A Review of Three Exhibits

by Jill A. Kyle

Gran Illusion: Large Format Polaroids
Painted Photography: Daniel Babior
1985 HCP Fellowship Winners: Dornith Doherty, Paula Goldman, Stephen Peterson

And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression – T.S. Eliot

Houston Center for Photography, under the direction of Lew Thomas, is the place to go for those interested in finding out about the state of photography today. A forum of sorts for those seeking ideas of where the medium is headed, and why, the Center’s exhibitions and educational activities attract those able to accept the prevalent expansive attitude toward photography, including those interested in the medium’s capacity to mislead and misdirect. For those seeking a conservative reaffirmation of photography as a discrete medium, the Center is often the place not to go. July may count as an exception. It is a month when the visual fare, and there is a lot of it, offers pluralism in photographic intuitions, but it does not address a controversial topic, as a recent exhibit Re-Coding Sexuality did. At the same time, while man of the images currently on view appear to be mere reflections of reality, or fantasy, still there are issues fundamental to photography in the ‘80s that are raised when looking through material in each show.
Granted, the Miesian adage “less is more” has all but been snuffed out by the tenor of these post-modern times, and at HCP, a very young institution where maybe it was never heard, “more is more” comes to mind when one confronts the torrent of images on display. Despite the segmentation of diffusive photographic enterprise into three separate exhibits within close proximity, the show is well-installed,, and there is not the crowded feeling one would expect. A bigger problem is the difficulty of visually assimilating all there is to see without some sort of broad focus or overview: the burden of providing this falls on the viewer. For me, the critical polemic of function ni contemporary photography kept cropping up, whether photography should be judged primarily as an art form or as an instrument to define our society.
Considered within the context of intention, there is the contemporary premise that works of art, and this includes photography, are not just objects for visual savoring and valuation, but are repositories for ideas. In fact Abigail Solomon-Godeau claims that “As photography has historically come to mediate, if not wholly represent the empirical world for most of the inhabitants of industrialized societies (indeed, the production and consumption of images serves as one of the distinguishing characteristics of advanced societies), it has become a principal agent and conduit of culture.”1 But it is also true that while few contemporary photographers linger over the aesthetic notions of photography as distilled by John Szarkowski, neither do they discount them as retrograde so long as the marketplace does not.
What is problematic about the images in Grand Illusion (an exhibit drawn from the larger “Selections 2” group of 75 artists, which is part of the International Polaroid Collection) is the obvious absence of any clear critical perspective or curatorial aim in the Polaroid selections. Immediately, the spectator is drawn into a guessing game: what, if any, were the criteria by which Polaroid chose the various pictures for the exhibition? Aside from that, the best approach to Grand Illusionis simply to see it in terms of random experimentation by a spate of artists reveling in a pop-oriented medium. The main thing that unifies the collection, as far as I can tell, is the sense that Polaroid is fun to work with. But that is not enough to keep the results from being at times banal and even ludicrous. This is the case with Starr Ockenga’s sensual schemes of infant nudity. Because a photograph is always of something real, Ockenga’s pictures are that first, and secondly, they are images of appropriation. They refer to ornate baroque putti and are related to the ones seen in a painting by, say, Rubens. But, whereas a painting represents some real or imagined scene in a less direction relation to reality than a photography does. Rubens’ putti are able to connote sensuality without being offensive in doing so, yet Ockenga’s can not. The same relation of the image to what it depicts is a problem for Robert Heinecken’s “fabricated-to-be-photographed” pictures. His technical strategy, aimed at constructing color patterns out of food, does nothing more than transcribe ordinary subject matter into analogical soulless imagery.
One of the most imaginative artists working in the instant imaging Polaroid technology is Lucas Samaras. His scissored, reassembled nude in an interior compresses a leitmotif of change into a staccato progression, coherent but fractured in a way that prevents the eye from settling for long on the subject or on the fascinating objects in the background. Samaras’ cacophony of impressions plays on ambiguities of perspective through the artificiality of garish lights and lurid colored gels. Since he is a painter, possibly the instant feedback approximates the active experience of painting. In any case, the photography, for Samaras, becomes in no way the norm for the appearance of things, but a volatile source of imagery that substitutes for an experience.
