Before and After the Falls: The Film and Video Work of Phil Solomon at Young Projects

Closes August 2, 2013

Astra Price


Phil Solomon 

American Falls, 2000-2012. See exclusive footage from American Falls HERE.

With a massive multi-channel installation and a range of single channel works, the current exhibition, Phil Solomon: Before and After the Falls, at Young Projects ask a very important question: Where does moving image media belong? This is not a question of the value of experimental cinema or video art.  In contemporary art culture there can be little doubt about the importance and place of experimental cinema and video art in art history, and these well tread pro/con arguments now seem quaint and dated.  Moving image mediums have been accepted into the canon and are as ubiquitous as the painted line in current art practice.  However Solomon’s work in the current exhibition points to the importance of viewing space as much as to the content of the work itself.

This questioned viewing space is both physical and psychological. American Falls, the keystone to the current exhibition, is a three-channel installation weaving a somewhat linear (though experimentally executed) expression of the history of America as it chronicles “the fallen” in this history and the falling of America as a country.  This work was originally commissioned for and displayed in The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s rotunda.  This round exhibition space at the Corcoran is quite large with a 43 foot diameter and 13 ft high walls that become the surrounding screens (1). A viewer at the Corcoran would be surrounded with the active images of history that Washington D.C. is steeped in; icons and images twice-human scale, bringing weight and life to national history otherwise neatly displayed in vitrines.

Though displayed very professionally at Young Projects, this installation does not work within the viewing space.  Comprised of images of american history transformed through meticulously hand crafted film (later transferred for digital display), each frame has been mined for all of the depth and intrigue that physically and chemically manipulated celluloid can provide, yet American Falls feels flat. Through this process of creation, images are often high contrast sepia forms that, when strung together, become a choreography of iconography.  As flattened icons, they do not subvert themselves as Warhol’s iconic images of Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor do; they still are in a direct relationship with dusty history books or overused stories. The Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King, Benjamin Franklin: viewers see them but gain no greater understanding of them or their relationship to each other than what they already know.  There is also a recurring literal motif of falling: Buster Keaton, elephants, skaters - all creatures fall.  This directness seems like illustration and not the elegant metaphor often found within Solomon’s work.

Phil Solomon

American Falls, 2000-2012.

The multiple frames of the three channel installation occasionally break off into screen relationships of 2:1 (two side panels and a center)  or 1:1:1 (all images the same or all images different).  The juxtaposition of the screens is sometimes playful and smart, such as the instance of the two side screens of transcontinental railroad cars sandwiching a running buffalo, but often just feel like more of the same thing (such as with images of both a young and older Amelia Earhart), rather than a potential for meaning through simultaneous time-based placement.  The somber, somewhat droning soundtrack leads but seemingly without a destination. Small burst of dialog and an occasional crescendo temper the the audio and give you clues into where you might be within the total running time of the work, but do not provide heightened insight to the visual text. With a duration of 56 minutes, the work while abstract, still feels like a linear work that should be watched in its entirety, which is a very demanding request of an installation viewer.

American Falls, as well as Muybridge at the Falls (commissioned as part of a Muybridge Retrospective at the Corcoran) and The Emblazoned Apparitions (commissioned for the upcoming film What is Cinema?) are all works that are from the same visual era in Solomon’s work: familiar archival footage optically printed and hand-manipulated to create a flow of rich brown tones that feel like they burning and disintegrating as they are displayed. They are all smart works with a great depth of sources and allusions.  Most importantly, they are all commissioned works and are probably best left to the environments for which they were commissioned, though this greatly limits the potential audience for these works that took years to create. Their physical and conceptual framework in those spaces would create depth that displayed elsewhere are alluded to, but never materialize. In the Corcoran, the question of intermingling real images and Hollywood recreations to create a common history might be better realized, life more present in Muybridge images too often reproduced as flattened and gray, and the sequence featuring an obscured boat name may provide the answer for the question of the film What is Cinema? At Young Projects the viewer is set up in an oppositional relationship with American Falls; a viewer against the entire history of America, as opposed to being surrounded by and part of it at the Corcoran.

Phil Solomon

 EMPIRE, 2008-2012.

The rest of the works in the exhibition showcase Solomon’s trademark use of manipulation.  In older works such as The Snowman, and Remains to be Seen this manipulation is a direct physical intervention with the 16mm film, scratched and optically printed.  The surface interaction obscures and creates rhythm.  It softens and makes approachable the mournful sadness in these works about the loss of Solomon’s parents. The physicality parallels the thin veil between life and death.  From a different era, Last Days in a Lonely Place and Psalm IV: Valley of the Shadow use glitches and elaborately constructed game play to create delicate, emotive experimental narratives with machinima technology. In Solomon’s game world, there is a lot of fog and rain, and like the earlier 16mm films included in the exhibition, there is sadness.  Bridges flip over endlessly, fire trucks spray water onto empty movie theater marquees, and small wispy butterflies hover over misty blowing green ground cover.  These spaces depicted are mostly empty and dark; forgotten areas in an artificially created universe.  Machinima has become popular, even within the art world within the past few years, but Solomon’s use of this as a tool stands apart.  Not focusing on the game play as a metaphoric construct or the characters, Solomon uses the technology as a camera onto a world that could never be.

Even these single channel works, some of which also screened during an the REDCAT theater during the course of the exhibition, are better suited for the viewing space of the big screen rather than that of the smaller gallery.  These works have distinct beginnings and endings and casual viewer may have a hard time finding an entry point into the dense structure if they come across the work in the middle of the screening.  However the viewing space of the gallery, though compromised, is better than not seeing them at all, which is often the fate of short experimental works.  Aside from single evening screenings, the work is often hard to access.  Are these works installations? No, they are projected single channel works and if a viewer accepts this construct from the beginning, and leave enough time to view works in their entirety, the exhibition at Young Projects can be a very rewarding experience.

Phil Solomon

 EMPIRE, 2008-2012.

The work that is most properly at home in the exhibition is Empire.  A playful nod to Warhol’s work of the same name, Solomon uses the machinima engine of Grand Theft Auto IV to create a new vision of the 24 hour view of the Empire State Building in game time, which equals 48 minutes.  Warhol’s work was completed in 1964 before the construction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and Solomon’s Empire is completed after their destruction in 2001. Their visual absence within the frame is noticed and important.  Empire is a work that can take a casual viewing. Its meaning can be understood quite quickly while its visual understanding unfolds in time, perhaps best over multiple engagements. In Empire a plane flies into the middle of the screen and disappears, and day gives way to night again and again, as the work loops and life goes on.

An artist’s choices about the display space of moving image work are as fundamental to the work as the content itself.  The exhibition at Young Projects showcases some while creating a non-optimized environment for others.  Solomon’s dedication to the space of the technical manipulated frame is felt throughout the exhibitions, finding its point of origin in the medium itself.  Though the medium is not the message, Solomon’s detail to execution needs to be as robust when thinking about the the space of display as it was in the moment of the creation of each frame in order for the work to fully achieve its potential.

1. http://jsteinkamp.com/html/body_corcoran.htm

 Astra Price is a video specialist and educator living in Los Angeles.  She is also part of the team behind the independent publishing site, BuyIndieComics.com









Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday at the Museum of the African Diaspora

June 20, 2013 – September 29, 2013

Roula Seikaly

In 2009, comedian Chris Rock produced and hosted a movie entitled Good Hair, which considers the social and economic factors that inform how African American women style their hair. It’s a searingly funny and thoughtful examination of related issues including self-expression, identity, and the tension between remaining true to one’s cultural roots or conforming to meet unrealistic, and racially driven standards of beauty. I was reminded of the film, and how powerfully styles of outward comportment register as measures of change, when viewing Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday, now on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora through September 29th.

