Category Archives: Photography

Again, with the Rabbits

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I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine has been included in Sideshow Gallery’s annual floor-to-ceiling extravaganza. The exhibition is up until the end of February.

“diane arbus: in the beginning” at The Met Breuer, New York.

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Installation of “diane arbus: in the beginning” at The Met Breuer; courtesy photoinduced

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Let’s get the 800-pound gorilla out of the way. “diane arbus: in the beginning”—the lack of capitalization isn’t a typo, but a stylistic choice made by the grammarians at the Met Breuer—is a notable exhibition for a variety of reasons, not least its installation. Viewers expecting a polite array of photographs—arranged chronologically, perhaps, or by theme—can look elsewhere. Nor should they count on continuous wall space. Jeff Rosenheim, the Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs, has opted to display the work on several rows of floor-to-ceiling panels set apart four feet or so; each panel has a single image displayed on both sides. The placement of photos is catch-as-catch-can, presumably to emphasize the open-ended nature of an artist working at the beginning of her career. This hall- of-mirrors approach is a distraction—what with the back-and-forth of museumgoers and our own shuttling around to get a lone peek at an Arbus picture. If Rosenheim’s intent was to establish a museological parallel with the borderline figures to whom Arbus was drawn, well—point taken. Still, isn’t a curator’s job to highlight an oeuvre rather than compete with it?

Arbus will survive the slight. How could she not? The oeuvre is cloistered and complete; it’s sharp, stark, and discordant enough to withstand extra-aesthetic intrusions. That’s certainly the case with the Arbus most of us are familiar with: the unsentimental-bordering-on-cruel chronicler of pock-marked patriots, Jewish giants, drag queens, and, in the case of Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (1962), a boy being a boy in the most strenuous of manners. At the Met Breuer, maturity takes a backseat to the artist in formation. The hundred or so prints on display date from 1956–1962 and mark Arbus’s shift from commercial artist—she and her husband, Allan, had established themselves, and not unsuccessfully, as fashion photographers—to full-time fine artist. The majority of works are being exhibited for the first time. (Many weren’t inventoried until a good decade after Arbus’s suicide in 1971 at the age of forty-eight.) The pictures—a promised gift to the Met by the artist’s daughters, Doon and Amy—are a significant find and, in the end, not that revelatory. Arbus, we learn, was ever thus. “in the beginning” only goes to confirm a consistent and unseemly vision.

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Diane Arbus, Jack Dracula at a bar (1961), gelatin silver print on paper; courtesy The Met Breuer

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And unseemly the work most assuredly is. If it weren’t, Arbus would be a less compelling figure; less popular, too. Rosenheim demurs, excerpting one of Arbus’s high-school essays that extols “the divineness in ordinary things.” He goes on to mention a list of P.C. nostrums that testify to the artist’s continuing relevance. And, sure, matters of “identity, gender, race, appearance and the distinctions between artifice and reality” are decisive components of Arbus’s fascinations. But the divine? When Arbus took her camera into Hubert’s Museum, a Times Square venue that trucked in human oddities, God’s light was the last thing on her mind. The oddball and eccentric, outcasts both voluntary and not—Arbus was drawn to marginal types and catalogued them with unrelenting dispassion. She was equally at home, and just as pitiless, in more respectable climes. Arbus brought the same fierce intensity to a fur-bedecked matron riding a city bus as to Hezekiah Trambles, a Hubert’s Museum regular known by his stage name “The Jungle Creep.” The lens through which Arbus’s eye alighted on the world brought along its own encompassing seediness. Arbus didn’t need a freak show to prove how freakish the mundane could be.

The unsavoriness of Arbus’s work is offset, at rare moments, by a grudging humanity. The title figure of Miss Storme de Larverie, the Lady Who Appears to be a Gentleman, N.Y.C. radiates dignity just as the elaborately tattooed Jack Dracula at a bar (both 1961) admits to vulnerability. These particular subjects thwarted the artist’s ministrations; the photos aren’t failures of aesthetic integrity, but they are exceptions to the Arbus rule. (Some personalities, it would seem, are stronger than art.) In one of her many notebooks, Arbus wrote that “the mistake is to think that people are sealed and absolute.” This is what separates her from August Sander, the German documentarian whose goal it was to inventory all strata of society, and whose photos were a pivotal influence. Arbus’s art admits to a certain elasticity, particularly when it came to social conventions and unspoken rules of deportment. But like Sander—whose photos, alongside those of Arbus’s contemporaries, can be seen in an adjacent gallery—Arbus is, if not a formalist per se, then uncompromisingly formal in her pictorial means. If anything redeems the mercilessness of her vision, it’s that kind of know-how. Let’s hear it for art for art’s sake.

