by Jonathan Blaustein
It’s both easy, and impossible to get lost in the Met. Easy, because the building is both rambling and enormous; impossible, because you’re never really lost. There’s always something fascinating to look at, and the off-the-beaten path stuff is often the best. (I once found a little room, recreated as Frank Lloyd Wright designed it. Haven’t seen it since.)
That said, after we left the Islamic galleries, we traipsed across the entire Museum to forage for food. Fifteen minutes later, standing in a line, waiting to pay a lot of money for not-very-interesting-sounding grub, we had a change of heart. Back, through the halls we trudged, back the way we came, back to the second floor to see some photographs. (As promised.)
The first photo exhibition, culled from the permanent collection, was called “Spies in the House of Art.” The series of images and videos was meant to offer inside access to the inner workings of the exhibition industry. The show was replete with big names, like Francesca Woodman, Candida Hofer, Louise Lawler, Thomas Struth, Diane Arbus, and Sophie Calle. Impressive lineup.
Alas, it was mostly boring. Some of the images were really good, to be sure, but ultimately, I was convinced that what happens in the front of the house is much preferred to the offices and vaults. There’s a reason they keep that stuff hidden: it’s not that interesting.
Up the hall we walked, towards another photo-only exhibit: “Naked Before The Camera.” Did that grab my attention? You bet it did. Finally, a show worthy of my snark and curiosity. I’ve been on a bit lately, in the book reviews, about the incessant use of boobs to sell photo books. Yes, they’re nice to look at. But when inserted by men, as so often happens, the repetitive pattern tends to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Exploitation needs a better reason, IMHO.
This exhibit was probably the most provocative I’ve seen at the Met. The two rooms of photographs, almost all Black and White, were engaging. Swarms of photo heroes and heroines were on display. There was a run by Larry Clark, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus that got my attention. Some brilliant images by Bill Brandt, Irving Penn, Man Ray and Brassai that were all vibrating on the wall, packed with latent energy.
Lots of amazing photographs. True. And enough variation in style and history to make one look harder at the human shape. But that was not what left me shaking my head.
Iván and I stood before a photograph by an artist of whom neither of us had heard: Jim Jager. The photo was called “Sharkey, 1980.” Within the rectangle stood an African-American man, against a studio backdrop, naked, holding a long wooden staff in one hand. His manhood was large, befitting the stereotypes we’ve all heard before. The implied reference was Africa, though the wall text insisted the image was made in Chicago, one among many.
Apparently, the photographer made soft-core porn images on a regular basis. They were not deemed “Art” at the time, any more than the series of harlot photos by the now famous EJ Bellocq. They were just meant to get people off.
The photograph was shockingly racist. So racist that Ivan and I kept looking at each other, then the back to the photo, then to each other, raising eyebrows and blowing air slowly through our mouths. Wow. So. Very. Racist.
I turned to my friend, “Should this be here?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know.”
“Is the picture really that racist, or are we racist for assuming it’s racist?”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean, if it was a white guy, or if the penis wasn’t so huge, would we be offended?”
“I don’t know. I’m really not sure,” replied the massively opinionated, incredibly intelligent man to my right. “I just don’t know.”
I still don’t know. The layers of meaning, the depth of the references to Slavery and all things unholy, were inescapable. Should that be on the wall, among the masters of photography? Should an institution shy away from such provocations? Should it be censored, in a world in which lynching photos are hung, and vestiges of death and destruction? (Yes, no, no.) But still, I was terribly uncomfortable.
The rest of the show was tamer, until I headed for the door. There was an image of some naked Zulu girls from 1892-93. Pure trappings of colonialism. “Hey, look a the naked savages. They’re someone’s property now, so you don’t have to feel shameful.”
Together with the earlier image, they re-enforced a slimy feeling within me, one that was surprisingly lacking when I looked at all those breasts, penises, and vaginas. That was easy. Racism is hard. By including the sub-theme in the exhibit, however, the curators took a brave stand. Racism is a part of humanity, they decreed/implied, and it’s best to look at it directly. Too often, it’s left for the shadows.
One more mention, before I move on. The final image, or at least the last I noticed, was by Nadar. It was a full-on hermaphrodite photograph. The genetalia were front and center, the rest of the body faded into a shallow depth of field. The year: 1860. The effect: timeless. I shuddered, and then walked out the door. Like I said, this show ought to be controversial. If it’s still up, go see for yourself.
From there, we hiked back across Central Park, as I promised Iván some great pizza on Amsterdam Avenue. We waited out the rain, hoped the temperature would drop, watched some of a Euro Cup match, and munched on great food. (Ceasar’s Palace Pizza, Amsterdam between 83rd and 84th St.) It was a short walk to the subway from there, and we were downtown bound, to hit up a few shows in Chelsea.