 J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Untitled, 2006, 60.96 x 60.96
J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Untitled, 2006, 60.96 x 60.96 . Courtesy of the Museum of African Diaspora.

Sartorial Moments, curated by Olabisa Silva and Oyinda Fayeke, highlights the work of J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, a Nigerian photographer who has dedicated the balance of his 60-year career to photographing his fellow countrymen and women for the featured series Hairstyles. Ojeikere’s presence in, and importance to, the Nigerian art scene is centered primarily in the capital city Lagos and began in the mid-1960s when the artist joined the Nigerian Arts Council. Seven years after independence from British rule was achieved, in October of 1960, Ojeikere and other artists committed to moving their country beyond a colonialist mindset by exploring the points where European and broadly defined African cultural sensibilities collided and diverged. The result, as we see displayed at MoAD, represents a bridge between two eras in Nigeria’s national identity -- not so much a “before and after” view but more an insightful look at what comes of the inevitable blending of native and foreign influences.

Ojeikere’s large format black and white compositions are mostly uniform, presenting his subjects from the back or in profile. This method highlights a variety of styles – braids, twists and curls coiled into complex sculptural forms – that he encountered gracing the heads of friends and strangers alike. The same style is not seen twice in any of the more than 50 photographs displayed. Audiences do not see the faces of his female subjects for the most part, but instead our eyes are drawn to the hairstyles that are as much an indicator of identity and individuality as their respective visages. When looking at these portraits, I was reminded of, among other images, early photographs taken of enslaved Africans who were brought to the United States and how starkly notions of person and non-personhood are conveyed throughout the history of photography.

J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Untitled, 1968, 15.24 x 15.24 cm. Courtesy of the Museum of African Diaspora.

Ojeikere’s interest in body, hair and fashion as sites of change extends to the gele, pronounced “gay lay,” the gravity-defying headdresses born of western Nigeria’s Yoruba culture. The photographer captured many of his subjects wearing geles in his Lagos studio, which he opened in 1975, and emphasis in the portraits is placed on the sculptural elements that render each wrap and the woman who wears it as unique. Historically, a gele was worn and perceived as the mark of a woman’s marital status, leaning to the right if she was married and to the left if she was single. The cloth used to create these complex creations was also an indicator of a woman’s social status, and whether or not she could afford the often-expensive materials that were imported from Europe and other distant points. In contemporary Nigerian and Diasporan societies, the gele is regarded as an accessory, and as an indicator that traditional styles of dress are often preferred over those of western society.

J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Untitled, 2008, 50.8 x 50.8 cm 

 J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, Untitled, 2008, 50.8 x 50.8 cm. Courtesy of the Museum of African Diaspora.

J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere turns his camera on Nigerian men as well, capturing stylistic evolution over a forty year period that unfolded beside the revolutionary changes of post colonial existence. While differences in men’s fashion and hairstyles were not as dramatic as those for women, what stands out about these portraits is that they bring the power of photography to bear on establishing one’s identity, which was and may still be difficult when most westerners regard African nations from a totalizing point of view rather than as separate societies invested with discreet qualities. Ojeikere’s portrait of a man wearing a dark ensemble of slacks, sweater, collared shirt, and tie locates the figure in the center of the composition, conveying both his stature and individuality within the studio environment.

On loan from the Contemporary Centre for Arts, Lagos, and offered as the second in the Curator’s Choice exhibitions series at MoAD, Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday beautifully captures what curator and scholar Dr. Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins relates as “unrecoverable moments” in Nigeria’s social and artistic history. In the end, these images demonstrate the importance of noting the small details, what we wear and why, and how that contributes to building both the future of oneself and a nation.

 Roula Seikaly is a arts journalist, writer, and curator based in San Francisco. She reports on contemporary art for KQED.









Nicholas Nixon: New Work at Fraenkel Gallery

30 May  – 27 Jul 2013

Roula Seikaly

At a time when western beauty standards are at their most rigid, and collective fears of aging are aggravated by media messaging, veteran photographer Nicholas Nixon beautifully illustrates the quiet joy that comes with accepting our bodies as they age, and the centrality of human connection, in a new series on view at Fraenkel Gallery inside 49 Geary until July 27th.

Nicholas Nixon
 Nicholas Nixon, Bebe and I, Brookline, 2013. Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery.

Nixon came to prominence through his participation in New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, the landmark exhibition that opened at the George Eastman House in 1975. Since then, Nixon has permanently shifted our perception of both the American landscape and contemporary photographic practice. His photos of Boston and New York document both the ingenuity of urban development, and the price in our humanity at which those achievements are made.

Nixon is perhaps best known for The Brown Sisters, a series initiated on a whim in 1975 that became a yearly tradition. For the last 38 years, he has photographed his wife, Bebe, and her three sisters from the same frontal position and in the same left to right sequence. In this process, he captured deepening familial affection over time. Nixon treats photography as a humanistic endeavor, a conviction that has informed his choice to include children, the elderly, the sick and dying as his subjects over a nearly forty year career.

Nicholas Nixon
Nicholas Nixon, Bebe and I, Brookline, 2011. Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery.

The photographer’s current work portrays intimacy and identity as nearly inextricable. The subjects are Bebe, who has aged gracefully before her husband’s lens, and the artist himself. The images capture the couple close up, almost uncomfortably so, and balance emphasis between the familiar yet somehow foreign territory of the aging body, and the bond the couple shares. In the dual portraits, such as Bebe and I, Brookline, the pair is so close as to seem like one person, their respective right and left eyes staring into an unknown future. A similarly titled piece features Nixon nearly enmeshed in Bebe’s tresses, his coarse whiskers blending with her graying brown hair, evoking that all-encompassing comfort that only a partner’s unique scent can deliver. Working in color for the first time, Nixon captures the dimensionality of flesh - which here appears as layers of pink and cream built up over pale blue blood vessels nestled just under the surface– in a manner similar to the layering of pigment on canvas.

Complimenting with these portraits are black and white photographs of tall grass and fields of grain stirred to movement by passing winds. The singular shoots of grass or wheat echo the undulating movement of Bebe’s hair in the companion portraits, suggesting multiple associations including the relationship of humans to nature and universality of change. While not a revelation, Nixon’s subtle visual commentary captures the universal ambivalence that is inherent in living and aging.

Looking at the portraits, I could imagine the exchange Nixon shared with his wife during the sessions: the inside jokes that arouse a smile, the banter that has been refined over decades spent in each others company, even the little disagreements that do not threaten the fabric of marriage but do remind that healthy relationships cannot exist without clear communication. The experience left me not only with an appreciation of the work that goes into maintaining a long term relationship, but also the ongoing work of a seasoned photographer whose deft presentation of the human condition continues to inform.


 Roula Seikaly is a arts journalist, writer, and curator based in San Francisco. She reports on contemporary art for KQED.






Connie Samaras: Tales of Tomorrow at the Armory Center for the Arts

March 1 to June 23 2013

Astra Price

Standing in opposition to the notion of an artist locked away in a studio, the work of Connie Samaras finds its origin in journeys literally to the ends of the earth, where the edges of civilization are formed.  Tales of Tomorrow, the survey exhibition of Samaras’ work at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, is a sampling of photos and single channel videos from several of her recent series which explores areas--near and far--that are forging new places for work and habitation. 

Connie Samaras
Connie Samaras, After the American Century: Workers Checking Fountain Nozzles, 1. 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Armory Center for the Arts.


Landscapes by definition, the photographs extend far past the extreme geographical and topographical aspects of the locations to probe the threshold of human intervention in those spaces.  Photos from the series V.A.L.I.S. (Vast Action Living Intelligence System) show the tip of the world in the harsh, empty stretches of Antarctica: a field of snow and sky, with human presence signified by sparse structures that interrupt the vast spaces.  Images from Spaceport America chronicle the construction of a private enterprise space facility on the dry desert landscape of New Mexico.  These images not only ask the viewer to contemplate the transitional space of boundaries between urbanity and the vast empty lands that lie beyond, but also to contemplate the entirety of the earth as a boundary to be penetrated.

