Curated and Written by Madeline Yale
The exhibition Antennae, on view from April 27 - June 3, 2007, is one of a series of events celebrating Houston Center for Photography's 25th Anniversary. It is noteworthy that HCP's 25th birthday coincides with such a pivotal moment in the medium's history. While some would argue that the waning of wet processes signals the impending death of photography, others would claim that it is enjoying a renaissance. Lightrooms are replacing darkrooms, and mastering the craft of photography requires a new kind of technological sophistication. Enrollment in art school photography programs is at an all-time high, and the medium is experiencing an extraordinarily lucrative period in international art markets. Color photography is omnipresent, and hyper-real, supersized images are the fashion of the moment. Though photography was once considered the stepchild of painting and other visual art, the early 21st century marks a synergistic period of inter-media collaboration. From rabbit ears to satellite dishes, the exhibition Antennae espouses all of these ideas, sending and receiving today's photographic technologies, media, and culture.
Transmitting visual information with a self-conscious eye on the past and the future, the ten artists and collaborative teams featured in Antennae are engaging with photographic media in innovative, thought-provoking ways. Everyday props such as cell phones, coffee grounds, 2x2's, and fluorescent bulbs mix with meticulously crafted stage sets, glossy fashion magazines, and intricately seamed tapestries of skies in the exhibition. Some of the work is clearly made for the purpose of self-reflection, while other pieces are intended to act as a galvanizing force for political and social change. Though it would be impossible to execute a fully comprehensive survey of contemporary photography, the work presented in Antennae introduces an array of current methodologies and concepts and proposes several trajectories for the future of the medium.
In art, animals have long been used as metaphors for humans' relationship to the natural world and for spirituality. One cannot help but notice there is no shortage of art today that features animals - much of it speaks to the confused distinction between animal/human and the increased unease with our stewardship of the earth. Todd Gray (b. 1957) is one such artist who weaves actual animals with photographs and other media. The resultant installations raise questions about our relationship to nature and more importantly, to one another. Revealing his perspective on colonial missionaries and their governments, Gray (who lives in Ghana and California) created the series California Missions. These missionaries propagated religious and metaphysical beliefs, exploited native cultures by using people as slaves and cheap labor, and altered the indigenous communities' relationship with nature. In America, a supersized photograph of ordered, European architecture is turned on its head, and is opposed by a mirror that immediately forces the viewer into a participatory role in the work. Taxidermy (to be specific, a buffalo's ass) represents the native characters who now serve as phantom trophies for those whose oppressive tactics prevailed. Giant wooden cantilevers precariously balance the image, proposing the fragility of western ideologies while the natural world's buffalo attempts to force its collapse.
The super-size scale of contemporary photography is often in partnership with constructed scenes, encouraging the viewer to step into the witness role in hyper-real dramas. While this type of imagery isn't new (precursors include Gregory Crewdson, Sandy Skoglund, and Jeff Wall), it certainly has been a focus of recent work. Montreal artists Carlos and Jason Sanchez (b. 1976, and 1981), known as "The Sanchez Brothers," create images that surpass photographic veracity. Acting as cinematographers and set designers, the artists use mise-en-scene to stage eerie tableaus that evoke a frisson of psychological uncertainty. Abduction was inspired by a real-life experience of one of the brothers' classmates. Their work comments on the present dominance of melodramatic media, characterized by storylines of violence and foul play.
In many ways, the artist as creator of the photographic image is now less important than the artist as mediator of the image. Although artists John Sparagana, Peter Kennard and Cat Picton Phillipps handle their subject matter very differently, they share the same objective: to comment on the overload of media culture. Acknowledging the photograph's role in popular media as a driver for public perception and opinion, Londoners Peter Kennard (b. 1949) and Cat Picton Phillipps (b. 1972) use appropriated material from European, American, and Middle Eastern newspapers to aggressively illustrate their polemical relationship with the American and British invasion of Iraq. The artists printed a large image of President George W. Bush on a grid of layered Houston Chronicle newspapers for their site-specific installation Cover Story. Sections of the newsprint are blown out like gunshot wounds, revealing sublayers of atrocious images of war from the Middle East printed atop Arabic text. The artists' work presents a degraded memorial to war, subverting the original mediated images to find an anchor.
Like Kennard and Phillipps, Chicago artist John Sparagana (b. 1958) distresses appropriated materials from visual culture. In the series Sleeping Beauty, Sparagana carefully fatigues torn sections of images from contemporary fashion magazines with the oils in his hands. This elegiac impulse is his attempt at a performative intervention with mass media, creating what he describes as "a kingdom that is slipping into an anesthetized state of consciousness." The desire to distill visual culture is admittedly quixotic, yet Sparagana's presentation of unhinged, fragile objects that are pinned into conversation with their unadulterated glamorous counterparts forces a juxtaposition that is distressing. Depending upon one's approach, the beaten portions either memorialize or vilify the quest for beauty in fashion. The work also challenges the traditional definition of the "photograph" - nodding to the fair use value of photographic information.
Twenty-first century media is often characterized by the devaluation of privacy coupled with a heightened celebrity culture. 9/11 and consecutive acts of terrorism shook the formality of photojournalism, which finds its purpose displaced by the sweeping distribution of raw imagery created by everyday spectators. The result: no visual subject is inappropriate to present to the world. Millions of diaristic accounts of strangers' activities (that are often banal) are broadcast daily on consumer-driven media outlets such as YouTube and MySpace.
