rather than as a consistent point of reference, making the exhibition's organization feel convoluted. The collection itself, however, does contain some impressive work.
Three 1980s photographs by John Coplans are juxtaposed with paintings by Philip Guston. The works are all self-portraits of sorts -- hands, feet, head, torso -- but Coplans is at a disadvantage next to Guston, and it is the fault of the artist rather than the medium. A photo of Coplans's hand, with the attendant lines and hairy knuckles, is printed to monumental size. The individuality of the hand and the scale of the image give it a certain limited appeal, but it is much less interesting and more self-absorbed than Guston's painted obsessions. His slick, juicy brush strokes cry out for lush and elegant subject matter, but instead, in Talking (1979), Guston presents a grubby, pink-fleshed hand holding cigarettes that churn out red smoke against a black background. The thick, stubby fingers are cartoony but tragic. The image feels more poignant and human than Coplans's "look at my actual aged hand" shtick.
Adrian Piper appropriates photos for conceptual purposes. Close to Home (1987) presents banal images of black people in the workplace, at leisure, with friends. They are the kind of stock photographs used in sociology textbooks, and they're accompanied by a multiple-choice questionnaire, also seemingly bland and straightforward. Below a photo of a smiling man in a security guard's uniform: "Have you ever had a Black person visit your place of residence? If yes, in what capacity?" Seven possible responses are available, ranging from "familial" or "social" to "maintenance," plus the multiple-choice favorite "none of the above." Below the image of a smiling couple, the question is repeated, followed by, "How did your reaction manifest itself?" The responses include "adoption of black working class vernacular conversational idioms" and "forced allusions to black culture, politics or society." (So, uh, what do you think of Spike Lee?)
A separate section of text is framed below the photos and asks, "Do you feel uncomfortable displaying such questions on your living room wall?" Piper makes her point with a deft wit as she parodies the format of the "neutral survey" to illustrate entrenched racial attitudes.
Christian Boltanski's Monuments (1989) uses blurred photographs of smiling Jewish schoolchildren that become poignant when we realize they are from the class of 1939. The black-and-white school portraits now feel like obituary photos. The faces are anonymous; we can only assume their individual fates. Tiny yellowish lights connected by a tangled network of cords illuminate the faces. Old tin biscuit boxes form a makeshift plinth for the portraits. Is the work sculpture or photography?
The Swiss duo of Fischli and Weiss consistently find art in the banal. In their staged photograph Nuclear Family (1987), two potatoes and a carrot are cantilevered and precariously balanced on a couple of forks, a corkscrew and a grater. The result is a ridiculous and temporary structure, captured in a suitably crummy photograph. A little blurry, a little dim, the technical quality of the photo reinforces the quick, makeshift aesthetic of their sculptural assemblage.
Gerhard Richter closes the show by neatly subverting the traditional idea of painting. The artist shot high-gloss images of the vibrant, swirled and bubbling paint on his palette. The images bleed to the edges of their surfaces, creating an uncanny canvas.
Photographs and photographic processes have played a key role in the evolution of art in the 20th century. And the trend will only continue as digital photographic technology allows for (gasp) seamless miscegenation between painting and photography. Satisfying the curatorial impulse to label gets harder all the time.
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