Although images in Grand Illusion tend to be strong on formal qualities – not to mention that the colors and detail often seem richer than those of direct vision – some can be appreciated in terms of the degree to which the artist’s personality is revealed by the selection of objects to be photographed. Rosamond Purcell employs an additive process, whereby she fills the frame as though it were a blank canvas, to build imaginary worlds with poetic combinations of found objects – old photos of animals, antique portraits, art reproductions, bits of lace, burlap and feathers. Arranged in boxes, some with captions like “Who Lives in This House?” or “He Lives in This House,” the contents are symbolically held together in the same nostalgic atmosphere of a large vanitas still life. Purcell’s imagery simulates the dream diaspora of human memory, that impressionistic recording device that is antithetical to the exactitudes of photography, and that skirts romanticism in its physical beauty, and metaphorical expressiveness. Conversely, Barbara Kasten’s act of choice is affected by a very different sensibility, one that is rooted in the detached, idealistic teachings of the Bauhaus, particularly the artistic example of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. In her surface – prefect triptych, the eerie permeation of cool blues and greens lends a glossy, complex, theatrical presence to the abstract composition. Possessing transparent, opaque, reflective surfaces that are unrelatable to any existing spatial structure, the geometric fabrications are like constructivism turned inside out. An interpenetration of seemingly continuous lines one minute appear as masterfully orchestrated chaos, and the next as perfectly matched pieces of a puzzle.
Some pictures reveal themselves readily, like the abstract patterns in Vicki Ragan’s graphic exploration of natural and manufactured objects – eggshells, test tubes, small plastic skeletons – while others do so slowly. And one especially, “Atomic Cage” by Patrick Nagatani/Audree Tracey, is worth the long look. What makes this piece most interesting is the irony implicit in the sophisticated complexities of technique and the message it presents. Photographer Nagatani and painter Tracey create a mixed-media scene of a care during Los Angeles’ predicted earthquake. What first appear to be scratches in the red painted surface are actually strings suspending bottles, plates, trays and chandelier in an “earthquake-proof” fashion. An interplay between tragic and comic suspense fashioned by collaborative elements within a genre scene, it is at the same time an assemblage of paint and photo, a reminder that it is all a spoof of artifice.
As a whole Grand Illusion does not work. It is too much like a gigantic advertisement, an advertisement for Polaroid itself, a marketing strategy for selling the product, but not ideas – except for one, the “art” of Polaroid. What gets overlooked by the show of sophisticated Polaroid technology is the most distinctive feature of all these images: the fact that each picture constitutes a singular artifact, since there is no reusable negative behind it. The relationship between each print’s visual content and its uniqueness gives to each an important historic overtone. In the spirit of Benjamin’s theory that photography’s ascent to fine art status was virtually predicated on its claims to aura (a quality which he described as being comprised of singularity and uniqueness, the very qualities which produced authoritative presence in an original work of art).2 After all, how many potential Polaroid customers even heard of Walter Benjamin?
In Daniel Babior’s Urban Transplant pictures, a keen sense of formal relationships, especially abstract patterns of verticals and horizontals, and the graphic recoding of moods and movements of city dwellers prevent their unlikely dislocation into rural settings from being merely scenes of disjunctive tomfoolery aiming at trivializing the human figure. His work, fresh, provocative, variously sad and funny, mirrors the extent to which interpersonal relationships in daily existence are governed by social structures and economic circumstances.
Babior works in hand-colored photomontage, a variation of the technique that the Berlin dadaists found to be such an adaptable vehicle for carrying socio-political commentary during and after W.W.I. Babior is subtle, yet he comes within screaming distance of the spirit of dada by dissociating figures from their normal environment in order to suggest irony and criticism by their juxtaposition. In “Speculators” (1985), two farmers stand on an isolated country road and scowl silently at a couple of business-suited moguls a stone’s throw away. Political implications are obvious – real estate developers (anti-environmentalists) prey on naïve residents of rural areas – but the wittily presented subject is more amusing than disquieting. In fact, without Babior’s sense of humor, and there is never a loss of concern for human feelings because of it, the repeated themes of psychic dislocation might begin to seem a bit academic.
Never too reliant on technique, nor too curious about how things will look. Babior focuses on what things will mean. He emphasizes veracity of the image, the better to proffer the dissonance of figures in out-of-synch situations as though there were the truth. In “Wilderness” (1984-85), four career types clad in greatcoats walk briskly through a desolate field: behind them, barren trees stalk like bosses doggedly tracking employees. A weird scene, it is not surreal, nor are any of Babior’s images; and therein lies their greatest fascination – they are improbably, but not impossible. Even the delicate hand-coloring in the photograph is not at odds with a sometimes weighty content, but contributes to the ton. The effect is oddly natural, as though the mind sees in terms of information content (in other words, in black and white), while emotions affix themselves to certain images, assigning them color. But what is most real and most disconcerting about Babior’s tableaux are the nameless, but easily recognizable, tensions on all the faces, the silence, the lack of communication in the encounters. We are served the ultimate parody of our own high-tech, mass media culture, where conventional relationships between language and communication no longer exist.