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Tod Papageorge, Diane Arbus in Central Park (1967); courtesy the artist

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The Met Breuer underlines Arbus’s know-how by including, albeit at a distinct remove, A Box of Ten Photographs, a suite of photos Arbus compiled and marketed in the early 1970s. A veritable greatest hits of imagery and motifs, the Box stands in stark contrast to the main body of the exhibition, primarily by format and focus. What separated Arbus’s forays into street photography—that is to say, the corpus of the exhibition—from similar efforts by Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander was a lack of subterfuge: her subjects knew they were being photographed. When Arbus moved from a 35 millimeter Nikon to a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex, the shift in technology allowed for more meticulous resolution, as well as the signature square format and less spontaneity. The latter attribute, especially, accounts for the queasy stateliness of Arbus’s strongest work. No off-the-cuff shooting with the Rolleiflex; deliberation, on the part of both the photographer and her subjects, was called for. Posing—along with the artifice it implies—was key. Self-consciousness powers A Box of Ten Photographs, and its persistence is missing, if not absent, from the better part of “in the beginning.” As such, the exhibition goes down easier than one might expect, and perturbs all the same.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of The New Criterion.

“Excruciating to Behold”: The Art of Diane Arbus

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Diane Arbus, A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. (1962), gelatin silver print, 20″ x 16″, courtesy the Estate of Diane Arbus

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My review of “diane arbus: in the beginning”, an exhibition currently on display at The Met Breuer, will be appearing in an upcoming issue of The New Criterion. In the meantime, here’s my take on “Diane Arbus: Revelations”, a show mounted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005. The review was originally published in the March 21, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

The photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971), on the evidence of “Revelations”, a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was incapable of taking a bad picture. Each and every photograph on display is, in its own way, riveting and, for that matter, definitive.

Arbus’ photos of drag queens, Jewish giants, James Brown and acne-scarred patriots are the stuff of legend–a fact fostered, in part, by her suicide in 1971. The work has become startlingly ubiquitous. (As someone who doesn’t consider himself an Arbus aficionado, I was surprised by how many of the photographs I was familiar with.) The mere mention of her name instantly brings to mind images that are clinical, unseemly and grotesque. Arbus’ fascination with the marginal and the dispossessed, with artifice, ethnicity and sex, is part of our culture’s common currency.

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Allan Arbus, Diane Arbus (a film test), c. 1949

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Unlike August Sander or Walker Evans, two photographers without whom Arbus’ work is inconceivable, she is an identifiable type, a personality. The work, though distant, is aggressively individual. Arbus employed her subjects–however various, bizarre or banal–as a mirror to the self; she was, essentially, an expressionist. All the same, there are fine gradations to the art. A pair of photographs at the Met stand out as examples of everything that makes her a significant figure and everything that makes her a troubling artist. You can trace the sad and subtle arc of Arbus’ career from A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. (1962) to an untitled picture from 1970-71 of a woman from a “retarded school” with an attendant

Disneyland is a richly atmospheric picture. Arbus’ Disneyland is toy-like and rickety, a doll’s home, not a place for human beings. The quality of displacement is emphasized by diffuse, theatrical lighting–it’s as artificial as the title subject. Rather than commenting upon Disneyland’s cheesy allure, Arbus divines within it wisps of not unwelcome emotions. The photo has the temerity to suggest that illusions can embody longings that all of us–each of us–require to get by. Disneyland, though equivocal, is an unexpectedly merciful image.

Diane Arbus, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, New York (1970), gelatin silver print, 19-7/8″ x 16″; courtesy The Estate of Diane Arbus

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And so it is with Arbus’ early photographs devoted to burlesque comediennes, persons of indeterminate gender, human pincushions and four Santas from Albion, N.Y. In each of them, Arbus acts as an enlightened voyeur and is dispassionate in her curiosity. In the process, she engenders within the viewer acceptance, if not outright sympathy, for what are often literally freakish personages.

