I like to mix things up. It’s a must for this column. Week in, week out, I’m going to write about a book. If I can’t sustain quality commentary, this venture disappears.
Last week, I cut out the personal narrative, and wrote about a book that proved controversial. Mostly because it didn’t look like the things I normally proffer. It was highly commercial, and not exactly original. But it also managed to create a maelstrom in the comment section. I won’t push my luck and say the work was brilliant, because it was not. But I have found that neat and tidy, safe projects do little to promote discourse.
Great art, or at least important art, need not be pretty. In fact, moving into anti-aesthetic territory is an easy way to distinguish “art” from “decoration.” Ugly doesn’t sell as well, until it’s branded “Genius,” but it does get people to rub their chins and fidget awkwardly in a museum context. Tweaking people’s expectations of attractiveness is a good way to get them to think.
Furthermore, as I discussed in the Boris Mikhailov review last year, when examining difficult, exploitative scenarios, it’s disingenuous to try to make things gorgeous. Or to avoid exploitation in one’s process. Difficulty of subject matter, rendered as metaphor through difficulty of concept and image structure, is a good way to take the carpool lane to MOMA.
Just ask Doug Rickard. Despite the fact that there are multiple artists that have come out with Google-street-view-themed projects in the last few years, Mr. Rickard is the one who made it into MOMA’s coveted “New Photography 2011” exhibition. Why?
He managed to take all the messy, uncomfortable strands that jut out of Google’s immaculate quilt, and tie them together in a coherent and edgy way. Mr. Rickard looked at a situation in which a major corporation was invading people’s privacy to an unprecedented degree, and he chose to take that exploitation one step further.
Is this a book review? Of course it is. Because Mr. Rickard’s new monograph, “A New American Picture,” published by Aperture, turned up in my book stack recently. The book is well-produced, with an essay and an interview with the artist. Aperture never scrimps on production quality, so you can trust that the book is well-built. The images themselves, however, will not match up with your expectations of quality and good looks.
The artist spent countless hours exploring dirt poor urban and desolate rural regions of the United States. All via Google’s street view interface. He slowly “wandered” the streets of some of the most crime-ridden, dangerous, and bleak spots, all without leaving the comfort of his Aeron chair. (OK, I made that last detail up.)
The plates are muddy, compelling, and not particularly attractive. On several, I could even spot banding. It appears that he output prints, which were then re-photographed for the book. Clearly, they’re meant to look “poor” on purpose.
And as to the subject matter, Mr. Rickard sees his exploration as a 21st Century version of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange rolling, in physical form, through the same types of poor places, looking for photos. Documenting poverty. Shining light on the disenfranchised.
The big story here, though, is how the artist shamelessly exploits the poor folks in the photographs. It’s safe to assume they won’t see a dime, mostly because he couldn’t track them down if he tried. He’s not the one who took the source photos to begin with. Google did. He’s just doubling down on the capitalistic land grab. If the suckers didn’t know Google stole their “image”, how will they ever afford the plane ticket and admission fee to go see the prints on the wall at MOMA? (Or for free at Yossi Milo, through November 24)
The answer is, of course, they won’t. This is smart work, and Mr. Rickard is a smart artist. He knows his pictures won’t change a damn thing about poverty in America, and he also knows that none of his subjects are ever likely to even hear about his project. Most of them might not even have access to the Internet.
It’s a dirty, wicked system. Some folks are born with money, get a great education, live in city sky-scrapers, and travel the world. Other folks live in middle-class suburbs, inured from the “fear” of gang violence, but engaged in more-than-ever-before diverse communities. And some folks just get the shit end of the stick. Like I said, difficult art for a difficult situation.
Bottom Line: Smart and well-conceived, but you might not like it
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