In artistic settings such as HCP, a trend of biographical and autobiographical work has emerged in recent years, mirroring the general public's voyeuristic hunger. British artist Matthew Noel-Tod (b. 1978) uses the mobile phone as a democratic tool of communication for his autobiographical narrative. Shot at crudely low resolution, Noel-Tod's feature-length video Nausea is a self-portrait of the artist over the course of one year. The work is a subversive form of the traditional documentary: the camera's eye, marked by the shakiness of the hand-held recording device, is filtered through tiers of distortion. Noel-Tod creates impressionistic layered stills, single-pixel color fields, and manipulated moving images to define his personal landscape. His "journal of observations" is overlaid with disjointed syntax borrowed from Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea, drawing a parallel between the existentialist text and Noel-Tod's nihilistic veracity. The original, melancholic score by Thomas Stone underlines Noel-Tod's nostalgic impulses to understand his identity and mortality.
Working collaboratively, real-life partners and parents Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand (Houston, TX, b. 1969 and 1965) have a very different autobiographical vision. Employing household ingredients in a lighthearted manner to construct abstract, topographic photographs, installation, and video, the artists create a dialogue about an event that is universally understood yet privately experienced: the act of drinking coffee. An aquarium sets the stage for their mouths' musings; Hillerbrand blows milk into coffee and Magsamen blows coffee into milk. Whirling smoke-like patterns emerge, mixing with hair and lips. By largely isolating the mouth from the rest of the human form, Magsamen and Hillerbrand ask us to examine the orifice's sexual and predatory characteristics as it concurrently consumes and expels the ingredients. A video activates the photographs, and is set to the tune of watery gurgles and child's music by Raffi. Their ejections attempt to keep up with the confusingly sped up and reversed score, signaling the artists' autobiographical longing for the relaxed, daily ritual of consuming coffee during early parenthood. Beneath their playfulness, Magsamen and Hillerbrand nod to a deeper meaning: the manner in which one engages in the everyday act of consuming coffee becomes a signifier of personal rituals and identity. Using repetitive dualities, the pair's work further questions gender-based politics.
Of late, much significance has been paid to identifying a "third wave" of feminist art. Though the cohesiveness of this movement (if it can even be called such) is most aptly classified by its fractured nature, nevertheless it is always interesting to examine the complex manner in which our culture constructs gender identity. New York-based artist Janet Biggs' (b. 1959) work directly focuses on the quest to maintain youth and beauty while attaining control and power. In her poetic video, Biggs features the decisive moment in which fourteen-year-old Deanna transitions from childhood to adulthood and achieves a professional athlete status in the video Deanna (Behind the Vertical). Biggs gratifies Deanna's performance by inverting the image, allowing Deanna to appear to levitate effortlessly above the water's edge. Yet, in Deanna's quest to flawlessly execute difficult maneuvers, the video inevitably raises questions about the obsessive control of the female body.
Oslo and NY artist Anne Senstad's (b. 1967) work signifies the nexus of art and photography. The artist's paean of affection for Josef Albers, James Turrell and Dan Flavin is evident in her wholly abstract images. Like Magasmen and Hillerbrand, Senstad borrows everyday objects. Using store-bought fluorescent light fixtures, she photographs the light they cast on surfaces. Senstad's controlled study of the perception of light, titled the Pink Project, examines the tonal properties of the color pink and its associative euphoric qualities. Through the process of mingling pink with other colors that vary in warmth and frequency, the behavioral and operational waves of the construction change to radiate new meanings. Though not digitally altered, Senstad's horizonless color fields challenge the traditional rules of photographic composition.
Leaving the minimalist ambient forms (as referenced by Senstad), Chicago artist Ken Fandell (b. 1971) combines system-based rules with intuitive methods to create large, quasi-organic weather images that reflect an impossible amalgamation of day and night sky. Using highly sophisticated Photoshop techniques, Fandell builds his own environment, seaming together extracts of the atmosphere taken from multiple vantage points all over the world. Hung like tapestries, his site-specific work has a tangible, sincere immediacy. When approached from a straightforward, visual perspective, the work references the tradition of Italian illusionistic ceiling painting. Its heavenly elusive title, Twisting Days and Nights, Dawns and Dusks, East and West, North and South, Above and Beyond, Here and There, playfully contests our desire to predict, classify, and control our environments. Above all, the true mechanics of the system that Fandell creates successfully exemplifies an interlocking relationship between technology and art.
Despite all the recent trends, there is still a place for classical tradition in contemporary photography. Following the lineage of the Dusseldorf school created by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Munich artist Juliane Eirich (b. 1979) presents straightforward, compositions of austerely plain architecture in her series Hale Kula (Hawaiian for "schools"). Her images are classic in form and small in size, beckoning intimate observation (unlike Andreas Gursky's and Candida Hoffer's recent work from the same lineage). Eirich records acts of surveillance, forming a visual dichotomy between an imagined paradise and the threat of harm. In daylight, the structures she photographs are sanctuaries for learning and enlightenment. Despite being rendered purposeless at night, they are illuminated to thwart vandalism. The panoptic view complements the artist's subject, allowing Eirich to present a vigilant perspective of schools that takes on a prison-like persona in the contrasting darkness.
The constellation of ideas presented in Antennae reflects a wide variety of approaches to the medium and to currently available lens-based technologies. It is an exciting and equally uncertain time in photography's development. In the past 25 years, the exponential curve of technological progress, as driven by market forces, spawned a new digital era. This era is influencing how we absorb information, and perhaps, how we look at our environments. The connecting threads in Antennae mainly lie in the sentiments expressed: of late, photography regularly emits melancholic undertones, signaling a splintering of shared identities and experiences.