Almost imperceptibly, however, a sharper tone enters the work. Arbus’ photographs become willful in their focus on the extremities of type and behavior. We become conscious that her subjects are less persons to be engaged than objects for exploitation. Who is looking through the camera lens is more important than the “who” being photographed. In the process of making herself the center of attention, Arbus purges her models of individuality. They are pegs upon which to hang the prerequisites of obsession. It’s no wonder the catalog superimposes an Arbus self-portrait over a scene of New York City–the artist, not the art, is predominant.

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Diane Arbus, Untitled (7) (1970-71), gelatin silver print; courtesy The Estate of Diane Arbus

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The aforementioned photograph from 1970-71 is an example of this disconcerting phenomenon. The alarm we read in the face of the older woman as she walks with her disabled companion is heartbreaking. Open-mouthed, she jerks her head upward, rendering it a blur. Her ward looks toward Arbus (and, by fiat, us), distracted. The photographer, we realize, has violated their privacy–and, worse, their humanity. The photograph is excruciating to behold.

At some point in Arbus’ development–it’s hard to tell when, given the Met’s non-chronological installation–this dull strain of cruelty takes over and, in the end, overwhelms the work. The curators know this: That’s why the walls and lighting in the final gallery are brighter–some measure of uplift is necessary. It doesn’t work. Arbus, having come to the conclusion that life is cheap, cheapens us in the process. Walking into “Revelations”, you’re likely to think her status as a major artist is deserved. Walking out, you’ll despair that Arbus, whether through artistic choice or psychological need, had so thoroughly misapplied her gift.

© 2005 Mario Naves

“Intricate Expanse” @ Lesley Heller Workspace

Intricate Expanse

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I’m pleased to announce “Intricate Expanse”, an exhibition I’ve curated for Lesley Heller Workspace.

“Intricate Expanse” features the work of six artists, each of whom creates encompassing compositions without sacrificing a distinct sense of their constituent parts.

Steve Currie, Laura Dodson, Karl Hartman, Tine Lundsfryd, Sangram Majumdar and Maritta Tapanainen don’t miss the proverbial forest for the trees, but embrace both simultaneously–to sometimes tenacious, often ruminative and, at odd moments, comic effect.

The notion of “expanse”, for these artists, includes the physical parameters of pictorial and sculptural space, as well as the sweep of imagery contained within them. “Intricacy” is embodied both through touch and vision, by attention paid to the particularities of surface and process, and the metaphorical allusions that are consequently set into motion.

The resulting pieces unfold and disperse even as they are punctuated by a consistent sense of focus.

The exhibition opens on Sunday, March 15, from 6:00-8:00 p.m. I hope you’re able to stop by.

23rd Street Pastorale

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Sprint Flatiron Prow Art Space; photo by Laura Dodson

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Of the countless venues for art in Manhattan, the Prow Art Space is among the most highly trafficked. It is, after all, located at the base of The Flatiron Building as an adjunct to its sponsor, Sprint. How many New Yorkers, rushing along 23rd Street, actually stop to look at the art in this street level display? A better question is how could they not look–particularly with Stephanie Hightower’s brash paintings declaring their presence through the tumult of pedestrian and vehicular traffic?

Get closer and you’ll register how these abstractions are more specific in image–more representational, really–than you might initially think. Then take a look at Hightower’s smaller paintings on panel and, especially, the accompanying photographs of Dorothea Hokema, an artist of rigorous means and romantic temper. The impetus for the installation becomes clear: the urban landscape, exemplified by New York and Berlin, is the locus for their collaborative (and exuberantly punctuated) exhibition City is Landscape/Landschaft!

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Stephanie Hightower, Prow 1 (2014), oil on canvas, 60″ x 64″; courtesy Cheryl McGinnis Gallery

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Working in conjunction with Cheryl McGinnis Gallery, the driving force behind the Prow Art Space, Hightower and Hokema offer an exegesis on “the surface and the structure of urban spaces.” Nothing new in that—cities, even in their grittiest corners, have long served as inspiration for artists. But Hightower and Hokema perform the nifty feat of both honoring the city as sociological construct and as a platform for abstraction. In doing so, they explore “the physical environment we inhabit and the one we imagine.”

