by Jonathan Blaustein
Yesterday was a good day. I paid a visit to the high school in Taos where I used to teach. I’m working with a couple of my former students, helping them participate in the New York Times Lens Blog project that solicits visions of 21st Century America, seen through the eyes of high school photo students. It’s open to all who meet those rather broad qualifications, so be sure to spread the word. Needless to say, the kids’ excitement was infectious.
In addition, for the first time in my career, a museum curator offered me prime exhibition space, with the opportunity to do whatever I want. Immediately, I mentioned that I have a finished project, framed, and ready to go. “We can slap it right onto the wall,” I said. That’s right, my first thought was to go the easiest, cheapest route. I even referred to the artwork as “inventory.” How creative.
Her face fell. It was subtle, but I noticed. Her eyes lost a shade of their sparkling blue luster. “We could do that…” she said, her voice trailing off at the end. “Really, though, you should take some time to think about it.” She went on to explain that this was my chance to pull off my dream exhibition, the coolest thing I could come up with. Open your mind, she implied.
It’s harder than it sounds. As a nearly 39 year old artist, you’d think I’d have had a better vision of what said dream installation might be. Instead, I first reverted to the safety of what I already knew. It’s scary to contemplate that one’s ideas might not be as grand as previously imagined.
Fortunately, the final good thing that happened yesterday snuck up on me like a black-clad ninja in pink, padded socks. I reached into my book pile, and came up with an innocuous looking hard cover book called “Katalog/Catalogue.” It didn’t seem remarkable in any way, and then I looked at the artist’s name: Hans-Peter Feldmann.
Given that there are probably five people in the world who’ve read all of my APE articles, (including Rob, my Dad, and me,) I’ll give you a quick refresher. Back in 2011, I wrote a short piece about an upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, by the aforementioned artist. He had won the $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize, and, for the accompanying show, had chosen to exhibit the actual money, in the form of 100,000 one dollar bills. It was the epitome of a clever, conceptual hook, and I was sad not to see the results in person. (We get some installation shots in the book, thankfully.)
On the heels of my compare/contrast series looking at the way photography is exhibited in Art versus Photo World contexts, the timing couldn’t have been better. Now we get to revisit the classic “artist who uses a camera” versus “photographer” argument. Or maybe not.
I’ve learned that “conceptual” can be a bad word in the Photo World. Just last month, I was encouraged by a museum director not to even breath the term, if I wanted to have my work considered by the institution. Many times now, I’ve heard people confidently state that they don’t like any “conceptual” work at all. No matter what.
Why is that? I’d speculate that “conceptual” is code for the type of off-putting, intellectually narcissistic clap-trap that people see in Art Fairs run by condescending gallerinas who relish the opportunity to ignore. The exclusivity of the Art World makes almost everyone feel like a peon, and work that smacks of the “Art” vibe can bear the brunt of the understandable resentment. Especially as so many “concepts” described in art-speaky press releases are nowhere to be found in the objects themselves.
Which is why this book was so timely for me to see yesterday, and why I’m thrilled to share it with you today. I’ve written a lot lately about stereotypes, and this is one more to break. Yes, there’s a lot of crappy, pretentious Art out there. Just as there are millions upon millions of photographs that lack any imagination whatsoever. (You know it’s true.)
But occasionally, far too rarely, we get a glimpse into the mind of someone who is doing it for the right reasons. Someone who has figured out how to unshackle his/her creativity, and mine the brain for all sorts of crazy, witty and poignant material. This book provides just such an opportunity.
It was produced in conjunction Koenig Books, and the Serpentine Gallery in London, a public space that sits atop the Art World hierarchy. We can all bitch about the Gagosians of the world, and the dominance of hedge fund/petro dollars, but not today. Serpentine is open to the public seven days a week, and free. Its Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes, Hans Ulrich Obrist, is among the most respected curators in the world.
There was an exhibition of Mr. Feldmann’s work there last year, and the book project reflects the survey nature of such a show, and the irreverence of the artist’s canon. It also contains some fascinating interviews with the artist, one conducted by Mr. Obrist, in which one’s depleted fount of idealism can easily be restored. Terrific, thoughtful stuff.
Mr. Feldmann has worked directly with photography for years, in a variety of ways. Some projects track small changes and movements over time: a woman opening the shutters of a window, a barge floating along a river, a seagull coasting through the sky. There are many other series included, like “Views from hotel room windows,” “All the clothes of a woman,” and “Car radios while good music is playing.” Some will find them witty and original, others dry and typological, I suppose. More random still, we see pictures of the contents of women’s handbags that the artist purchased, sight unseen. Or the photograph of Walker Evans’ bathroom sink, unchanged after his death.
There are paintings and sculptures, readymades, and appropriated imagery. One favorite was the series of old paintings that the artist purchased, and then altered, adding clown noses to stuffy portraits, or overpainting people with crossed eyes. We learn that he took ten years off from exhibiting his work, to get a break from the Art scene, and also ran a business selling thimbles. Yes, you read that correctly. Thimbles. There is more craziness than I can describe, so I’ll stop.
I spent another half hour with the book just this morning, and look forward to taking it for another spin. Already, I have some cool ideas for what to do with my blank-canvas-museum space. Even better, I’m no longer afraid to sit with the uncertainty. Opening one’s mind can be difficult work, indeed.
If you read this column each week, you’ll know that I often vacillate between being entertaining and preachy. Sometimes, I even do both in the same week. But I hope the photographers out there will accept the following advice in the spirit in which it’s intended: pick up a paint brush, a piece of charcoal, a video camera, a chisel, a pen, or a computer. If you try to do new things with your creativity, things that are certain to result in failure at first, you will get better at everything else that you do.
Bottom Line: A primer in creativity, taught by a Master
To purchase “Katalog/Catalogue” visit Photo-Eye
Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.
Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.