"Samaras challenges the viewer to look further into time through space."

The primary body of the exhibition, photos from Samaras’ exploration based series (Angelic States-Event Sequence, After the American Century, V.A.L.I.S. (Vast Action Living Intelligence System), and Spaceport America), create a space of loneliness and tension.  With people as the primary subject in only one photo, Workers Checking Fountain Nozzles, 1, humans can be seen only as part of the larger texture of the landscape of work (Construction Labor, Sheikh Zayed Road) and play (Star Trek Casino, Rio, Las Vegas).   Mostly, however, there is emptiness and construction.  Intensely saturated colors draw viewers into spaces in which they may be the only inhabitants around.  Ski Dubai, Mall of the Emirates frames a highly illuminated, yet empty, commercial dining area against a wall of turquoise tinted windows looking out onto an indoor ski slope where no one is frolicking in the manufactured snow.  Air Fire Rescue Facility sandwiches the building in the distance as a small bump between the intense blue desert sky and the rich brown undeveloped earth, asking who would need to be rescued in this environment.

 Connie Samaras
Connie Samaras, DNC LAPD Bikes, Los Angeles, 2000, from the series Angelic States - Event Sequence, 1998 - 2003. Courtesy of the artist and Armory Center for the Arts.


Even in urban areas, where the glimmer of lights within the frame creates an understanding of the presence of life behind the walls of the city, the emptiness of the streets is foreboding.  The eerie glow emanating from a cloud of dust over the site of the World Trade Center against a very dimmed New York skyline in No Fly Zone, World Trade Center, New York, September 14, 2001 describes, in a moment, a space where something terrible has happened. The line of police motorcycles under the illuminated candy colored Los Angeles evening fog imply that a different form of chaos could happen at any second in DNC LAPD Bikes, Los Angeles, 2000.

Images are often framed without formal perfection and sometimes slightly out of focus, as if the threshold of tension is so great that waiting a moment more to formally compose and describe would be a moment too late.  In Griffith Park Fire, Los Angeles, a slightly askew-silhouetted hillside is illuminated in red-orange intensity of fire that swallows the frame and perhaps will consume all of the foreground shadowy Los Angeles residential area in its path.

 Connie Samaras

Connie Samaras, Griffith Park Fire, Los Angeles, 2007 from the series Surface Events, 1990 - Present. Courtesy of the artist and Armory Center for the Arts.


Within all of this large and complex emptiness, the work from Samaras’ newest series, The Edge of Twilight, forms a small bit of respite.  Set off from the rest of the exhibition in a self-contained gallery, these smaller prints were shot on location in a lesbian retirement community in New Mexico.  Again largely absent of any human form (with the exception of blurred hints of people through illuminated windows) these evening images deal with the same themes of exploration, community building, and emptiness.  Shot from the street at night,  the yellow-green glow of the streetlights illuminate the mobile home park.  The streets are devoid of people, but their presence is everywhere: the empty golf carts, the garden sculpture and the illuminated chotchky-filled domestic interiors.

A small bumper sticker in the corner of the window in Edge of Twilight 6 reads, “Come out, come out wherever you are,” underscoring both the emptiness of the public space within the frame while playfully acknowledging the lesbian community, as do the subtle decorations of rainbow garden flags and rocks that appear quietly in the other photos.  These women are on the cusp of life too, much like the landscapes of Dubai and Antarctica, creating a new form of community dealing with LGBT aging on the edge of civilization.

 Connie Samaras
 Edge of Twilight 6, 2011 from the series Edge of Twilight, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Armory Center for the Arts.


The single channel video works provide life in the exhibition. Almost as though time cannot exist in the extended single moment of an individual photo, the representation of life’s proper place is a medium that sustains duration.  Any inhabitants  struggle to endure the landscapes presented in the photos: a seal comes up for air and breathes intensively for a few minutes and then disappears below the surface of the frozen water, a worker fully suited for the arctic cold sleeps uneasily,  and workers in Dubai struggle to not become part of the used and discarded landscape. 

The video-works feel more casual than the photos, and perhaps in the end are less effective as individual works as well.  Whereas the photos seem to linger and contemplate the reasons that humanity chooses to inhabit extreme spaces, the videos are more about simple survival – working, sleeping, breathing.  For instance, in Magic Planet two men directly address the camera, and in the blended audio of their dialog with busy urban street noise, viewers hear them mention that there is “a lot of poverty” while working in Dubai.  However, the flatness into which the work, workers and landscape blend together into a unified frame de-intensifies their struggle. The videos perhaps are best thought of as the asterisk that floats above the entire exhibition – “* remember that within all this emptiness, there is life, and it is still important”.

An almost flattened field of whiteness, a pack of snow that looks untouched, is revealed by its title: Buried Fifties Station. In this we see the multi-linear timeline of all the images, landscapes and the life that struggles, often unseen, within them.  The new spaceport is both high tech development and tomorrows' empty field. Meanwhile yesterday’s Los Vegas cannot compare in spectacle to today’s Dubai. Samaras challenges the viewer to look further into time through space.  She does not spoon feed a prescribed narrative with a fixed beginning and end. Instead her work seems more like a non linear hypothetical multiverse, in which all pasts, presents and futures are always in existence, leaving the viewer to search for an understanding of their personal landscape, both within the exhibition and the world.

 Astra Price is a video specialist and educator living in Los Angeles.  She is also part of the team behind the independent publishing site, BuyIndieComics.com







War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath at Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles

March 23-June 2, 2013

Roula Seikaly 

It started with the acquisition of an iconic and prize winning photograph: Joe Rosenthal’s Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima (1945), in which Marines are seen raising the stars and stripes after a key and very costly World War II victory. The addition of the image to the Houston Museum of Fine Art’s notable photography collection soon led to conversations between Anne Wilkes Tucker, the HMFA’s seasoned photography curator, and collaborators Will Michels and Natalie Zelt, about the connection between armed conflict and photography over time and across cultures. After ten years worth of dedicated research, the product of that dialogue is War/Photography. The simultaneously engaging and frustrating exhibition is on view at the Annenberg Space for Photography through early June.

Joe Rosenthal

Joe Rosenthal, Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the Kevin and Lesley Lilly Family, The Manfred Heiting Collection © Associated Press 

War/Photography is not the first exhibition to present imagery born of armed conflict.  As early as 1862, battlefield imagery that pictured the grim reality of the American Civil War was on display in Alexander Gardner’s Washington DC studio. That now historic exhibition shocked those for whom the war’s death and destruction was mere abstraction. Over time, the works of individual war photographers was featured on museum walls and in books, but nowhere were these images more prevalent than the weekly illustrated magazines including Life and Look. On the pages of those popular publications, we saw for the first time, for example, concentration camps haunted by the dead and the nearly dead. The result was that Nazi atrocities could no longer be denied. During the Vietnam conflict, readers of those same magazines saw soldiers caught in moments of terror and boredom alike, and then understood that patriotism often exacts the highest price. Throughout these conflicts, photographers documented the depths of human depravity, the heights of compassion, and the surrealism of both states as they coexist during wartime.