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Dorothea Hokema, Bricks and Sticks, Harlem (2013-14), c-print on aluminum dibond, 15.4″ x 20.4″; courtesy the artist

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The artists will elaborate on this venture, along with Cyriaco Lopes, at The New York Public Library in conjunction with the corresponding exhibition Urban Arcadia: Landscapes of New York and Berlin at the same venue. For more information click here.

© 2014 Mario Naves

Thomas Demand: Ostensible Art

Thomas Demand, Control Room (2011), Diasec-mounted C-print, 78-3/4″ x 118″; courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

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This article originally appeared in the April 11, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Thomas Demand at Matthew Marks Gallery (until June 23).

What do you do with a one-trick pony that specializes in exercises in futility? If you’re the Museum of Modern Art, you honor him with a mid-career retrospective. “A retrospective of what, exactly?” is the question likely to be prompted by the exhibition Thomas Demand.

The young German artist uses a camera to take sizable pictures, but he’s not a photographer; the camera is employed solely as a means of documenting the meticulous constructions Mr. Demand crafts from colored paper and cardboard. What does he construct? Orange peels, a forest, a field of grass, but mostly architectural interiors–anonymous spaces redolent of bureaucracy and, here and there, more intimate environs (a bathtub filled with soapy water, for instance). Mr. Demand gleans most of his subjects from mass-media sources.

Getting things straight, then: Mr. Demand appropriates existing images and makes them into life-size maquettes, which he photographs before destroying; after which he makes a big print of the photo and encases it under a glossy sheet of plexiglass. What’s depressing about this process is how it so consistently thwarts our interest. The elaborate, handmade maquettes must be amazing to see–but Mr. Demand won’t let us see them. The photographs, conversely, aren’t anything to see. (There’s more to being a photographer, after all, than pushing a button.) In point of fact, Mr. Demand doesn’t do anything–he’s too busy divorcing himself from the art he’s ostensibly making.

What we are left with is a brand of nihilism so predigested and cute that you could sell it to Fischer Price at a profit. As for the attendant literature, with its weighty allusions to Nazi Germany, the 2000 American Presidential election and other “fables of democracy,” it’s bullshit, plain and simple, that you couldn’t sell to anyone–except, it appears, to our premier museum of modern art.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Francesca Woodman at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island (1976); courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

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For 30-some years, Cindy Sherman has played dress-up in front of the camera in pursuit of “mortification of the self” and “the exploration of identity.” The photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), who died by her own hand at the age of 22, took a lot of self-portraits as well, and for related reasons: “female subjectivity” and “photography’s relationship to both literature and performance.” That the Guggenheim overview of Woodman’s oeuvre is running concurrently with MoMA’s Sherman retrospective is a fortuitous opportunity to compare and contrast.

To Sherman’s detriment, you can’t help but conclude. True, Woodman was no less prone to theatricality and adolescent notions of self-expression (taking into account, of course, that Woodman barely lived past adolescence). Depending on one’s taste for melodrama, her weakness for the picturesque—dilapidated buildings served as backdrop for many of the photos—and pat religious allusions are likely to strike one as precocious rather than earned. The work’s eroticism is part and parcel of an overweening narcissism and is less appealing because of it.

But Woodman knew how to take photographs—photographs that are rich with texture, isolated blurs of movement, ghostly sweeps of light and rare moments of washed-out period color. Sherman? She doesn’t know a photograph from a deconstructionist hole in the ground.

Francesca Woodman, Untitled, New York (1979-1980), chromogenic print, 8.6 x 8.9 cm.; courtesy George and Betty Woodman

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An early, tragic death is an all but insurmountable hurdle for aesthetic contemplation. Anyone who has seen The Woodmans, C. Scott Willis’ devastating documentary of a family rendered dysfunctional by art, knows how inextricably Woodman’s vision is tied to biographical particulars. We do the artist no favors by overinflating (or romanticizing) a flawed but diverting achievement.

The Guggenheim, to its credit, does right by Woodman in setting out the work with jewel-like sobriety. Any serious artist would welcome such an approach. Viewers should welcome it, too.

© 2012 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2012 edition of City Arts. Related articles can be found here and here.

“Cindy Sherman” at The Museum of Modern Art

Mural from Cindy Sherman at The Museum of Modern Art; courtesy MOMA

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What would art be without fiction—that is to say, without the allusive sweep of metaphor?

