Conceptual Art Survives FotoFest

Conceptual Art Survives FotoFest, Baron United with Germans, by David Portz

Photography within the conceptual art tradition was not much in evidence at FotoFest, perhaps because such photography suggests photography’s misgivings about itself – its anxieties, its self-doubt. Documentary photography, self-assured and self-sufficient, was most prevalent in the extravaganza, performing in the center of the medium’s perceived strength, the power to inform. Also prevalent were photographs with traditional art intention – the snaps of captured or fabricated instants – fanciful, amusing, loaded with implications, depending heavily on their forthright relation to literal, visual truth. The conceptual photography which attended FotoFest, by contrast, was neither amusing nor informative, but ironic, subversive, self-conscious, unpolished, and minimal. Moreover, it seemed dated, a decade, two decades distant – a phenomenon of the past. Is all self-consciousness and subversiveness similarly dated?

Richard Baron’s photographs at Diverse Works recalled the quintessential conceptual art of the sixties and seventies. Conceptual art privileged the artwork’s idea over its execution. The conceptual artist carried the craft of art making only so far as it needed to make clear the originating idea – handwork was de-emphasized. The concept of the work was thus kept as the work’s essence; the concept ruled the art. Additionally, conceptual art concerned itself with the medium in which it worked – conceptual art revealed as cursorily as possible the conventional nature of art-making, and the operation of art upon the viewer. Conceptual art aspired to reveal to the complacent viewer his or her own expectations, often enough, by chiding or upsetting them. The very absence of handcrafting thwarted the art viewer’s expectations, to which disturbance was added epate le bourgeois banality.

The vitality of El Paso photographer Richard Baron’s work lies in how well it can still offend, by rising to no one’s expectations. The series “Corporate Headquarters and Other N.Y. Landmarks,” (1977-79) depicts the almost featureless street-level marble and metal surfaces of the titan architectural landmarks built by U.S. institutional giants (for example, Union Carbride, AT&T, MOMA), ignoring the PR value of those landmarks for their truer nature – conformity and anonymity – implicitly imputed to their occupants. A similar series depicts businessmen striding to work past such building surfaces (“Men in Suits” 1980), but focuses on the surfaces instead of the executives, who appear slightly blurred. This series was, as the wall text explained, “photographed while Richard baron was on his way to the unemployment office.” Nothing extraordinary arouses the viewer in any of the individual series either.

Denied other stimulation, the viewer is left with only the concept: that the artist chose a point of view communicating dismissal of the traditional photographic subject. Baron’s concern with surface, interchangeability and inscrutability is consistent throughout his several series. “Border Portraits” (1982-86) portrays faces of persons photographed at El Paso’s US-Mexico border, squinting under sunlight, the faces cropped so that all indicia of social class or economic status are unavailable. The series is an undoing of the documentary impulse, similar to the non-photographs of buildings and executives mentioned before. “Whorehouse Self-portraits” (1986) is a series of enlargements from Polaroids by Juarez street photographers, each one of Baron, at a table, with beer and arm around a different Mexican prostitute. His setting, position and sullen glower are invariable, so that the photographs of the series would be interchangeable if not for the women, who are modulated by the alacrity of their smiles, and daringness of the décolletage. The repetition of the documents undoes their function of recording these routine visits – it makes them a hoax instead. “Dream Girls” (1987-88) are re-photographs from crumpled pages of pornographic magazines. Light from the various planes of the crumpled surface disrupts the close-ups of the straining women’s faces. In such a manner Baron diminishes even the minimal achievements of re-photography, giving less, and reliably communicating almost nothing.

Another exhibition of photographs that was subversive of photographic tradition was “Photography Has the Right to Make You Think” – selections from F.C. Gundlach’s collection of German photographers’ works. One may put aside the exhibition’s preposterous name, except to note that it signified the collector’s disposition to ponder the nature of photography, vis-à-vis its own technology and the other visual arts. Gundlach pursued his enquiry by purchasing works on the “boundaries” of photography, including several photographers whose work could be considered conceptual art: Martin Kippenberger, Walter Dahn, and the collaborative efforts of Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

Martin Kippenberger was represented by several pieces. Among the very few sculptural works appearing in FotoFest, Kippenberger’s “Das Medium de Photographie…” (1989) consisted of plastic film canisters sloppily taped together into an amorphous, tentacle construction, upon the pedestal of a manual of photographic technique. Examining the construction to determine whether it represented a particular object (a headless torso for example), the viewer would determine that no, the object indeed was amorphous. In a Kippenberger photograph, a man on a balcony atop an oceanside highrise sticks out his tongue. Dotted lines rise into the sky on his line of sight, then plunge to indicate certain antlike figures on a crowded beach. At the top of the photo was a question in German, which, translated at slight variance from the wall label, said, “9. Where are the women photographers who empty the dungeon of morality?” At the bottom of the photograph was another caption, translatable as “10. Where are the photographs which extinguish the grain-elevators of monotony?” In another Kippenberger photograph the face of a man confronts the viewer, his face shaded with blocks of color: a blue shape over one eye and a red spiral from the other. Superimposed text states: “We don’t have problems with the Guggenheim because we are not invited.”

These works with mock seriousness ask questions of art politics, rhetorical questions. The short texts take photography so seriously that expectations of it are equivalent to expectations of religious salvation. In the dungeon of morality, who is waiting to be saved? All persons whom any society has castigated? If so, can women photographers be expected to save them? And is it realistic to expect photography to alleviate whole silos-full of tedium? Referring to the sculpture, is the medium of photography capable of isolation and definition, or is it rather an amorphous existence, not subject to description?

Walter Dahn remystifies the African cult masks and tribal religious objects incarcerated behind glass museum showcases. Phantom reflections of carved skulls and shrunken heads reanimate the space behind the glass barriers – an effect, a resurrection, owing its life to photography. Dahn answers Kippenberger, at least with respect to the magical expectations of defunct tribes – his photography spoofs the accomplishment of the miraculous. The photographs, such as “Sculpture” (1983) and “Mask" (1984/85) presented the utmost of sloshed chemicals on the print surface, seemingly swabbed with blood, showing a casual regard for technique while alluding to mystic processes.

The collaborations of Peter Fischli and David Weiss are photographed assemblages of objects, parts of a series titled “Quiet Afternoon” (1984/85). In “Die Masturbine,” a title which may perhaps be translated as “masturbation machine,” five high heeled-shoes link together heel in mouth to form a circle, with these words identifying the respective shoes: Flirt, Love, Passion, Hate, and Division. In the same series, “The Danger of the Night" (1984/85) links objects in an arc above a cement warehouse floor: a metal pail (labeled “fulfillment”), a stretched cloth rag (“tactic”), a wooden cylinder (“strategy”), two rubber gloves stretched to reach in opposite directions (“yearning curiosity”), and an old horseshoe (“melancholy”). Together with roots in Dada, these constructions suggest a bleak, abstract use of metaphor, and other affinities with conceptual art. The constructions are staged in dungy interiors, and formal qualities and fine finish are avoided in the photographs; they are ironic, minimal, and self-consciously constructed. The equilibrium of the suspended objects is improbable, and the identification of the words with the objects is improbable. Yet, neither can be dismissed outright. When the clutter is swept away, or wiped off with rag and pail, the concept remains, understated, critical, illusive.

David Portz is a writer living in Houston.