Eddie Adams

 Eddie Adams, Police Commander Nguyen Ngoc Loan killing Viet Cong operative Nguyen Van Lem, February 1,1968. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase © Associated Press

Armed conflict has, for better or worse, contributed a cache of striking images to the history of photography, many of which were on show at Annenberg: Eddie Adams’ photograph of the assassination of a Viet Cong operative, Malcolm Browne’s shot of the protesting Buddhist monk as flames consume his body, and Nick Ut’s image of the young girl with singed flesh running from her bombed-out village are three historic photographs that are hung with soon-to-be iconic images that recount the September 11th attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The pairing of historic and contemporary wartime imagery is one of the exhibition’s strengths. The photographs are smartly grouped under thematic titles including “The Advent of War,” “Recruitment and Training,” “The Wait,” and “The Fight.” Tucker and her colleagues present a sort of narrative “arc” of war, a solid and previously untested premise that stems from a decade of research, writing, and conversations with historians, artists, archivists, and veterans. The unusual architecture of the Annenberg galleries in Los Angeles reinforces compelling juxtapositions. For example, hanging photographs portraying grief as an inescapable outcome of war are poised opposite to images of soldiers returning to joyous family members.  

In spite of its successes, the exhibition is ultimately flawed. The inaugural installation in Houston, likely to corollate with upcoming Corcoran Gallery of Art and Brooklyn Museum of Art shows included in its tour, included 500 photographs that span the history of both the medium and modern warfare. At the Annenberg Space, only 170 photographs, less than half of the number originally chosen, were displayed. In effect, the historic and contextualizing framework of the whole exhibition is compromised. Tucker’s decision to exclude all nineteenth century images is understandable given the limited space, but it leaves the viewer with an incomplete impression of the progression of the very narrative that only partially unfolds at Annenberg.

S Veder

Sal Veder, Burst of Joy, Travis Air Force Base, California, March 17, 1973. Tonnemacher Family Collection © Associated Press 

At the center of the Annenberg Space is a small theater in which a short documentary is on show. Commissioned specifically for the Los Angeles presentation, The War Photographers highlights the work of six photojournalists who have covered numerous conflicts worldwide. While informative and at times gripping in its presentation, the sound from the film bleeds into the gallery viewer's experience. Again, the space's scale is simply not appropriate for such a grand-themed exhibition. 

Moreover, analysis of critical issues such as the ethical and philosophical implications of working in a warzone is only obliquely addressed in the movie. The same could be said of the entire exhibition so far as insights gained from ten years of research is barely evident in the exhibition text. The thoughtful, approachable catalogue essays written by Tucker, Zelt, and a host of other knowledgeable contributors addressing key issues – the evolution of photojournalism as a profession, the fight photographers took on to be credited for their work, the role of technology, the internet, and governmental censorship of the media during war time – are thoroughly considered, yet noticeably absent within the exhibition itself. 

One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States was held fast in the grip of civil war. As soldiers in the Union and Confederate armies met on battlefields throughout the emerging nation, savvy photographers followed the action and recorded the now historic events that shaped this country. Photojournalistic practice has not changed demonstrably since that time -- photographers are still eager to follow and report the action as it unfolds in a war zone, though the risk to life and limb is great. War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, though lacking in its Los Angeles installation, honors photographers and service members whose calling takes them to the places, near and far, that most readily avoid at all costs. 


  Roula Seikaly is a arts journalist, writer, and curator based in San Francisco. She reports on contemporary art for KQED.






Catherine Opie at Regen Projects

February 23 – March 29, 2013

Astra Price

Catherine Opie at Regen Projects
Regen Projects, Los Angeles. February 23 - March 29, 2012. Photography: Brian Forrest.


 While walking into the Catherine Opie Exhibition at Regen Projects, it would not be surprising for viewers to stop and check their GPS app to make sure that they had arrived at the correct location. The imagery that has become the mainstay of Opie’s work in recent years is not immediately present. Her previous portraits and landscapes found their core in a level of “nowness” and direct interactions with the subject. In earlier photos, workers stare directly into the lens, surfers find their way to the horizon, and the masses contemplate Obama’s election to office. Though employing different visual styles, those images envisioned specific spaces and the people who occupy them.

Opie’s new body of work signals a departure point in some ways, and thematic continuities elsewhere. The images comprising this show create a fictive space. They do not capture a world that already exists beyond Opie's lens, but instead will a mysterious and dark world into existence.The exhibition contains thirty-one works created in 2012 which can be broken into three categories: landscapes, portraits and supporting details. The photos, with the exception of the landscapes, are composed of a single subject on a black background. The subject is illuminated with rich, sculpted light that immediately alludes to painters such as Caravaggio or 17th Century Dutch Masters.

Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie, Kate & Laura, 2012. Pigment print 77 x 58 inches (195.6 x 147.3 cm) Edition 2/5, 2 APs CO 4190. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Catherine Opie.

The art historical references are so specific that several of the works on view, for example Jonathan and Taka, are carefully placed in large matte black oval frames that harken a affluent parlor of a foregone era and aesthetic. It is only upon closely studying the subjects that viewers know that their GPS did not indeed guide them to the wrong gallery, and that they have in fact arrived at an Opie exhibition.

Yet there are hints of her older work: bodies with scars, dripping blood, and subjects from the queer community. The images contain an intensity of texture and color.  Highly saturated red, from stitched blood that appears in Kate and Laura (designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy) reappears in the satin string binding lips together in Friends, and on the edging of the tuxedo shirt in the portrait Math. Light seems to glow from flesh, whether time worn as in Diana (swimmer Diana Nyad) or youthful as seen with the portrait of Opie’s son, Oliver and Mrs. Nibbles.

Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie, Catherine Opie, Oliver & Mrs. Nibbles, 2012. Pigment print 33 x 25 inches (83.8 x 63.5 cm) Edition 2/5, + 2 APs CO 4276. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Catherine Opie.

These portraits do not engage the viewer in Opie’s trademark direct viewer/viewed relationship, but they do speak to each other. There is a hushed tone, a secret, and an understanding, that moves back and forth between the images occupying the gallery. Guinevere, a woman in a long flowing light-colored dress, stands facing the right of the frame and looking past the gallery wall space that separates it from the next image. Adjacent is Piper, a young girl in red who is perched on a stool, looks directly into the left of the frame and back at Guinevere.  The communication between them, and the other portraits, echoes throughout the large formal space of the gallery.

The landscapes have a similar emotional tonality through providing a location for the constructed narrative that is transpiring between the images. Though similar in tone, these large prints are soft, and diffuse. In terms of contrast and sharpness, they are the complete opposite of the portraits and details. The landscapes demand space: viewed up-close they are a wash of light and color, and viewed from 20ft away, the out of focus quality becomes readable, as though the viewer were looking out into the distance. 

Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie, Untitled #1, 2012. Pigment print 40 x 60 inches (101.6 x 152.4 cm) Edition 1/5, +2 APs CO 4330. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Catherine Opie.

Again, we find one of Opie’s reoccurring subjects. The California landscape, photographed with beautiful light, tells a tale of winter. Snowy mountains and barren trees occupy a time that can simultaneously contain both the physical and metaphorical darkness that encapsulates the rest of Opie's subjects. Untitled #1 foregrounds falling snow that is illuminated against the night sky. It creates a white and grey pattern of flat circular abstraction when viewed from a distance. Viewed extremely close, behind the surface plane created by the snow is the slightest wisp of light on the dark edge of a tree. It becomes visible and thus takes the image out of a world of absolute visual art abstraction, thus supplanting it into a world of real locations and moments.

In spite of all this darkness and mystery, there is no shame or discomfort displayed in the images. When there is blood or scarification, it is a feature visibly and efficaciously owned by the subject within the frame.  In Julie & Pigpen, for instance, a bloody kiss is exchanged but the participants are enthusiastic and the blood their creation. Idexa's body has been modified by tattoos; her gesture and pose indicates her essential embodiment.

In presentation, Opie’s new body of work comprises something like miniature film in the container of the Regen Projects gallery space, which is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this exhibition that looks so distinctly through the lens of art history. In a sense, the viewer is  presented with an outline of a script: the way image types break down ensure that the portraits become characters, that the landscapes become locations, and the supporting details hint at narrative action. Viewers are pushed in and out of physical and emotional viewing distances. The landscape Untitled #8 can only really be understood by standing far across the gallery, while the much smaller supporting image Stump, placed close to Untitled #8, needs to be viewed at a very close distance.

Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie, Untitled #8, 2012. Pigment print 40 x 60 inches (101.6 x 152.4 cm) Edition 1/5, + 2 APs CO 4393. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles © Catherine Opie. 

The exhibition becomes performative, and the viewer also performs a multi-woven story as their body and eyes move around the gallery space. However, because of this, many of the works may not be able to hold up on their own. The smaller, supportive images are most dependent on the others. Their narrative requires a subject, much like the two frames of a cinematic jump cut, so they feel incomplete without at least one of the other supportive images, and only comprehensible in relationship to a landscape or portrait.

It will be interesting to see if Opie continues to further explore this typological style that also investigates certain art histories.It is not uncommon for contemporary artists to take a gaze back in history instead of always pushing on the boundaries of the new as they mature.  Art history can be a space that feels comfortable and academic, but it can also feel kitsch and overly referential.  At least for the moment, Opie is managing to walk the fine line and not fall too far in either direction.

Astra Price is a video specialist and educator living in Los Angeles.  She is also part of the team behind the independent publishing site, BuyIndieComics.com







Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography at the

San Jose Museum of Art


February 2, 2013 through June 30, 2013

Roula Seikaly

The Year of the Dragon came to a close in mid-February, not to return again until 2024. As the most revered symbol in the Chinese zodiac, it is quite fitting that the 36 artists exhibited in Rising Dragon: Contemporary Chinese Photography are associated with attributions including dynamism and opportunity. Spanning two full galleries on the museum’s second floor, the more than 100 photographs take up a wide spectrum of social, political, and artistic matters that are shaping a nation in flux.

The exhibition opens with a description of the curatorial premise, which is that the years between 2000 and 2012 were exceptionally fruitful for the production of contemporary photography in China. A map adjacent to the wall text situates the cities where the represented artists live and work, and demonstrates the enormous task undertaken to assemble pieces from throughout the country.

Huang Yan
 Huang Yan, "Spring," from "The Four Season" series, 2005. Chromogenic print 39 x 31 5/16 inches
Collection of Dale and Doug Anderson

To the left of this introductory panel is the work of Huang Yun. Spring, from the Four Seasons series, features the artist’s face after it had been painted to resemble a landscape scroll painting. On a reasonably flat surface such as paper or canvas, the vegetal and rock formations are pleasing components of a traditional Chinese art . On the photographer’s face, however, the classic image obscures identity.

Likewise, photographer and performance artist Zhang Huan considers the impact of tradition on a younger generation. For Family Tree, Huan asked three calligraphic artists to transcribe stories, family names, and memories as the artist recited them. The nine photographs -- records of a one-day performance in Amherst, Massachusetts –- document the gradual disappearance of Huan’s face beneath layers of black ink and, one could argue, more than one thousand years of artistic and social convention.

Zhang Huan
Zhang Huan, "Family Tree," 2000. 9 Chromogenic prints on Fuji archival paper Each 21 x 16 1/2 inches Ed. 13/25.
Courtesy of Friedman Benda, New York

Through similar however unique means, Yun and Huan’s works raise questions about the role and potential burden of history as China forges through a period of unprecedented growth.

Tradition and history are the primary threads that shape the visual tapestry of Rising Dragon, but they are not the sole concerns of the participating artists. Also scrutinized are the impact of nearly unchecked commercial exchange upon Chinese society, the role and value of mass media including photography, and the effect of rapid industrial growth upon the environment. By not limiting themselves to what is familiar or safe, these photographers effectively advance dialogue about matters that reach far beyond the (often insular) concerns of contemporary art. Far-reaching cultural effects of the push and pull between industry, identity, and history are examined in the works comprising this very contemporary exhibition.

Case in point: a still shot from Cao Fei’s video Dog Days. Fei’s male and female actors are made up to resemble dogs and in the course of the video, behave as canines do – fighting, flirting, defecating, sleeping – all within an office setting. Her primary commentary challenges group think, a daring reference to Communism at a time when free speech is heavily circumscribed. A secondary note also suggests the loss of individuality in favor of brand identity, where the individual becomes subject, like a domesticated animal, to a master’s whim.

Cao Fei
Cao Fei, "Dog Days (Rabid Dogs Series)," 2002. Digital C-print, 35 2/5 x 23 31/50 inches © Cao Fei.
Courtesy the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York

Also confronting authority, in this case the predominance of photography as a source of “truth,” is the work of Xu Chen and the artist collective Liyu + Liubo. In My Club, Chen stages the assault of world leaders, including former President George W. Bush and UN Secretary Kofi Annan, by bands of boys. The heads of his victims are overlaid on to bodies of other participants. This technical device draws the viewer’s attention to the photographer’s intervention within the process, and questions the often lauded and equally disputed veracity of the medium itself. Liyu + Liubo stage scenes that appropriate and reinterpret outrageous tabloid headlines such as An Escapee Being Chased Dropped Through the Floor. The literal and visual interpretation of headlines makes for both hilarious compositions and much needed critical examination of state-run media.

Liyu + Liubo
Liyu + Liubo, "Chutian Golden Paper 2007-08-13, An Escapee Being Chased Dropped through the Top Floor of a Building and
Scared Everyone Inside," from "The Victim" series. Digital chromogenic print 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artists

Hyperbolic language aside, it is safe to say that this exhibition both entertains and educates. From Lin Ren’s political piece, Sleepwalker – Great Hall of the People, a photo where sheep are inserted into Tiananmen Square, to Weng Fen’s contemplative consideration of changes in the urban landscape in his Haikou, the juxtaposition of subjects throughout the installation both seduce and critically engage the viewer.

Two outstanding images reinforced the idea of a tenuous balance between tradition and contemporaneity. Wang Wusheng’s Mt. Huangshan is a lush interpretation of a mountainous landscape made famous in paintings and works on paper. Without the sharp focus typically associated with photography, these large format pieces recall Pictorialist compositions, and stir sweet melancholia. Wisely hung adjacent to Sun Ji’s Memory City #1, a contemporary landscape featuring composite views of abandoned or destroyed factories in Shanghai, the pair of images attest to the sway tradition continues to hold in Chinese society, and the unstoppable momentum of modernization.

Wang Wusheng
Wang Wusheng, "Mt. Huangshan," 2007. Gelatin silver print 39 1/2 x 31 3/8 inches. Courtesy of Barry Friedman Ltd.

Rising Dragon will pleasantly surprise the discerning patron who may have been put off by the exhibition title. The western association of Chinese culture with the dragon borders on the stereotypical. Additionally, the narrow window of 12 years used to define the scope of production falls well short of describing how long Chinese artists have been present on the international stage. On the other hand, accessibility is a valuable draw for a broad-ranging audience and, in a sense, the fact that all the works shown are quite current acutely reflects the artistic and cultural concerns of China today.

The technical accomplishment and stylistic diversity of the artists represented illustrates the dynamic concerns of major players in the China art scene. Like the mythical creature referenced in the show’s title, the show’s images and makers are vested with creative powers that will propel China’s already booming art scene into a force in defining contemporary art in general. Kudos to curator Miles Barthes and the Katonah Museum of Art for assembling a fantastic exhibition, and to the San Jose Museum of Art for hosting the only west coast installation of the exhibition.


 Roula Seikaly is a arts journalist, writer, and curator based in San Francisco. She reports on contemporary art for KQED.






Apart, yet Together: South Africa In and After Apartheid

December 1, 2012 – March 5, 2013 at SFMOMA.