Literature, music, painting, poetry, dance, film—you name it, every medium thrives when it embodies something beyond its material means. “Art that conceals art” is old news, of course, but that’s not to say it isn’t desirable or, in fact, an ongoing necessity. The human animal has craved the stuff since Day One.

Nowadays, you know, we’re more advanced than that. Fiction—it’s so passé. At least, that’s the lesson of Cindy Sherman, an eponymous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Devotees of the postmodernist pioneer would argue otherwise. Hasn’t Sherman been devoted to fiction or, at least, its attendant limitations since the first time she planted herself in front of a camera? She’s made a substantial career assuming an array of divergent identities, among them B-movie ingénue, corpse, biker chick, fashionista, fairy tale princess, Upper East Side dowager, pinup girl and, in a recent work, an Icelandic Norma Desmond.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #359 (2000); courtesy MOMA

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Sherman’s photographs are purposefully ersatz in costume and affect. Caked-on makeup, thrift shop wigs, garish mood lighting, cut-rate stage sets, desultory photographic technique and thank God for the advent of Photoshop—artifice is Sherman’s all. Arrant contrivance is a tool for investigating “the construction of contemporary identity,” “the nature of representation” and “the tyranny…of images.”

Reasonable avenues of inquiry, I suppose, but there’s a difference between inhabiting an invented persona and, as one wit had it, pretending to pretend. Novelty tits and a blank stare don’t prompt much in the way of sociological insight, let alone create a compelling fiction. The purpose they serve is to let us know that Cindy Sherman—front, center and oddly puritanical—is calling the shots. Here is an artist who doesn’t—or can’t—venture beyond the strictures of self. No amount of irony can redeem her cold, callow art.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 7, 2012 edition of City Arts.

“A Tempest in the Laboratory”; The Photographs of Laura Dodson

Laura Dodson, Between Ripe (2009), archival print, Ed. 1/5, 17-1/2″ x 17″; courtesy Kouros Gallery

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The relationship between painting and photography has been charged since Day One or, at least, since Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first photograph in 1826. Painters were alternately alarmed and liberated by the new technology. The French neo-classicist Jean Dominique Auguste Ingres signed an 1862 petition against “any assimilation that might be made of photography to art”. Eugène Delacroix, Ingres’ contemporary and nemesis, took the opposite tack, stating that photography could aid painters in rising “to unknown heights.”

If some painters feared their function as image-makers was to be supplanted by a machine that “sees and reproduces everything without thinking”, photographers, particularly those driven to push the medium beyond mere reportage, were keenly aware of painting’s cultural dominance. In a suite of images titled Equivalents, the pioneering American art dealer and photographer Alfred Steiglitz famously set out to beat painting at its own game. Painting was, for many years, the chip on photography’s shoulder.

In the early twenty-first century, mixed media is the coin of the realm. Artistic categorization is considered aesthetically constricting. Discussions about painting and photography as disciplines with their own unique characteristics and traditions are pooh-poohed as quaint. Which isn’t to say there isn’t an ongoing dialogue between the two art forms. The conversation has, in fact, intensified. Renowned photographers like Thomas Struth, Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson and Andreas Gursky consciously blur boundaries and play the photograph-as-painting card.

As advances in digital technology allow for an undreamt of degree of imagistic manipulation, the photographer’s role as documentarian and artist has been complicated. The medium’s vaunted objectivity was always compromised–that is to say, fictionalized–by the artist’s sensibility. In the age of Photoshop, photography’s fictive capabilities have increased exponentially. There ain’t nothin’, it would seem, a photographer can’t do.

Laura Dodson–photographer, teacher and art theorist–has long been keenly aware of photography’s status as an arbiter between realism and artifice, of observed phenomenon and interior states of mind. She’s wise to the ways in which technology can shape and alter vision. Trained as a street photographer, Dodson was steeped in the tradition of “the decisive moment”–Henri Cartier Bresson’s notion of the split second wherein a photographer transforms the ephemeral into poetry.

That didn’t stop Dodson from asking tough questions of photography or the culture in which it was created. Influenced by the theory-laden prerequisites of Post-Modernism–Laurie Simmons was an early inspiration–Dodson grew dissatisfied with street photography. Shifting gears, she began manufacturing scenarios–sometimes with figures, mostly with objects–to photograph. Spontaneity was, if not sacrificed, then given an atypical forum.

