Thursday, July 26, 2012

Alec Soth, Broken Manual @ Sean Kelly Gallery

There will come a reckoning when art historians will look back at our times and pick the winners and losers. The Brian Ulrichs and Mark Wises will fade away only to be found in retrospectives at secondary museums and the occasional monograph. What will remain is Alec Soth and Roe Ethridge (and maybe Walead Beshty).

You can complain all you like, but the two are ever present and unstoppable. One only needs to look at recent MFA work to see the pervasive influence. So you might as well get on board now or you are going to have to spend a lot of time bitching and complaining for the next couple of years until the next things comes along. But take comfort, remember the nineties? Ethridge and Soth are photographers who make quality pictures out in the world, and if you don’t like that what about photography are you holding out for? If it is a radical departure from the history of the medium that points away from Joel Sternfeld and the history of vernacular photography, well, Beshty is working on that, but I am not sure the results are going to be so much more enjoyable.

So relax and settle in for the awesomeness of Alec Soth. Because he is the Springsteen of photography. He isn’t groundbreaking. His artistic roots are always clear in what he does, and he has executed his art at such a high level and with such enthusiasm, it’s hard not to want signing along.

Broken Manuel is Soth’s Nebraska. It’s a somber but high point in his artistic output. Soth’s Sleeping By the Mississippi work owed more to Sternfeld than I think he’d like to admit. In the same way, Greetings From Asbury Park feels like an odd pop version of The Byrds covering Dylan. But since then, Soth has stumbled his way into an art that is all his own, and impressively he has had the gumption to find his voice on a very public stage. A prime example the underwhelming Niagara, which as a show was repetitive and dull but as a book featured an afterward of primary materials for the book. This seems to have opened Soth up to create a string of fantastically varied little art books, that delve into a more personal subject matter of his family and others’ sexual predilections. In these, he has experimented with various photographic styles that are often quicker and less formed then his more established work.

He seemed to be on a personal crusade to take on as many different ways of working as he could, as an almost self-directed MFA program. Like lots of MFA students, the result wasn’t always particularly good, but the process for those paying attention was enjoyable. Despite the so-so quality of Bogota Days or Fashion Magazine, those who hung in with his journey I think were well rewarded by the under-appreciated The Last Days of W, which proved that if a tree falls in the uptown Gagosian, it in fact does not make a sound.

But out of the free associations of images and their tangential connection to the end of the Bush administration, which seemed to owe a lot to Ethridge’s artistic output, came his most fully formed and strongest body of work, Broken Manuel.

The work, in Soth’s words, stems from a desire to run away and buy a cave to live in, the very idea of which does seem to speak to his Midwestern-ness. The resulting work reads like the angry identity art of the white man, with pictures of a prison shank, pocket pussy, and handmade protective headgear, all shot against a white backdrop under even studio lighting in an exacting, even evidential black and white. The photographs are mixed with lush, large-scale landscapes that feature disco balls in the woods and what appears to be public art in the desert. Which are shown alongside a photograph of a naked man with a swastika tattoo in a patch of water in a southwestern landscape and a blurry picture of a man with a beard plus interior photographs of rooms left to rot and fall apart. Creating a lonely world at the heart of angry teens and desolate men whose adult life hasn’t turned out, as they would have liked.

Now, if you no have sympathy for the pain of financially secure white men, that’s okay and more than understandable. And I am going to ignore the somewhat weak installation of primary materials with hollowed-out books that the rather expense version of the book version of the show comes in. Even with that, it is now impossible to say Soth has not made a lasting impact on photography, which has opened the doors for people to make pictures that bask in the stream of photo history without being self conscious and just let the quality of their ideas and execution to carry their work, creating younger artist who are The Hold Steady to Alec Soth’s Springsteen.

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