Two or Three Ideas:
Gregor Turk at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, Peter Bahouth at Marcia Wood Gallery, Jacob Collins and the Water Street Atelier at Atlanta Art Gallery
Two shows currently in Atlanta interrogate the dynamics of representation, from opposite perspectives. A third exhibition, like the fabled former Seinfeld series, is a show about nothing, or as close to nothing as something can be that once held a message.
To borrow the closing line of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man,” Gregor Turk’s dual show at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery of “Interstate 50” and ”Blank” shows us “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
“Interstate 50” is a ten-year series of photographs of blank billboards. They, like the Interstate that does not exist (even though it appears on at least one older mini-map as a trap for copyright violators), are representations of absence where there was supposed to be presence.
The billboards, photographed in various landscapes, have no advertising messages because they are sited on roads that are not much traveled any longer, or roads that have failed to sustain commerce for some other reason. Sometimes they are almost proudly blank, other times they are crumbling from neglect, and as often as not, time and weather have left faint traces of what might have been onetime messages obliterated beneath a whiteness as terribly void as the whiteness of the whale that Herman Melville rhetoricized in Moby-Dick.
By contrast, Turk’s closeup photographs of walls on which graffiti have recently been obliterated echo the conventions of mid-20th-century abstract painting, resembling color fields or, in one case, clearly imitating Mark Rothko. Printed at an intimate scale, they need to be well-nigh monumental.
(Which reminds me of Joe Peragine’s lexicon for gallerygoers who want to give the illusion of being knowledgeable: ‘Instead of saying ‘Sure is small,’ say ‘How intimate.’ Instead of saying “Sure is big,’ say ‘My, it’s monumental.’” Yes, Joe, you’re right.)
Turk’s photographs, of course, are carefully isolated slices of reality, unmanipulated except in terms of the angle of vision.
By contrast, Peter Bahouth’s stereoscopic photos of female collaborators in “Sadie’s Choice” at Marcia Wood Gallery are thoroughly theatrical, as theatrical as anything Gregory Crewdson or Katy Grannan ever did. (Grannan is the better comparison here.) There is no manipulation of the image, but the manipulation of the scene itself is total.
Bahouth asked a dozen women to create scenes for self-portraiture that paid homage to pin-ups of the mid-20th-century (so the 1940s and 1950s are being referenced in more ways than one in October 2008). He himself would offer no suggestions nor would he do anything as photographer that would influence the dynamics of a session in which each subject would have all the power and the photographer would be a willing accomplice.
Unfortunately, expectation influences outcome, and all the women took the idea of glamorous retro self-representation all too literally. They posed in pools or bubble baths, or surrounded themselves with exotica that would have been appropriate for the way in which their ethnicity would have been represented circa 1950. The famous Betty Page and the glamour shots of Bunny Yeager are all too well celebrated not to come into mental play, no matter how autonomous Bahouth wanted his empowered subjects to be.
What would have happened if Bahouth hadn’t referred to the stereoscopic erotica that existed back in the day, or self-consciously avoided any historically laden terms and just said, “I want you to think up a photo session that represents yourself the way you really want to be represented.”
Probably a good many of them would have taken their clothes off and the results might have been much more problematic for public exhibition than these pleasingly tame vintage images. Katie Grannan’s subjects certainly seem to long for maximum exposure for the most part, or at least take it for granted as part of the photo process.
But Katie Grannan has already done that. It made sense for Bahouth to try to address the problem of power relations as someone wielding a distinctive vintage mode of photography that demands that something unusual be done in homage to its history.
And it is valuable to realize just how widespread the hip knowledge of retro glamour shots really is. Bahouth was right to expect creativity from his subjects, but it was the terms of engagement that led all of them to versions of what had already been done, and to try to replicate the style of photography that was all the rage fifty years ago.
In other words, these women have absorbed the history of the image. Less visually inundated and less hip subjects might have shown the counter-influence of more contemporary styles of sexual display, and something unintentionally revealing (pun sort of intended) might have resulted.
The subjects were pretty much self-selected, and from pretty much the same background, according to persons who know some of them independently.
It might have been more educational to ask feminist academicians to pose for photographs that simultaneously reflected retro photographic traditions and reflected their own sense of themselves as sexual beings. But we have had quite a bit of that genre in recent years, and it would have made little enough sense for Bahouth to go into a situation already fraught with argument as to whether he was surrendering his identity or not.
So Bahouth’s experiment may have been an instructive failure, in terms of eliciting retro literalism instead of innovative metaphor.
Perhaps the subgenres that one encounters in the world these women inhabit do not encourage mixing and matching, but only a hiply ironic stance towards doing it and getting it right? I don’t know one way or the other, and wouldn’t presume to say that such is the case. But there has to be some reason why they chose not to violate the historicity of the situations they created, why they were unable to step outside the frame established for them by old photo conventions and even older expectations.
As with the popular revivals of burlesque, is it just a matter of enjoying with amusement what an older generation took very seriously as the way things ought to be, and an intervening generation tsk-tsked over as oppressive?
Not altogether dissimilar questions might be asked of the painters in “Jacob Collins and the Water Street Atelier” at Atlanta Art Gallery, except that these younger practitioners of a very old style of representation do show occasional flashes of irony, as in a creepy vanitas image of a jawless skull juxtaposed with an iPod.
But mostly the students of Jacob Collins have elected to make realist paintings that are hauntingly beautiful, a few echoing seventeenth-century Dutch still life but most reflecting a time that is our own, but not our time as we usually see it.
The portraits in particular make one realize the importance of scale in this tradition; the photographs in the little catalogue produced by the gallery sometimes look embarrassingly inconsequential when the paintings themselves are emotion-provoking near-masterworks. When personal style is suppressed in favor of realist representational conventions, small details become crucial and the size of the image even more so. Lacking the metaphysical vigor of the Dutch precursors, these artists present a world as it might yet be, an implicit utopia that might have delighted Ernst Bloch: a sense of reverie that creates space for dreaming and thus, according to Bloch’s heretical philosophic vision, for hope.
And these days we can use all the hope we can get, not to mention imaginative space in a world crowded, as Bahouth’s show reveals, with conventional images. Sometimes a re-imagining of an unfashionable tradition is the most revolutionary act of all.