By Michele Leight
The New Photography '05 exhibit
currently on view at The Museum of Modern Art features significant
recent work in photography by Carlos Garaicoa, Bertien van Manen,
Phillip Pisciotta and Robin Rhode. The New Photography Series
began 20 years ago and has returned after a hiatus during the
expansion of the museum. Since its inception in 1985, the series
has introduced over fifty artists from twelve countries. This
show highlights works by four diverse talents from Cuba, Holland,
South Africa and the United States, and is a thought-provoking
tune-up for anyone interested in photography. Photography '05
on view from October 21, 2005 to January 16, 2006. The series
is made possible by JGS, Inc.
Balmy 65 degree temperatures
in November in New York are rare - to be in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
Sculpture Garden with leaves still on the famous trees by the
pond surrounded by sculptures without a coat at this time of year
even rarer. Like so many of the iconic artworks at MoMA, the sculpture
garden is a New York landmark, and everyone probably has their
favorite sculpture - mine is Picasso's bronze "Goat,"
which now faces the diners in the elegant restaurant on the concourse
level as though it is waiting for someone to come out and give
it a snack.
In the sparkling refurbished
cathedral of modern art that is MoMA it is often hard to know
where to turn, especially with so many new shows on offer. I soon
found myself in the photography galleries - crammed with all age
groups and including literally dozens of younger viewers on this
visit: it is always a good sign when the attention of the young
is engaged. Under 16s gain free admission to the museum - an inspired
decision that can only benefit the arts in the future.
I was instantly drawn to a
wall of photographs that were strangely familiar; they reminded
me of the bizarre juxtapositions I might expect to find in the
homes of elderly family members, friends or relatives who have
lived in other countries - yet they were comfortingly contemporary.
Sepia tinged photos of young and middle-aged people in clothing
from a different era were mixed in with newer photos in gleaming
color, set amidst possessions spanning several decades - yet holding
on tenaciously to the present because they are there.
It is impressive that these
humble everyday artifacts have survived wars, emigrations, evacuations,
or just the longing for a fresh start in a new land. Bertien van
Manen created the photographic "still lifes" from possessions
and memorabilia found in the homes of real people. With permission
from their owners, she re-arranged them into abstract compositions
that heighten their ordinariness - and their importance.
The great Flemish and Dutch
painters have had a long tradition of exquisite still-life painting
- if they had been equipped with cameras, they might have created
compositions like these. The ordinary trappings of the past are
transformed through van Manen's lens as she makes space for them
in the 21st century.Who knows what circumstances surrounded the
safe transport of these family relics, now more precious with
the passage of time. The faded and worn set amidst newer acquisitions
and homes are a reminder that the same transformations are occurring
in our world, even as this bright New York day glistens in a thriving
Van Manen created her photographs
between 2002-2005 during her European travels - in Budapest, Munich,
Rome and other cities. She worked in strangers' houses, getting
to know them through their treasured possessions. These timeless
compositions could be our histories a few decades from now - it
does not really matter which decade or century they are from.
The sense of displacement is countered by the universal appeal
of religious relics, past and present souvenirs, photos of ancestors
as miners, soldiers or young girls - or beloved objects that once
belonged to great-grandmother. Familiar possessions bring stability
to spirits in flux, or to those seeking a permanent home. Photographs
are a testament to the passage of time, which none escape: perhaps
that is why we are so drawn to them.
The lives reflected in van
Manen's work are touchingly ordinary - the political, cultural
and religious histories visible in one household or family are
not of the elite or the ruling class. By removing photographs
from their familiar setting and placing them on a modern kitchen
table - or setting them against contemporary wallpaper - she creates
arrangements that are immediate and spontaneous, as well as humorous
and bizarre. She uses a 35mm point-and-shoot camera which heightens
the sense of intimacy, allowing easy access into a private world.
There is something irresistible
about sepia-toned, frayed family photographs whatever their subject
matter, but especially those that show ancestors at war or those
and those who have survived them: "Civil War, Madrid, Spain,"
(2002-2005) shows a group of soldiers from The Spanish Civil War
on a page in a frayed old album. "Photograph from Auschwitz: Budapest, Hungary"
(2002-05) demonstrates the power of photography to kneejerk memory
when history is in danger of being forgotten. The infamous death
camp and the crematorium chimneys are visible in the background,
while the few remaining survivors rescued at the end of World
War II stand solemnly in the foreground. The miracle of those
who survive such horrors becomes magnified - as well as the important
duty of survivors to share the truth for history - no matter how
difficult or painful.