Henceforth, I won’t do it that way again. The Uptown museums are about history, risk-taking and brilliance. Visions from the past, and visions that confound our expectations of the present. Clearly, not all the work on the wall is brilliant. Not possible. But the ambitions are always grand. Dream big, and you might make it.
In Chelsea, though, it’s a marketplace. Nothing more, nothing less. Yes, the salesmen are dignified, though they won’t pay you any mind. They’re worried about the big fish that drop mad cash via email. Fair enough.
I don’t begrudge them anything, despite some of my past criticism. Capitalism marches on, and the businesses are there to sell Art. If they didn’t have to be open to the public, perhaps the doors would lock forever. But they do. And we go.
There’s often, if not always, great work to be seen. But it’s lost in the noise of mediocrity. My brain morphed from idealistic and humanistic to jaded and angry, and all it took was a train ride South. So much work was so seemingly tied to who knows who, or who’s profile is big enough to demand a solo show. Or at least that’s how I felt in the moment. Like I said, jaded.
In fairness, it was Summer, which we all know is not the time to see the showstopper exhibitions. And, having spent the better part of an hour sweating in Central Park, I didn’t have enough time to hit up 20 or 30 galleries, which would have increased my chances of seeing something transcendent. Alas.
As it was, we met my friend Jaime at Matthew Marks, to see the new Thomas Demand exhibit. Arriving early, we checked into a few spaces right there on 22nd St, and both were shaking our heads as we opened the door to the cavernous space. (One of several that Marks has in the neighborhood. He’s one of a handful of “Super-dealers” that drive the scene.)
I’ll say straight out, Mr. Demand is one of my favorite artists. I’ve long been enamored of his super-intricate, hand-made, illusionistic creations. They look “real” but are not. What is “real” anyway? Is paper real? Surely it is. But when people think they’re seeing a composite desk, or a ceramic bathtub, then paper and cardboard are relegated to “fake.”
There were three photographs on the wall, and a video in the larger back room. (They reconfigure the space for each show, I believe.) As much as I love the artist, I’d say the show was workmanlike, at best. When there are only three images to behold, they best be brilliant.
The money shot was called “Control Room.” It depicted what looked like the bridge of some Space Ship, or the nerve center of a Government bunker, deep underground. Hidden under Colorado Springs, no doubt.
The panels of the ceiling hung down, however, and there were no humans to be seen. It was empty. Haunted. One could not escape the feeling that the image was meant to represent a dim view of the future, when we were gone, but our organized infrastructure remained. Empty, yes, but don’t forget the organized part. (The artist is German, after all.)
The other two images were far less dramatic. One, a storeroom filled with art, the other, a room service cart in a generic hotel room. Often, there are stories associated with Mr. Demand’s scenes, stories not accessible by the title or image. The background floats along by word of mouth. Which is to say, if there were reasons for these photos, they escaped me.
Jaime was entranced with the lighting techniques in the food cart photo. He deconstructed the way the light enhanced certain shapes, and softened others. It was not something I would have noticed. Another great reminder how subjective was our venture, judging and deciding. One man’s love of implied narrative is another man’s fascination with light.
Speaking of implied narrative, as there was no image-history at our fingertips, I guessed, “Maybe it was one of Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard’s last meals? Before he was put down for his failure to protect the big boss?” Quickly, Jaime retorted, “No, they don’t eat pork.” I looked again, and there, among the fake paper food, was a piece of fake proscuitto. Well seen, Jaime.
The video returned to the Space Ship theme, as a room swayed above, on the screen. The commissary of some lost Enterprise, sloshing back and forth, back and forth. All the furniture would slide one way across the room, and then back again. Jaime noted that nothing was ever damaged, though. Odd, yes, cool, sure, but I wondered if it pushed the artist’s ideas any further along?
And that was why I ultimately left disappointed. Mr. Demand has been making work in this style for a very, very long time. Will he shift? Will it end? I don’t know. Should he? Can an artist mine the same territory, over and over and over again, and never get bored? Will the work improve forever, or get stale, like that hunk of ciabatta you forgot about, that guards the back of your refrigerator?
Of course, I don’t know. When I shot my current project in my studio, I knew some would say it looked a lot like “The Value of a Dollar,” as they share the same locale. But I wanted to build on my ideas, and thought it was silly to change my studio around just because some would have me do so. A table is a table, after all.
But, never would I ever shoot only that way, forever. It would not cross my mind, to never, ever change. Yes, making a new way in the world can be scary, and failure is more than possible. So I suppose that means that, in my opinion, it’s time for Mr. Demand to move on. Freshen things up.
Will he? Who knows? I can tell you one thing though. If he does, it won’t be because of anything I’ve said. When we make Art, we’re ultimately our own boss. If we choose to slave to the market, so be it. He can laugh all the way to his secret bank account in the Caymans. Who am I to criticize?