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)

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