Since the invention of the
camera and the film projector, photography and film have recorded
history through eye-witness accounts, documentaries, testimonials
and critical documentary photographs like this one.Van
Manen's work reflects a life of global travel; her wonderful artistic
eye has sought out the unusual, the commonplace and the universal.
Born in The Hague, The Netherlands, in 1942, van Manen currently
lives in Amsterdam. Her explorations of the former Soviet Union
and China were published in the books A Hundred Summers, A
Hundred Winters (1994) and East Wind West Wind (2001)
respectively. In 2003, she was nominated for the Citibank Photography
Prize. All her works are chromogenic color prints from the series
"Give Me Your Image" (2002-05) and are lent by the artist,
courtesy of Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York.
While van Manen's work is more
pre-occupied with the possessions of her subjects, Phillip Pisciotta,
(American, b. 1970), asks permission to take photographs of people
he has met through family and friends - or strangers he is drawn
to on the street. His intimate portraits are set in private homes
and workplaces in Virginia, Connecticut and New York. Guided by
instinct, Pisciotta photographs people surrounded by their possessions,
in their homes, the workplace, or out in the streets.
"Woman in Polka Dot Dress
by Window, New York, New York" 2004, leans against a radiator.
A plate-glass window behind her allows us to share her view of
an apartment block across the street with rows of similar windows.
She is one of many women in her neat home in New York City. We
do not know if she has a family or if she is living alone. Is
it lonely - or not - to stare into the lives across the street
every day and have them stare back without knowing them? Pisciotta's
portraits tweak the viewer's curiosity, leaving us hungry for
Taking an entirely different
turn is "Goldenly Gray, Maine," 2002, where two elderly
ladies are sharing a quiet snack together in a cafe; their closeness
might be that of sisters or best friends. Unlike the New York
woman who seems fine with her independence, these two ladies seem
to need each other's company. In quiet rural towns it is not an
option to ignore loneliness: there are no crowds to mingle with
in the streets, or anonymous lives in apartment blocks to stare
at on lonely days.
Pisciotta extracts the uniqueness
of each of his subjects and there is a determined individualism
about many of them - even though it is gently expressed. His portraits
are compassionate, sometimes melancholy and yet humorous, recalling
Rembrandt's fascination with the fine wrinkles and lines on the
faces of those "characters" whose story he chose to
tell because they were compelling to him.
In a stunning photograph, "David
Chicoine, 'Chick,' Portland, Maine," 1999, the smoke from
a cigarette is frozen solid by the lens - it is a technical marvel.
"Chick" has a timeless face, deeply lined and framed
by frizzy long hair: in different clothing he might be from 16th
Century Spain, a farmer in a Van Gogh field, a laborer from a
Breughel farm, or a Rembrandt merchant clad in velvet cape and
plumed hat. All of Pisciotta's subjects are individuals - they
are artists, nuns, workers or friends, and they are endearingly
approachable as the photographer tries to understand them and
to know them.
Like individualistic Chick,
"Man in Red Sweatshirt, Patting Hair, New York," 2004
is an affirmation of personal freedom. It is as brazen as it is
funny - and very New York. Everyone who knows, or has visited,
The Big Apple has seen at least one fiercely independent character
like those in Pisciotta's portraits walking the streets. The deep,
saturated colors and the contrasting velvet shadows of his work
evoke Titian and deep Venetian tones; the result is a sophisticated
and rich visual pallette made all the more alluring by the unpretentiousness
of the subjects themselves.
Phillip Pisciotta was born
in 1970 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and currently lives amd works
in New York City. After studying at the Maine College of Art,
he earned a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University in 2003,
and at present he teaches photography at the Yale School of Art.
Robin Rhode was born in Cape
Town, South Africa in 1976 and now lives in Berlin. He merges
performance, photography and drawing and wonderful videos. On
three separate visits to this show, viewers were crowded around
the flat screen TV in his exhibit, transfixed by timed release
images of Rhode's 56-second color video with sound "White
Walls," 2002 - which suggests that the artist is creating
an imaginary garden with a watering can in what looks like a derelict
urban parking lot - he re-invents a derelict landscape as an earthly
paradise, as so many great artists have done. The world as it
is can be an inhumane place without the help of the imagination.
I will not give away the end - like so many contemporary artworks,
interpretation is left to the viewer.
Not as lyrical but so funny
and winsome is "New Kids on the Bike," 2002, a 1-minute-22-second
color video with sound that has two kids pantomiming as they lie
down on a road over chalked bicycles. These up-ended vantage points
are disorienting and reminicent of very early Charlie Chaplin
movies - as is the stop-start motion. Humor literally richochets
off Rhode's video work, whether they are still or moving images.
