Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Todd Hido: The Clash of Interiors and Portraits

Known for capturing the desolate sadness mixed with the regularity of suburban homes, Todd Hido, with his new work, Between the Two enters inside the home. His interiors have the same isolation as his earlier work, maybe even more so as we see the small details of someone’s life splayed before the camera’s eye. These details are infected with a heavy sense of depression. The rooms are mostly vacant, yet they contain the stale leftovers of life. They resonate with dashed hope and beginnings that have definitely ended and the images are successful because they leave the viewer wondering – what life inhabited this space and what has become of it?

Unfortunately Hido answers his own questions by interspersing portraits of woman in various states of undress in his installation at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery. Vacant women stare back at us, not quite beckoning, not quite challenging – just blank. I suspect this approach might work if Hido hadn’t included strictly women, but as installed, these women appear as sex workers or nude models with no conceptual theme linking them. You don’t wonder who they are as much as why are they allowed Hido to photograph them – or even worse, why are you looking at them? As portraits, the images don’t go beyond the physicality of their bodies reclining on or near a bed. And, their inclusion strips away the murky psychology that makes Hido’s work so engaging.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Hiroshi Sugimoto Lectures about his 30 year Photographic Career

Hiroshi Sugimoto bears witness to the inevitability of change with his photographs. As Susan Sontag states in her book, On Photography,
"all photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt."
In his lecture last Friday – co-sponsored by PhotoAlliance and the de Young MuseumSugimoto spoke about his 30-year career in photography and shared his perspective on capturing time.

While Sugimoto started the lecture with a video on his work that encapsulated his photographic practice, it was when he stepped up to the podium and shared slides of his work that his acerbic wit and contemplative wonder truly emerged.

His seascapes, introduced with ancient Japanese renderings of the sea that influenced him, are simultaneously a study of a moment and of eternity. Similarly, his Theater series allows us to see in one frame the duration of a movie, folding time back on itself and re-presenting it. In his lecture he revealed a few titles of the movies, which, while hilariously incongruent to the serene photographs, added little to the rigorous concept fueling them. If you’re wondering, yes he did get permission to photograph inside the theaters, but only after a lengthy discussion on copyright infringement. (ha!)

His images of the Natural History Museum’s dioramas, which at first appear tangential to his aesthetic vision, are in fact in sync. They allow us to see a specific instance in our history, yet they float above reality precisely because of their hyper-reality. In looking at the Polar Bear hunting its prey, we can see through all that clarity that the image could never be “real”.

In the Color of Shadows series, Sugimoto further unveils the notion of passage. As shadows cast their mark, Sugimoto is there to capture them with a complex simplicity that reveals the sublime. The Fraenkel Gallery is currently exhibiting this work (up until March 31, 2007) and on July7, 2007 the de Young Museum will open Sugimoto’s retrospective.

While certain of Sugimoto's photographs can appear as the "emperor's new clothes," the images that are successful function to heighten the viewer's awareness of the essence of what surrounds us every day.

Monday, January 29, 2007

SECA Award Exhibition at SFMOMA

Every two years, one of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art auxiliaries, SECA (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art), recognizes a handful of remarkably talented local Bay Area artists culled from hundreds of artists nominated by professors, curators, gallerists and other recipients. This Saturday, January 27th, SFMOMA held the opening for their SECA Art Award Exhibition honoring Sarah Cain, Kota Ezawa, Amy Franceschini, Mitzi Pederson and Leslie Shows.

With a stunningly diverse range of media, these artists prove the vitality of San Francisco artists. I was especially excited by the landscape collage-paintings of Leslie Shows, with her adept handling of materials and understanding of scale, and the stylized re-creations of Kota Ezawa. His re-interpretation of the Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape is not to be missed.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Review: Clinton Fein at Toomey-Tourell

Clinton Fein
January 4th – January 30th, 2007

As much as Clinton Fein’s photographs in his show at Toomey-Tourell (49 Geary St, San Francisco) are about torture and politics, they are more captivatingly about reversing what we see imbedded in the images. Certainly Fein is drawing viewers into a political debate on the abuse of prisoners in the Iraqi prison, Abu Ghraib, by re-presenting those now infamous images first published in April 2004. However, by re-photographing them with stylized, hyper-real clarity Fein is giving the viewer permission to look at what was shunned in the originals: the details and the psychology revealed in them.

Fein furthers the idea that evidence of this atrocity is not only worth preserving (as the original captor-perpetrators did with their snapshots) but that it is also worth re-examining. Whether from image fatigue or short attention spans, Americans seem to have moved passed the initial horror invoked by the images three years ago. What Fein has effectively done is employ photography to critique the role of the original photographs. Whereas the original images were grainy and fuzzy, Fein’s images are sharp and precise, begging the question: which is more real? The viewer is left wondering.

Number Ten, Fein’s re-staged version of a simulated sex act among hooded detainees elevates the sexualized undercurrent of torture by offering for inspection each detail in a way the original grainy and blurred photographs did not.
His use of stylized, dramatic lighting indeed amps up these perversions to bring that agenda to the forefront and draws our attention directly to it. He has intentionally conflated aesthetic experience with shocking imagery. One could argue that Fein has aestheticized the grotesque with this approach. One could also argue that he simply intended to present an uncensored version. However, his intention is as blurred as his images are sharp. After all, he did include fictionalized re-staged scenes in this exhibition. While these photographs are well realized, their presentation is not as carefully crafted as the images themselves. There are a few fairly obvious cut marks and some buckling and this, unfortunately, interferes with Fein's well crafted aesthetic.

That said, there are many thought provoking questions raised by this exhibition and San Francisco is fortunate to have an ambitious gallery willing to mount it. Among those questions: is Clinton Fein appalled by the images he re-presents? Is he investigating the abuse of power? Is he dignifying the grotesque, making it allowable to view? In his statement, he addresses many issues in terms of using art as a social tool, however his images seem more layered with multiple meanings than he lets on. He leaves questions dangling, which is far more titillating than if he would have offered concrete answers.

(Coming to the Bay Area: Fernando Botero exhibition of his Abu Grhaib paintings at the University of California, Berkeley’s Doe Library, from January 29th to March 25th, 2007)