The Daily Pic: The photographer scans the world for what ought not to be seen.
Trevor Paglen is an expert at looking at the overlooked, and this photo, from his current solo show at Metro Pictures in New York, is typical. It reveals the track in the sky of a Russian “Upravlyaemy Sputnik Kontinentalny” surveillance satellite, meant to watch for launching missiles – although it never in fact got to do its watching, because it went wrong and got stranded in a useless orbit. (Look for the faint line of light running from top left to bottom right in the photo).
Paglen has also documented other hidden or forbidden sights: Military drones in civilian landscapes, “secret” (but not quite) surveillance facilities and various unacknowledged satellites. What may be most surprising about these shots is that, for all their emphasis on simply showing hidden things (one of the oldest goals of art) they are also, Paglen insists, about beautiful image-making.
The Daily Pic: Two experts debate smell art versus fine art.
This Cypriot terracotta, of a man smelling a fruit, was made in about 500 B.C., and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m not only showing it for its own sake, as a prototype Cyrano, but as an example of how much olfaction once mattered to us human beings, despite the short shrift our noses get now – except of course in a “live” perfume show called “The Art of Scent”, at the Museum of Art and Design for a few more weeks still.
I’ve written about the exhibition more than once, but I’m hitting it again because my thoughts in an earlier Daily Pic have now sparked some response from the show's curator, Chandler Burr, to which I’ve replied. Some smell-y readers might want to follow our ongoing dialogue.
Our first interchange is below:
The Daily Pic: Why an artist has blacked out his own photographs.
Steel Stillman is showing this image in a group exhibition at Show Room gallery in New York. For decades, he’s been shooting photos of random corners of his world, without any clear idea of what he would do with them. Now it seems he’s found out: Stillman has taken to crudely blacking out one feature of each image, leaving it poised on the brink of illegibility. Here, he’s blackened the drapery from one corner of a four-poster bed. We’ve become so used to redaction as a bureaucratic intrusion on truth-telling that it’s hard to know what to do when an artist censors himself. Maybe, in a world that seems to be drowning in photos, Steelman is mounting some quiet resistance to so much easy vision.
The Daily Pic: Her plexi pavilion reveals mirrorings from far away.
Sabine Hornig’s fiendishly complex “photographic sculpture”, called “Mirrored Room”, is in her solo show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York. It’s a metal pavilion, a touch smaller than a bus shelter, whose glass sides house color transparencies of a vacant plate-glass facade in Berlin. There’s an infinite regress of reflections: Real ones, now, of you and the gallery space in New York, which change as you move around the sculpture, versus other, fixed ones preserved from a past moment in Berlin – which, if you look closely, can be seen to include a reflection of the photographer taking the picture. There are hints here of the glass pavilions of Dan Graham and of Jeff Wall’s street-scene transparencies, but the combination is uniquely, brilliantly, Hornig’s. It messes with space, and time and image-making.
The Daily Pic: Ragnar Kjartansson sings a song of sentiment and rigor.
Four stills from the brilliant nine-screen video projection called “The Visitors”, produced by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and now showing at Luhring Augustine gallery in New York. One day not too long ago, Kjartansson and eight of his Brooklynish friends occupied nine rooms and sites in and around a shabby-chic mansion called Rokeby Farm, upstate in New York. Together (but apart), and in one 53-minute take, they recorded a slightly sentimental, nouveau-hippy song, each one contributing a separate musical line on voice, piano, electric bass, accordion, drums or some other classic-rock instrument. Rokeby Farm says that it is set up to “welcome bohemia and spirituality in all its forms”, and the video made there risks bathing in the same kinds of sentimental cliche. But as the sound weaves together in the gallery space, and the images remain discrete, you realize that Kjartansson’s romantic excesses are perfectly balanced by his technophilic rigor. The technology seems to provide its own ironic gloss on the song’s mawkishness.
The Daily Pic: Darren Almond treats moonlight as the light of day.
Darren Almond shoots landscapes by the light of the full moon, including this one, titled “Fullmoon@Eifel.6” and now in his solo show at Matthew Marks gallery in New York. Of course, what’s most important about these images is that exposure times measured in minutes yield results that look like perfectly normal daylit scenes, or something very close. That means that the subject here is photography, its truths and deceptions, rather than nature itself. Any photo can be exposed and processed to affect the “reality” of its subject: A day scene could be shot to be as murky as any typical night shot. “Normal”, “correct” exposure is a notion imposed by us, not by the world being shot.
The Daily Pic: Steffani Jemison shows us what we make of fleeing youths.
These are stills from Steffani Jemison’s video called “The Escaped Lunatic”, now on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem in “Fore”, a group show that presents emerging black talent. (Click on the image to watch a clip from the video). The video is straightforward but powerful: It presents a scruffy urban landscape, across which run a series of almost identical Young Black Males, and the action loops ad infinitum. Jemison says that the piece is based on early silent-film chases, and sees the piece as being about “persistence and futility” amid cultural, social and geographic constraints. But I read it differently: It seemed to be about the stereotypes we associate with running black youths, and the TV-bred image we have of them as always fleeing a crime, or perpetrating one.
The Daily Pic: Are the YBA's prints about the color of pigment, or the color of money?
