Exhibitions: Jerry Uelsmann: Different Realities
By April Rapier
Jerry Uelsmann, Rudolph Lichtsteiner, and Floris M. Neususs. Benteler Gallery, Houston. September 11-October 19.
Conceptual European photography is at once elusive and deliberately straightforward (sometimes to the point of banality), due to a shaky alliance between the peculiar reuse of overextended ideas and dull or ordinary visuals. The Uelsmann (who while not European, is closely aligned with the genre). Lichtsteiner, and Neususs exhibition contained examples of the best and least exciting of this genre, imagery that could be described as mystical, dreamlike, intellectual (this last category constituting perhaps the essence of the work a bit too frequently, at the expense of clarity). In this manner of pursuit of ideas, the thrust of the pictures is that of control, the manipulation of a situation to the end that the audience ultimately be manipulated as well. Through Uelsmann, the power of the dream can be conveyed in a way that is as effective visually as it is emotionally.
Uelsmann exhibited a retrospective of almost ten years of pictures, the newest (I985)containing a ridiculous duo entitled “Texas Fantasy," numbers two and three. After weaving intricate spells over the years using multiple printing, these two photographs are obligatory and simple-minded, falling back on facile, trite motifs — the shape of the state, an armadillo, and a cowboy boot — to represent what would be better left unsaid. No amount of technical expertise (and he is a virtuoso) could redeem this short-sighted mockery. There exist other juxtapositionings that fall short: orbs hovering over pagodas, casting shadows within, faces superimposed on sensuously shaped rocks, a person walking on water, birds flying about indoors, other too-obvious devices. This more literal imagery simply cannot transcend technique. In one sense, his movement toward physical simplification ("less is more” being a persuasive precedent in life as in art) gives the viewer more room for interpretation; access to participation within the frame, however, is severely restricted by further trivializing tired abstractions.
At his best, he isthe acknowledged master of the transposed dream-world. Icons (faces being used often) spring up in the likeliest of places, never failing to surprise and delight. Mirrors and globes become receptors for the ideal — the spirit or ego that comes and goes, not at anyone's will in particular. Upon close examination of any given image, the blending of two or more negatives becomes understood as usable information (although the actual means of execution remain unclear). Yet this disclosure fails to dispel the magic created by combining, say, indoors and outdoors, or appreciably different landscapes. A comfortable yet severely surreal image ("Untitled,'' 1976) displays an elegant room, richly appointed with oriental rugs, wainscoting, a fireplace. Central to the space isa drawing table that holds an open book. A man has begun to walk from the page onto the table. A partly cloudy sky forms the ceiling overhead. The effect, which lingers as viscerally as visually, is unforgettable. That the meanings contained within each image are endless is of little concern to that viewer not in search of a quick formulation or an easy answer.
Uelsmann has remained, in the face of controversy and criticism, obstinately, relentlessly cryptic. All implausible or impossible situations are presented asthough nothing is amiss. If water is to appear silvery, it is always a bit more so than seems possible. Even when the symbols become more referential (and thus confusing) than anything else, the overall effect, although frustrating, is still compelling. A clear example of this is found in "Untitled," 1981, where a knotted rope sits on atable in acloudy room with picture window views behind. It is the Uelsmann as creator of a different measure of reality that most deserves renewed or continuing interest, for these images are infinite, born of ideas that need not rely on beginnings or endings.