September 21, 2015–March 13, 2016
Exhibition Location: Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography, Gallery 851
Reconstructions: Recent Photographs and Video from The Met Collection, on view September 21 through March 13, 2016, in the Met Museum’s Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography, presents a selection of contemporary photographs and video works acquired by the Department of Photographs over the past seven years. The exhibition includes 18 works by 15 artists.
Photography, perhaps more than any other medium, both imbibes and exudes the spirit of its particular moment. While the exhibition is not about the digital aspects of photography per se, it does reflect the vagaries of our bifurcated experience, with one foot in the digital realm and the other on the rapidly shifting terrain of the old order.
The exhibition begins with a photograph created by the team of Clegg & Guttmann, entitled Our Production, the Production of Others, 1986/2012, CD Cover Version II. Masters of the group portrait, Clegg & Guttmann first approached the renowned string quartet, Melos Quartet, about photographing them in 1986. In return, the musicians asked the artists’ permission to use the resulting picture on an upcoming recording of Beethoven’s late string quartets. The artists agreed, as long as they could make a work of art from the finished design. Complicating this authorial back-and-forth, Clegg & Guttmann editioned the photograph so that the image could be modified each time the record company released the recording in a new format—from vinyl and cassette to compact disc. In this labyrinthine way, the artists fed their original photograph directly into the production line of design, fabrication, promotion, and distribution, just as they teased apart and laid bare the art-historical machinery that gave the group portrait its rhetorical force.
Artists such as Erica Baum and Moyra Davey bend and shape their encounters with vanishing analog means of communicating culture, from books to vinyl records to the mail. For Baum, the act of turning down a page corner in her 2009 Dog Ear photographs becomes a fruitful vein to tap in the creation of new works, with the reader’s act of remembering one's place standing in for the kind of collective historical memory that books epitomize. Baum’s chance alignments create ready-made poetry that can be read in multiple directions and configurations. Moyra Davey’s Kevin Ayers (2013) is a moving elegy to used-record connoisseurs who handle these outmoded, mass-produced objects with the delicacy of Fabergé eggs. Her prints bear the marks of the mail system, through which they were sent to the venue of her 2013 exhibition in Liverpool.
Collage, the medium best suited to charting the fissures and fracturing of modern life, is a component of many of the works on view in the exhibition. Spanish artist Adrià Julià’s lenticular portrait of Robert Capa shifts according to where the viewer stands, revealing a medical illustrator’s rendering of the legendary sharpshooter’s “Eyemo” camera as physically part of him. The act of witnessing, upon which Capa’s art rested, casts today’s merging of man and smartphone in sinister perspective. Shannon Bool uses vintage photographs of analysts and their patients, covered over and cut apart by the abstract decorative patterning of Maori and other tribal designs; bodies become projection surfaces that are cut-ups of ancient and modern forms that mask and reveal modern anxieties.
Lucas Blalock’s Both Chairs in CW’s Living Room (2012) is funny and funky in the manner of early West Coast Conceptualists such as William Wegman and Ed Ruscha, who wrought havoc on the everyday and extolled the “wrong” as good artistic strategy. In this work, Blalock constructs his picture by cultivating a viral bloom of digital error that pokes through our digital fantasies of a perfect virtual second life. On the other hand, Matt Keegan’s 2011 works, Untitled (Groups 6 and 7), create a rebus-like arrangement of images that mimic the effect of walking down a city street. The images are affixed to 12 feet of sheet-metal panels painted in a shade of gray approved by the City of New York for its bridges—an ambulatory diagnostic check on public space and democracy in the Occupy era.
Luis Úrculo’s Reconstructions #5 (2015) is also a collage of sorts, in that the viewer is pulled back-and-forth between image and caption in an imaginative recreation of archeological sites in Central America (southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala), some of them still standing, many demolished or wiped out. Staged forensically like an archaeological dig or crime scene, Úrculo’s fantastic gathering of ruins begs the question of what will be left on the continent when the empires of today vanish from memory. Erika Vogt’s single-channel video The Engraved Plane (2012) is an amalgamation of digital video and 16mm film, showing performers handling her primeval-looking sculptural objects against a speeding backdrop of geometric studies from books and newspaper headlines—a discordant visual symphony in which the contingent and eternal, measurement and myth, coexist on the same plane.
Photographic realism is pushed to its conceptual limits in a number of works in the exhibition, including Owen Kydd’s diptych of “durational photographs” entitled Marina and Yucca (2012). Poised between cinema and still photography, Kydd could only realize works such as this when the resolution of video imagery reached a level high enough for a moving image to at least approach the mesmerizing clarity of the best color photography. The spiky spray of a yucca plant, moving slightly in the California night breeze, is juxtaposed with a young woman with eyes closed, whose nearly imperceptible slouching becomes visible only when the footage loops over and starts again. Thomas Bangsted’s Last of the Dreadnoughts (2011-12) is a stunning digital recreation of the “dazzle camouflage” on one of the last remaining warships that used it to evade range-finding devices. The artist also “moved” the ship to an entirely different landscape that required creating the reflections from digital scratch. Miles Coolidge’s eerie Coal Seam, Bergwerk Prosper-Haniel #1 (2013) shows the raw material that went into making his own inkjet print (also included in the exhibition). Roe Ethridge presents a similarly claustrophobic material encounter in her 2013 work Double Ramen, except with a cross-cultural staple of American college students rendered as a forest of squiggly, even painterly noodles—consumption as decoration. The exhibition concludes with one of the final photographs by the late Sarah Charlesworth, a tour-de-force of illusionistic magic entitled Carnival Ball (2011), in which a glass sphere and goblet reflect a striped backdrop in mesmerizing ways.
Reconstructions: Recent Photographs and Video from The Met Collection is organized by Doug Eklund, Curator in the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum.
The exhibition will be featured on the Museum’s website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter via the hashtag #MetReconstructions.
October 2, 2015