This is a Damien Hirst “spot” print called “Ferric Ammonium Citrate”, done in woodblock and now on view at Carolina Nitsch in New York, in a show of all 40 works from the same series. It’s easy to see the project as a retro return to formalist issues of shape and color, of figure and ground and of variations worked on a theme. Hirst’s simple instruction-set – never repeat a color; place the spots one spot’s-width apart – does in fact yield surprising perceptual dividends, if you spend the time looking. On the other hand, it may be more interesting to see the series as a riff on market dynamics – as much about how the woodcuts sell as about what they look like. Hirst’s signature may be the deciding factor in any reading: The only function it plays, on the surface of the prints – there are 48 of each image – is to tie each one to the history of unique, certified, hand-made (or hand-signed) commodities. The messy signature actually detracts and distracts from a formalist reading of these otherwise pristine works. But then, plenty of rigorous formalists, including Barnett Newman, also defaced their works by signing the front. Does that make their paintings comments on the market, or sell-outs to it?
The Daily Pic: Michael Benson's planetary art hovers between sci-fi and astronomy.
This is Michael Benson’s “Northern View of Saturn and the Darker Side of the Rings” based on data collected from the Cassini spacecraft on May 9, 2007. It is now on view at Hasted Kraeutler Gallery in New York. You could say that Benson’s spacey images are too eye-catching for their own good – like a painting you’d see on the cover of an old sci-fi novel. But what interests me is the idea that, while these images purport to show the solar system “as it really is”, it seems that there’s a a fair amount of artifice and number-crunching involved in making them look that way. In that sense, they are indeed as close to a sci-fi painting as to the sunset you shot on your last vacation. The more cliched they are in their picturesqueness, the more obvious that becomes, and the more questions get raised about what pictures can show.
The Daily Pic: A New York artist messes with her dealer's space.
“Skylight 1” is one of my favorite pieces from Diana Cooper’s solo show at Postmasters gallery in New York, which locals have one more day to catch before it closes. In this piece and others, Cooper takes a real feature of the Postmasters interior and shifts the place and shape it takes up. This new tactic gives a firm, real-world grounding to the fantasy that Cooper’s always revealed in her work. It’s also a kind of homage to Postmasters itself: For almost three decades, in one space after another, owners Magda Sawon and Tamas Banovich have given artists room to do the most daring work they know how. It’s nice that there’s now work that’s about the room given.
The Daily Beast: Andy Freeberg shoots the female guards at Russian museums.
This image, titled “Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Bathing of a Red Horse, State Tretyakov Gallery”, was shot by Andy Freeberg, and is now on view in his show at Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York. Freeberg visited Russia’s great museums, photographing the almost-babushkas charged with guarding the country’s artistic treasures. Even when Freeberg finds women whose look rhymes with their charges, or – as here – where contrast is the point, what strikes me most is the size of the gap between lived life and the worlds found in art. Now what I’d like to see is a photo of a Chelsea gallerina standing by one of Freeberg’s prints, to see if the gap would be as striking.
The Daily Pic: The pioneer of neon looks good at Mary Boone.
A neon piece called “Ba-O-Ba II”, made in 1969 by Keith Sonnier and now refreshed for a solo show at Mary Boone Gallery in New York. I’m old enough (just) to remember how neon seemed the Next Big Thing in the early 1970s, and plenty old enough to remember how out of place those neons seemed in museums in the 80s, when we’d collectively decided that the way forward for art would have to do with content rather than color and shape, line and light. And now, after the passing of so many years, vintage neon’s looking good again, as the last but powerful gasp of the modernist tradition, and as more deeply rooted in social realities than we’d been able to see when first it went out of style. As Sonnier says in the press release, “Our type of work was somehow counter-culture. We chose materials that were not 'high art' …. We were using materials that weren’t previously considered art materials.”
The Daily Pic: The crème brûlée "bismarck" from the Doughnut Plant is a great aesthetic creation.
For a foodie, trumpeting the crème brûlée doughnut from the Doughnut Plant, in New York, is like saying that you rather like the Sistine Ceiling. But, on the assumption that not everyone who reads the Daily Pic is a food fanatic, I’m still willing to proclaim this sweet, with its crisp-caramel outside and crème-y filling, one of the great aesthetic creations of recent years. My only problem with that proclamation is that I’d never rave about fine art that was so mild-mannered in its innovation: I ought to demand a blood-flavored cruller with durian foam. Can I take refuge in the thought that the mash-up of French and American pastry idioms gives this donut some postmodern cred? Surely it thematizes globalization and post-colonial cultural collisions, with a nod to neoconcrete anthropophagy?
The Daily Pic: Florian Borkenhagen pitches high-end reuse.
A "recycled" sofa by the artist-designer Florian Borkenhagen, who shows with Gabrielle Ammann gallery in Cologne. As a one-off piece, it will hardly make much of a dent in our problem of overproduction and overconsumption, but it works, art-wise, as a fine pointer to both. It's also a rare pleasure to see a new piece of furniture that isn't just a rehashing or reheating of modernist cliches.
The Daily Pic: Why did Girolamo dai Libri paint Christ and his mother as arborists?
A lovely altarpiece, almost 13 feet tall, painted in about 1520 by the ultra-obscure Veronese artist Girolamo dai Libri, now standing out in almost comic relief against the grim architecture of the Lehman wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Click on the image to see it in detail.) I love the way Girolamo managed to stick to the sweetness of a 15th-century style while including some of the “modernizations” of 16th-century Florence and Rome. Of course, the central conundrum of this painting is the massive area given over to the foliage at its center. There are obvious iconological solutions to its unbalanced composition, but I like to think that in fact it’s all about how Girolamo was taken with the idea of fixed perspectival viewings of “modern” pictures: he imagined his tree would only ever be seen in peripheral vision, convincingly and impressively looming overhead as a “roof” of green, as our eyes kept their focus on the Mother and Child. In other words, he didn’t buy into the idea of painting as a composition in 2D, but thought instead in terms of giving us access to a three-dimensional world, where issues of “balance”, and of what appears where, have to be thought of in entirely different terms.