Roula Seikaly

South Africa In and After Apartheid brings together the work of three photographers: Ernest Cole, Billy Monk, and David Goldblatt. While each series is defined by specific concerns, taken as a whole they present overlapping views of South Africans reckoning with apartheid and its aftermath.

The exhibition opens with selections from In Boksburg, a series by David Goldblatt. Boksburg was a middle class suburb of Johannesburg during the Apartheid era. As the oversize map and reproductions of civil code that introduce the exhibition indicate, Boksburg represented the “successful” and altogether brutal separation of racial groups.

David Goldblatt

David Goldblatt, Saturday afternoon in Sunward Park, 1979. Courtesy of SFMOMA Collection.

Goldblatt’s series has a storied history: first, the images and accompanying text, written by Alan Paton, were rejected by Optima magazine in 1979 for their anti-apartheid position. Next, the series was published as a book, a venture that bankrupted the fledgling Gallery Press in 1982. With this rich backstory riddled with controversy, one might expect to see images possessed of the power to shock as censored material often does.

Instead, Goldblatt captures an airless world that is easily dated to the dark days of 1980s fashion. It is almost at though one could smell the polyester, hairspray, and cleaning products that distinguished the well-ordered world his subjects inhabit.

David Goldblatt
David Goldblatt, Dancing-master, Ted van Rensburg, watches two of his ballroom pupils, swinging to a recording of Victor Sylvester and his Orchestra, in the MOTHS' Hall at the old Court House., 1980. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.

As a white South African, Goldblatt could travel easily and without restriction. His unfettered access gave rise to an almost anthropological study of his fellow countrymen and women. Before Goldblatt’s lens, we see people who are clearly at ease with both their social station and the rigidly enforced racial segregation that made Boksburg an ideal locale to document the bucolic lifestyles of those benefitting from apartheid: a couple in the midst of a dancing lesson, senior members of a women’s club in conversation, a young girl in a tutu. For the modern viewer, the familiarity these images evoke is comforting…but something is missing.

Throughout the middle galleries of the exhibit, Ernest Cole’s works visualize the unnerving absence that haunts In Boksburg. Cole was the first black freelance journalist to work in South Africa, submitting work to publications including Drum magazine and Rand Daily Mail. For the Bantu World newspaper, Cole reported on the daily challenges faced by blacks who worked in Boksburg. He lived in the congested townships that demarcated the outer edges of the city, a sharp contrast to Goldblatt’s shots of Boksburg privilege.

Ernest Cole

Ernest Cole, Africans throng Johannesburg station platform during late afternoon rush., 1960–1966. Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation

Cole shows us the train that transported blacks to and from work every day. The trains ran so infrequently that riders often clung to the outside of the moving locomotives regardless of inherent risk. In another image, we see a young man being detained by a black officer -- all adults were required to carry identification papers and submit to interrogation at any time. The young man’s arrest transmits both the humiliation of being searched and the moral quandary faced by blacks that reinforced the machinations of state control.

Cole’s choice to photograph his community was indeed a dangerous one. He knew all too well that documenting injustice, and possibly inciting others to fight for their human rights, resulted in: harassment, beatings, and death. His own risk probably instantiated a unique sensitivity to documenting his fellow blacks, hence the power of his camera.

Ernest Cole, A student who said he was going to fetch his textbook is pulled in. To prove he was still in school he showed his fountain pen and ink-stained fingers. But that was not enough; in long pants he looked older than sixteen., 1960–1966. Courtesy of The Ernest Cole Family Trust.

Billy Monk’s work follows that of Goldblatt and Cole by revealing the unjust conditions of South African society. Monk made a living as a bouncer at The Catacombs, a notorious 1960s dive bar in Cape Town. He photographed the denizens of this demi monde to keep his boredom at bay.

Monk identified all his images by the day, month, and year they were taken. He captured revelry at its most raw and ribald: a young woman slumped over after a long night of drinking, a middle-aged couple seeming not to care who witnesses their clowning. Without names to attribute to Monk’s subjects, the photographs become studies of what people do once the sun goes down and the oppressive pressures of state-mandated control are loosened.

As Cole’s photographs are pendants to Goldblatt, so too are Monk’s: Monk’s images glorify the behavior -- excessive drinking, disorderly conduct, inter-racial sexual liaisons -- that so offended “polite” citizenry in South Africa and also inspired further draconian measures to limit personal behavior.

The exhibition draws to a meditative end with a return to David Goldblatt, whose works posit questions about life at the end of and after apartheid. First, in the series entitled Ex-Offenders, Goldblatt worked with individuals either accused or found guilty of crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. The nine portraits, taken at the crime scenes and illuminated by lengthy explanatory labels, portray sobering stories that originate in a time of extraordinary sociopolitical change in South Africa. For every photograph of Nelson Mandela waving to adoring crowds, or shaking hands with former Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk, for every story of hard-fought success there are tales of despair that number in the millions. David Goldblatt illuminates this sad fact.

Billy Monk

Billy Monk The Catacombs, 5 February 1968, 1968 (printed 2011) Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

These are hardscrabble people, and they rank among those who carve out an existence in the bustling cities and remote outpost towns that populate the landscape series that close the exhibition. In these places that are dominated by sand and sun, it seems that life during and after apartheid bear at least passing resemblance to one another -- and that there is still urgent work to be done.

Who, after all, are the people that populate the photographs of David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, and Billy Monk? They are black and white South Africans who lived through a terrifying moment in social and human rights history. They are the inheritors of colonization and racial segregation, sloppy and deeply flawed. Finally, they are human, and it is the vast spectrum of behavior held up for consideration that makes this exhibition a success. As SFMOMA prepares to close its doors for three years for expansion, South Africa In and After Apartheid is evidence that the Department of Photography remains a leading force in humanist photography exhibition.

 Roula Seikaly is a arts journalist, writer, and curator based in San Francisco. She reports on contemporary art for KQED.






Through March 1, 2013

From the ambient yet grating cultural noise of celebrity worship to popular perceptions of environmental degradation, Ulu Braun’s artworks confront us with the surreality of contemporary life. Through March 1, the artist’s panoramic videos of digitally contrived landscapes and portraits of celebrities reminiscent of Rorschach tests fill the galleries of Young Projects. Surrealism in Braun's vision transcends the imaginary and favors a form of uncanny that is, paradoxically, roughly equivalent to reality in the digital age. The German artist’s video and photo-works offer a sharp critique of how media works on us in respect of urgent social and environmental concerns, and vice versa. For Braun, media and life are mutually affecting, albeit through a glass darkly.  

Entrance to Young Projects
Entrance to Young Projects

Young Projects is housed within LA's Death Star-esque Pacific Design Center, an appropriate setting for Ulu Braun's first major survey. Paul Young, the gallery director and curator, designed an immersive exhibition that directs the viewer both chronologically and thematically, drawing contrasting points and relations between works in mediums including: photo, video, puppetry, and film. The success of this exhibition is at least partially ingratiated to Young's manifesto-like enthusiasm for video and film as a “concrete art form.” Young’s assessment is nearly impossible to refute in light of his presentation of Braun's video-works: Atlantic Garden (2010), The Park (2010/11), and Westcoast (2009).

Upon entering the gallery's media room, the viewer is immersed in Atlantic Garden, a video-collage that looks and feels like a virtual world. Braun has described the 6:27 min. animation as follows: “Atlantic Garden is a video panorama showing people from different ideological backgrounds grouped around a mansion.” Religious zealots, environmentalists, tillers, and others comprise this postmodern inversion of Rousseau's garden.