Although the genre and technique vary, works by the three 1985 HCP Fellowship winners – Dornith Doherty, Paula Goldman and Stephen Peterson – can be considered within a single critical framework. That is, following Szarkowski’s premise that photographs can be apprehended either as windows (records of exterior reality) or mirrors (subjective revelation of the inner being),3 works by Doherty, Foldman and Peterson fit into the former category. Of the three, only Goldman, in her mixed-media Soul Food Still Lives, exhibits a willingness to depart from the “safeness” of photography’s tradition and practice, and to experiment with the medium as an artistic tool of diverse application.
Doherty, who draws her stylistic inspiration from painting, specifically taking cues from impressionism, shoots wind-blown tigridia, bauhinia and other exotic flowers at very close range. Through effects of color, light and blurred form, she projects a sense of movement and plurality that imply the fluidity of time passing. Barely identifiable in some prints, flowers are blurs of saturated color. When Doherty uses a flash to get some definition in the blossom form, the added contrast of petal outline against cottony middle ground foliage makes an interesting relationship to the geometry of an architectural foil in the background. The fame of time itself is expanded in Doherty’s images by catching the foreground flower object with an instantaneous pop of light, a split second within the larger time segment of an extended exposure.
On the other hand, Stephen Peterson’s “in frame” topographical photographs evince the stillness of ceasing time. His subjects, open vistas along Texas highways and agricultural belts or the lazy small towns nearby, all without even a minimal trace of human passage, seem impervious to change, like quiet pockets in a world of flux. Peterson, who shoots with the same objective detachment as the seventies “new topographic” photographers has an obvious concern for formal geometric elements in both town and landscapes. Clusters of cylindrical grain silos in “Muleshoe, Texas,” two gasoline storage tanks in “Cola Petroleam” (sic) are perfectly, classically centered – the same is true for an irrigator in a barren grain field in “West of Lamesa, Texas” or a post office in “Amis.” A meticulous technician, his work scrupulously clean and reflecting a delight in order, Peterson at times lessens the vitality of his concepts by working his images too tightly. He is more consistently successful in the use of a color idiom that, through subtlety of observed detail and natural effects of light, registers his subject matter in a Texas context as much as its topographical exactness does.
The role of consumerism in American life – a theme celebrated, usually with disguised irony, by pop artists in the ‘60s – is still the source for painted as well as mechanically produced imagery. Paula Goldman’s Commercials for the Way We Liveseries of black and white prints deal with the clichéd theme, but she is very clever with composition, and she adds her licks with humor and verve. It is a touch assignment, considering the complex implications related to the meaning behind her images. (What I am referring to is the sense of nihilism that accompanies the enlarged horizons of our contemporary consumer culture. The more all-encompassing the media, the more we are faced with an excess of regurgitated images, which command our gaze but because they are void cannot return it.) It is this nihilism that Goldman picks up on and presents in her work as the double agentry we all practice when given the full media treatment. Still victims of the pop milieu of consumerism, we constantly confront glamorous doubles of our own doubleness. In one print, a boozing match is on TV, while beneath it on the living room rug, two kids reroute the fighting action by paying war games with their parent’s smiling approval. In another, a young mother holds her baby in front of a bowl of cereal from a box labeled “New GI Joe Action Stars,” undoubtedly the double of who or what her son will become by eating the cereal. To a degree, Goldman is objective in her observations, but not so much as to hide a certain delight in projecting the absurd.
Sorting through the exhibits, gauging one image against another, judging relations between technical values and image content, eventually converts to a lesson. No matter how diverse photography appears – and the gap is considerable between the medium’s ultimate value as art and its social significance as a tool of mass culture – it is much easier to theorize about these distinctions than to apply them to actual works in an attempt at categorization. And that may be the most distinguishable conceit about photography today.

1. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Photography After Art Photography,” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis and Marcia Tucker, David Godine, 1984, p. 76.
2. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illumination, ed. Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, 1969, p. 221.
3. John Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960, Museum of Modern Art, 1978, p. 11-25