Laura Dodson, Lust for Sleep (2009), archival pigment print, Ed. 1/5, 28″ x 22″; courtesy Kouros Gallery

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Dodson’s photographs increasingly became a form of theater and, later, a conduit for personal reverie. Given the persistent and often unnerving intimacy inherent in Dodson’s dioramas–particularly theStill Creatures series and subsequent work–it comes as little surprise to learn that Nan Goldin’s bohemian mise-en-sceneThe Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), was a formative touchstone. Dodson’s art, then, offers an astringent mix of the heady and the romantic, the intensely orchestrated and the psychologically resonant.

“When you move to the studio from the street,” Dodson wrote on the occasion of her 2010 exhibition at Kouros Gallery, “the world in all its unpredictability is no longer at your disposal and you run the risk of becoming static. You have to create a tempest in your laboratory.” How exactly Dodson creates these “tempests”–moody accumulations of thrift shop tchotchkes, fauna, flora and food set bobbing within eerie and aqueous environments–is something of a professional secret. The photos are subsequently transformed through the use of digital technology. It’s worth noting that the “How did she do it?” factor never diverts the viewer from the disconcerting feelings Dodson both stills and puts into motion.

Simultaneously microscopic in focus and otherworldly in purview, Dodson’s pictures are precisely choreographed and meticulously executed without ceding an iota of dreamlike fluidity. Pictures like Dry Land and the talismanic Between Ripe (both 2010) are, in their silky elisions of space, boundless but also severely circumscribed. Channeling Surrealist disquietude and establishing a pictorial order that recalls the Renaissance in its clarity, Dodson gives body to a muffled, earnest and crystalline symbolism.

Childhood is a recurring touchstone–dolls and other toys figure prominently in the work–as is a yearning sense of, not nostalgia exactly. The pictures are too acidic to encourage out-and-out sentimentality. Lust for Sleep (2010), with its snuggled strands of blond and auburn hair, is nothing if not a reliquary, but for what exactly? It’s enough that the feelings are honed, elaborated upon and allowed a degree of independence.

Dodson’s art has never been exhibited in a gallery dedicated exclusively to photography. It makes sense: Dodson’s atmospheric runs of lush color, mysterious slurs of space and subdued, if decidedly pointed, expressionism share common ground less with Robert Frank than Odilon Redon. Which is to say that within Dodson’s oeuvre, painting, photography and high tech achieve an uncommon tete-a-tete that is, at once, here-and-now and back to the future. Ingres would be horrified, but Delacroix would find Dodson to be a kindred spirit.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Cognoscenti.

Sigmar Polke at Leo Koenig Inc.

This exhibition at Leo Koenig Inc. does no favors to either the oeuvre or the memory of the German painter Sigmar Polke, who died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 69. Who it favors is hard to say—certainly not the viewer or, at least, a viewer with only a cursory idea of Polke’s status and achievement.

Polke came of age after the Second World War and straddled the political and cultural divides between East and West. He adopted a neo-Dadaist brand of anarchist agit-prop, abjuring a signature style in the cause of anti-commodification. In 1963, Polke founded the “Capitalist Realism” group along with like-minds Gerhard Richter and Konrad Fischer. You don’t need a PhD in post-modernism to glean their dour, programmatic intent.

As with many anti-commodity artists, Polke’s work went on to become a hot commodity, an irony that didn’t seem to elicit much self-examination (or doubt) on the international art star’s part. And Polke was, most decidedly, a star. In his New York Times obituary, critic Roberta Smith described Polke as “nearly as influential as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.”  In blue-chip parlance, you couldn’t ask for better company.

Without knowing something of Polke’s cultural and, yes, capitalist realist standing, you’re unlikely to make much sense of Koenig’s artful installation of photographs, dim and desultory pictures of the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, works in progress, art fairs, friends and the artist pretending to be a palm tree. Fans and scholars—people who genuinely believe the work “emphasizes a delight in the unintentional and infuses… pictorial language with an incandescent force”—will be mesmerized by Koenig’s cache of Polke arcana.

The rest of us? We’ll figure out pretty quickly that the marketplace moves in not so mysterious ways and skip on to the next venture.

 © 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 12, 2011 edition of City Arts.