Ulu Braun - Atlantic Garden
Atlantic Garden

The machinima sensibility is an uncomfortable reminder that we increasingly view the real world as filtered through the logic of digital media. This moving panorama shows us social harmony amongst a variety of archetypes: a bourgeois woman waxes about the virtue of risk-taking. Nearby, a group of anarchists peaceably stand around a fire. The likelihood of these combating ideologues to amiably coexist boils down to the likelihood that a capitalist maven will take interest in romantic philosopher Hegel’s psychology of risk. Yet the idea that “we are all here, transparent, at once” has little to do with Hegelian risk or freedom, but speaks more acutely to the ambiguous communities of the Internet. Dialectically, Braun’s critique of digital social conditions comes into focus. 

Atlantic Garden situates the viewer within the self-conscious spectatorship of an alien yet familiar world. One shot even foregrounds the back of a seagull’s head, further alienating the viewer as she observes the strange scene from the perspective of a bird. The symbolic takeaway is an objectifying examination of digital culture’s meta-humor, which tends to deflate differences into an oxymoronic set of non-sequiturs and tautologies.

Braun’s 2011 animation, The Park, is a long panning shot over a fictional urban park. The Park critically evaluates the idea that public parks are “free” spaces within a culture, and symbolically illustrates the autonomous logic of a social environment in terms of its temporary nature, and our helplessness to freeze time and thus establish social transparency.

Ulu Braun - The Park
The Park

Westcoast, an animated collage, applies a similar method to transnational commerce and water conservation. Symbolic objects and events narrate a cynical point about both the recession and our lack of environmentalist rigor. For instance, the piece begins with a shot panning over ocean water whose surface is interrupted by inexplicably bubbling hot springs. A bit later, a large tent-like structure, suspended in water on the edge of a city, is filled with men attempting to tame sharks. For Braun, as for most of us, taming the world’s financial situation is as phantasmagoric as taming or rescuing nature in its entirety.

Atlantic Garden, The Park, and Westcoast are all moving panoramas. By situating the viewer as heliocenter of these meticulously constructed video-collages, the spectator becomes passively complicit in Braun’s worlds. The effect can be likened to another scenario altogether: what if neo-Platonic philosopher Jean Baudrillard sauntered into social radical Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zone? The result would be some unnamable rupture between utopianism and nihilism. In the case of Braun’s mediascapes, one observes all that is happening, but is helpless to affect that flow of events. The viewer is simultaneously nowhere and omniscient.

In any case, these moving panoramas seem naturally inscribed into the interior architecture of Young Projects. The gallery has the formally minimal, however functionally superfluous angles common to a science museum built in the 1970s (the popular home of the panorama). The curator likely took serendipitous delight in fitting Braun’s video-works to the space. 



While Young’s enthusiasm for film and video is apparent within the exhibit, 2D works deftly challenge the supremacy of the moving image throughout the gallery. Braun’s 2011 photo-print, HOUELLEBECQ-ALI, composed of overlaid portraits of controversial author Michel Houellebecq and popular hero Muhammad Ali, comments upon the moral role of celebrity in society. Ali was a famous figure active within Nation of Islam, and Houellebecq is an incendiary critic of Islam. The intersubjectivity of public figures and general populace resound in Braun’s clever stab at the French author’s anti-Islam comments. Yet this is not a simple narration of good guy / bad guy – Ali’s relationship to NOI throughout the 1970s is not easily reducible. The viewer is therefore frozen, with the image, in reflection on the moral dilemma of celebrity and public conduct.

Each of Braun’s artworks offers a critical engagement with the effect of popular media on urgent social and environmental problems. All the while, emphasis on how images position the viewer represents the civilian’s responsibility to overcome the spectacular in favor of civic and environmental duty. Braun challenges his audience to orbit his cave of dream-images in search of truth. Thus, his artworks function as a call for individual and collective accountability and action, even amidst an onslaught of contradictory imagery and ideology. 












January 17 - 21, 2013.

Why it is important to take notes and not photographs

Photo Los Angeles 2013 was a curious perusal of fashion palate, social inebriation, gallery swag, hollywood/rock icon, excuses for nudity, and historic moments, all of the majestic uses the high-content industry has found for cameras. There are details that emerge, stuck in the mind, entombed to note not negative.

I was very careful, through an inchoate simulacrumized (sic) fear of redundancy to not bring a camera to the camera convention. We weren't going to fight this fire with water. Rather, a more natural, obvious antidote, the poets first and last frontier and enemy, watery depths of language and memory.

I was there to participate in a panel called "New Technology and Social Media", a curious task for a writer who clings pathetically to the typewriter in public as a primary practice though perhaps that rupture had sourced my call. I was to be, as they say in theater, the foil. A categorical babel in the cinema shop. Not even cinema! still photography! In the 21st century! offered at extroverted prices.

In a world where Trillions upon trillions of images accumulate and circulate freely to scheme and conspire to charge those prices for a picture is cruel farce, noble monopoly and perhaps a more genuine and indicative example of why the art world is a shallow cesspool underneath a very generous gild.

He who had invited me, knew my tendencies. I dislike images, flunking photography first in a steady string of art school ignominy that has only been offset by a modicum of success in art life, away from the shelter of professor and assignment, where only the genuinely mad or madly rational have any hope of success.

Peter Combe at Smith Anderson

"I was very careful, through an inchoate simulacrumized (sic) fear of redundancy to not bring a camera to the camera convention."

And then the request from the Editor as I call her for this review. Between my outspoken inclusion in this panel and now a request for coherent expression, it seemed 2013 was indeed coalescing towards my becoming what "he" called "a public thinker".

Opinions are hard pin down, especially if one has them. Further, if one really feels what they believe vigorously, it can be downright impossible to decide what one likes. This isn't true at all.

I don't like photographs but I appreciate the people who make them even if it seems to be a bit overrun with thinly veiled excuses for pornography, a particular cloying habit of artists. Yes, I cede the human body is beautiful and studios are fun places to get naked and hang out not to mention the beach, nature, cities, camera lenses, pictures, Photo LA 2013.

But wherever you see this influx of naked people be suspicious of the art. Art is not an excuse even if they are really pretty.

"But wherever you see this influx of naked people be suspicious of the art. Art is not an excuse even if they are really pretty."

There is an odd relationship between naked and the camera. Perhaps that's the charm. The sharpness that the camera drove into everyday life. Modernism solidified and then realized it could actually make the world sharper if it shattered that image and splashed consequences of what happens after all over the unplanned spontaneity of gesture. Speaking of, back to the naked people, I sought ought more interesting works of art than portraiture.

It's all fun but lets not pretend these pictures are profound for the delicate transitions from gray to white and black again. It is because the people are naked. My first point therefore stands, as a body abolitionist, cyborg advocate, linguistic predictor and generally kind of shy fellow, that Photographers like to take pictures of naked people a bit to much for my taste.

My taste, by the way, tends toward density of information with a particular penchant for text, geometric, technologic, or monumental. Note there is not much room for figure drawing in there and overall there was just too many pictures of people (yuck) in the convention.

Chris McCaw, Sunburned

What was good?

I suppose Peter Combe at Smith Anderson North was a "picture of a person" that I enjoyed despite my conceptualized curmudgeaon but his process was hardly photographic. Using paint samples he meticulously shaped pixellated visages at 45 degrees angles to the picture plane creating a granular image that shifted satisfyingly as one passed. Nothing like a moving prism of colors and shape to get attention.

Bypassing the camera is a surefire way to photographic success as seen in Chris McCaw, Sunburn series are thoroughgoing successes as art piece, as alchemical exploration, as whiskey obliteration leading to happy accident all of the above nothing is better than burning a whole in the negative with the sun and giant telescope lenses and just letting the giant ball of fire do its thing because; let's be fair, the first and really maybe only thing that anyone has ever photographed is the SUN.

Bypass or rebuild as Jay Mark Johnson has done with his breathtakingly hacked horizontal timelapse-sque scanner camera object passing lapse too complex to parse look it up masterpiece was there and its all kinds of amazing, flaunting possibilities overlooked by standardized traditions and art dealers stagnated to the market despite its decadent inauthenticity.

