Tuesday, February 7, 2012

If This Is It @ Present Gallery

A catalog essay I was asked to write for a group show.

Nina Yoh

Matthew Schenning

In this age of failed political bipartisanship where Congress cannot pass even the most basic of bills, a period of artistic bipartisanship has arrived in the small world of art photography. With the arrival of conceptual photography in the early 1980’s (featuring appropriation and staged narratives), there has been a simmering cultural war in photography between ardent supporters of straightforward image making and a vanguard trying to bring photography into a more mainstream artistic dialogue. But at the turn of the 21st century with the inclusion of some very traditional photography in the last two Whitney Biennials, it is clear that photography as it has been practiced since its inception no longer has to be shunned as regressive. Straightforward photography has been accepted as mainstream art. The medium has reached a point painting had in the early 70’s when it was declared dead. Contemporary photography is now at a place where much of what can be done with the medium has been done, and it no longer has to struggle to define itself. It can just exist, creating a big tent where heavily conceptual and completely abstract work can stand side by side with straight picture taking.

Conceptually, traditional photography is still what the art world of the late 1800’s thought it was, the pointing of a dumb machine to make mechanical drawings. But unlike in other arts, that simplicity also allows for a void, which allows one to directly show what is in the artist’s mind because photography’s strongest feature has always been its ability to deal with the world as it is. Photographers constantly harness the visual bounty of existence into art that reflects how they feel and think about the world. Photography’s reliance on the physical world for source materials also positions it as a medium with a unique ability to deal with the immediate events that surround us.

Each of the artists in If This Is It reflects their own specific world outlook but also articulates an underlying collective dread that is felt today in the dwindling approval ratings for elected officials, the percentage of the unemployed dropping because people have officially stopped looking for work and the viability of Ron Paul as a presidential candidate. For these times of dim futures and disappointing existences, these pictures represent both a personal and political point of view of America.

There is an amazement to be found in the world around us that is drawn out of the small moments in our everyday life. The routine slices of life as Leopold Bloom wanders Dublin build into a reflection of Joyce’s outlook on life, Ireland, and writing. Glimpses that Nina Yoh uses to draw the viewer into her world where the ordinary becomes something more, where the visual world becomes a reflection of Yoh’s feelings about her own existence. And where, despite an underlying sadness, there is still an emotional range where humor, solitude, determination, can all be found on the faces and in the moments of otherwise ordinary people. The pictures are able to do what good pictures do, capture a personal point of view of the world in the constant flow of minutia in our everyday lives.

There is something about a wide wood-planked path through a forested area that screams the familiar setting of anonymous American vacation spot. Matthew Schenning’s photographs constantly place bored children alongside adults who have an uncontrollable urge to pull off the interstate into nondescript scenic overlooks. Locations where nature is fenced and regulated to allow tourists to experience the outdoors while minimizing ecological damage and avoiding any liability that might arise from getting too close to the wild. Locations that most of us experience as the natural world, manicured, packaged and explained by plaques. Schenning’s pictures reek of the inevitable disappointment these places hold, sights that are never visible, just paths, steps, railings and an occasional tourist ambling up and down hills looking for a genuine experience.

Jason Wurm’s pictures deal expertly with the surface of things. Rainbow oil slicks compete with rainbow graphics on a street fair stand, luxury goods are unconvincingly rendered in two dimensions while equally two dimensional crowds look on approvingly. Wurm’s work on first inspection reads like something out of a book of visual theory that might use words like simulacra or appropriation. But what this kind of academic thinking misses is that the world in front of his camera lacks any kind of a life worth living. Things are broken, people are alone, and luxuries are rendered as flat, shallow replacements for happiness. Wurm’s work, like much of the work in If This Is It very pointedly encapsulates a national mood, adrift with little hope for rescue.

Through Mar. 30th


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