"Let's be fair, the first and really maybe only thing that anyone has ever photographed is the SUN."

Then there's the old go blind, bypass sight, rebuild artistic practice, use it for healing. And so was it with the Bruce Hall and the Blind Photographers Guild project, a startling introspection and provocative commentary on just what the hell everyone is doing with cameras which brings me to the fundamental question of how the dealers fetishize themselves so much that they refuse to see the hundreds of if not every person in the fair taking a picture of pictures of pictures of pictures of pictures and its pictures all the way day down a wormhole until we get to turtles but they are just photographs really so it actually is pictures all the way down and thats fine with me but I think the art world needs to get out of the way.

Accept the monopoly has been broken. Image is no longer valuable. Aura is not a price tag. Nor is it an image. It is a document. A document that combines and holds aura, value, and history in one small secret place, its presence.

Bill Eppridge, whose print of a recently assassinated RFK, you know the one, with the stunned bellboy holding a bleeding head, was on display. History soaked the room in front of it. The only original print, still bearing airbrush marks had survived a house fire and bore crisp blackened edges, portions of it destroyed, reflective of what it depicted, a life extinguished as quick as lenses snaps shut and thats that. But the tragedy is therein for the lens opens again. Or is it vice versa. Doesn't matter. Either or. Dilate and don't die. The picture hid from itself until being recovered in the ashes of a broken dream. O that the phoenix of a photograph was as resurrectable upon the fallen prince it depicts as its own material proved to be.

That the world stops somewhere and saves itself is perhaps exactly what cameras are good for. They induce a prayer for stasis and then provide it. Unfortunately stasis is a lie so we feel bereft, cheapened of experience yet richer in memory that isn't ours.

Bruce Hall and the Blind Photographers Guild Project

"All successful photographs depend on time, not just Cartier-Bressons moment, but also an infinite patience."

Quicker is smaller, stillness immense. Landscape shaped by consciousness, a foreground of space behind the times. All successful photographs depend on time, not just Cartier-Bressons moment, but also an infinite patience. It takes a special being to allow science to become an artistic process. To photograph light is the only possible highest calling. The glut of sensors has made traditional photography passe and the best work at the Santa Monica Convention Center proved it.

The camera achieves a strange status as object and tool with its metastasis into everyday life. Perhaps the clearest example of medium as message, the camera/picture dialectic is a significant issue that deserves perhaps a more thorough exploration.

However, Photo LA 2013 was largely clinging to a traditionalist perspective. Perhaps its a poet hating pictures and poverty but the entire experience left me wanting a job in Los Angeles.

Almost every picture from the show is online for free.

Yet I still want a job.

To buy the pictures with. Even though I don't want any pictures. But the whole affair worked on me. I am susceptible to what I find alien. Thats the theory of immunology. Fire with fire.

And while a large colorful print at $20,000 is nice for the artist if they're alive I sure am glad I got in for free and can afford to buy things I want and need. Instead of pictures which are free for the taking.








Exhibition dates: Jun 28 - Aug 18, 2012. Originally printed in Moholy Ground #005 August 2012. Reprinted online in respect of SFMOMA's upcoming (March 09 - June 02, 2013) Winogrand retrospective.

I exited the Garry Winogrand Circa 1969 show at Fraenkel Gallery onto Geary Street with my friend, J-. She pointed to the lingerie store, Agent Provocateur, across the street. "You should put that in your review." I laughed, thinking of the work Untitled (Topless Woman in Crowd), 1968, which (like the approximately thirty other prints in the exhibition) represents a type of Winogrand picture. In this case, the genus would seem to be a hybrid of both gawking and gawking at the gawkers.

Winogrand is not by any means a detached documenter of the male gaze, as can be seen from his second book of photography, Women Are Beautiful (1975). Indeed, Winogrand's work participates fully in the prurient voyeurism of photography generally (his work was included in SFMOMA's exhibit Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870). But he goes further, as do the Fraenkel Gallery curators in choosing works from a period and of a caliber that distinguish Winogrand's aptitude at social and technical framing.

In Untitled (Topless Woman in Crowd), a diagonal bisects the picture into an upper 40% filled with trees and sky and a lower 60% made up of a crowd at some kind of fair or music festival. The foreground to mid-ground of the lower part of the picture creates a semi-circle around and pointing towards a topless woman in a floppy sunhat. From there, the eye jerks back to the second focal point: a distant figure standing above the crowd. The position of this figure occupies the liminal space between trees and crowd. There's the distinct feeling that this person is an official entertainer and that they are being ignored. Finally, the gaze seesaws between the indistinct "talent" and the naked object of lust.

Fraenkel Gallery
Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery

"Winogrand is so clearly looking at the US in these pictures...or, more accurately, looking at Americans looking."

Winogrand's talent lies in framing scenes like these to create an archive of lived comportment. Here the gawker transforms into the anthropologist. At stake is not how people ought to behave as proper festival-goers, but how they actually behave. It is an ethically responsible stance. As Winogrand himself claimed:

"There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described. I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject, by describing it as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both."

This street photographer with the 35mm Leica stands in the history of 20th century photography alongside contemporaries such as Lee Friedlander, Bruce Davidson, and Diane Arbus, to name some of the other photographers in the historic 1967 exhibition New Documents. "For me the true business of photography is to capture a bit of reality (whatever that is) on film...if, later, the reality means something to someone else, so much the better," said Winogrand in Bill Jay's Views on Nudes (1971). In Tenth Anniversary Party, Guggenheim Museum, New York, revelers look at each other lustily, greedily, ignoring the art in the background. I couldn't help but think of this as the time of the ascendency of Minimalism and, soon, Postminimalism. In a cunning inversion, the paintings are wallpaper and the attention doubles back to Winogrand, whose realist tendencies and expert composition- especially of crowds-are reminiscent of Gustave Courbet.

According to fashion writer Chioma Nnadi, fashion house Chloe's Creative Director is mining Winogrand's work for inspiration, using it as a kind of visual compendium of an era during which styles endured longer and were more frequently blended in the outfits seen on the street. As fashion reconsiders Winogrand's legacy, I believe that other channels might benefit from a similar reconsideration. Given that Winogrand received a Guggenheim to study "the effect of the media on events," it seems that contemporary photographers could be more attentive to the Romney/Obama contest, Occupy, or simply contemporary US life in general.

Fraenkel Gallery
Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery

"Circa 1969 is the perfect core sample for both the range of Winogrand's talents and preoccupations as a photographer; his trademark tilt, his fixation with the manifold beauties of women, his relentless chronicling of the human zoo."

Winogrand is so clearly looking at the US in these pictures...or, more accurately, looking at Americans looking. What was the object of our collective gaze in 1969? In the picture of spectators at the Apollo 11 launch, people crane their necks and almost every face has a camera or binoculars in front of it. More pointedly, Winogrand shows a political agnosia in what is presumably a picture of a person asking for money. The viewer takes in most of the man pleading for funds, but only the closed fist and suit sleeve of the person preparing to drop a coin in his hand. Through a composition of inclusion and omission, Winogrand has communicated how one can hear and even respond to a request without really looking at the person asking or the conditions around their request. There's a note of Walker Evans here.

What are the foci of our collective gaze today? The sixties had racial tensions, changing social mores, the Cold War, Vietnam, LBJ's Great Society programs. The aughts have their own analogue to each. However, as French literary theorist Roland Barthes observes in Camera Lucida (1980), "The Photograph does not call up the past...The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed." Circa 1969 is the perfect core sample for both the range of Winogrand's talents and preoccupations as a photographer; his trademark tilt, his fixation with the manifold beauties of women, his relentless chronicling of the human zoo. It's also a magical year and a perfect place to begin an inquiry into the possibilities of depicting what exists now.




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