The accessories are so recognizably of our time - the hooded sweatshirts
and chunky designer sneakers blare out city streets and urban
Of all the artists in this
show, the styles and codes of youth culture are most evident in
the subject matter and inspiration of Robin Rhode's work. Drawing
from the rebellious spirit of guerilla art and graffitti, references
to skateboarding, ("Board," 2003), basketball, film,
hip-hop and fashion capture and transpose the creative energy
of the streets. Graffitti punctuates much of Rhode's work, but
this brand of graffitti is more monochromatic, controlled and
spare than the frenzied explosions of color of the past. This
is graffitti "grown up"; it branches out into new forms,
it lowers the octane level marginally to allow us older folk to
catch up, mutes the color to brick red (background wall) with
white chalk and charcoal (a stunning combination) - and entrances
viewers with neatly sequenced photographic stills or video images
of various (eccentric) Rhodes escapades - presented like individual
frames of a film.
Rhodes' performance spaces
are urban: they unfold in concrete yards, abandoned lots or city
streets. The materials he uses are mundane: chalk, house paint,
charcoal, and found objects. His "stop-action" pantomiming
against amazingly imaginative backdrops are descendants of the
famous early motion studies of Edward Muybridge.
"Stone Flag," 2004,
featured at the top of this article, is a series of nine chromogenic
prints by Rhodes now in the collection of The Museum of Modern
Art (Fund for the Twenty First Century). It is a lyrically choreographed
sequence of the artist symbolically waving a flag made out of
discarded bricks - a tribute to the new post-apartheid South Africa,
referencing both his country's past and his own political views.
Rhode studied at the South African School of Film, Television
and Dramatic Arts after receiving his diploma in Fine Art from
Witwatersrand Technikon, Johannesburg in 1998. His work had been
exhibited internationally in solo and group shows, and was included
in the 2005 Yokohama Triennial and Venice Biennale.
On the three separate visits
I made to the show, viewers of all ages stood riveted to Robin
Rhode's images and video especially, with its instantly regognizable
iconography of our own world - the young men in the gallery were
dressed just like him, and the young look for reflections of their
world in film and photography. There is something compelling about
hooded sweatshirts and American sneakers - international symbols
of youth - up on the walls of probably the most famous modern
art museum in the world.
There is a total absence of
violence in Rhode's imagery, yet he uses backdrops and an art
form - derived from "guerilla art" - that are often
symbols of violent exchanges between rival youth gangs: graffitti,
deserted streets and abandoned lots of urban neighborhoods. He
has made these symbols of youth culture more hopeful by superimposing
humor, pathos, compassion and beauty - offering an alternative
vision to violence. This resonates with anyone who is saddened
by the proliferation of youth and gang violence across the world
- including the United States. One middle-aged man shed years
as he watched the cycling video sequence twice, shoulders shaking
with laughter in the funny parts, smiling in recognition of youthful
antics and imagination. Humor is a tonic and Rhode provides it.
Carlos Garaicoa was born in
Cuba in 1967, and he lives and works in Havana today. He explores
architecture as a metaphor for the fate of 20th Century utopian
ideals and the potential - and failure - of post-revolutionary
Cuba. Using a wide variety of mediums besides photography and
drawing - like sculpture and video which are not featured in this
show - Garaicoa explores the possibilities of buildings featured
in his photographs by using outlines that give us an idea of what
they looked like when they were new, what they might look like
if they ever get built, or imaginative interpretations of the
best that they can be.
Garaicoa documents architecture
that has fallen into disrepair and decay and building projects
that have been halted in and around his native Havana. He dwells
with longing on old buildings that were destroyed to make way
for new ones in cities within Cuba and elsewhere. Cuba was famous
for its historic architecture and its mouthwateringly beautiful
colonial buildings - many of which will not see a future at all
unless a concerted effort is made to preserve them.This is not
exclusive to Cuba - there are many countries where colonial architecture
is crumbling to rubble through neglect as new structures tower
Like the "connect the
dots" drawings we all loved during childhood, Garaicoa recreates
the outline of a structure on gelatin silver prints - real or
imagined - using colored thread and neatly sequenced pins. His
exquisite precision may stem from studying thermodynamics at the
Instituto Technico Hermanos Gomez, after which he attended the
Instituto Superior de Arte from 1989 to 1994. His work conveys
the sense of possibility and loss by "filling in" what
might have been.
There is a sense of weariness
and hopelessness at not having control over the decay around him,
and yet his works resonate with the optimism that emerges when
- realistically speaking - there is nowhere else to go but up
after despair sets in. Hope springs eternal and for Garaicoa it
is manifested in these gorgeous photographs that are imbued with
longing for progress and regeneration.
Garaicoa's work has been exhibited
internationally and was recently the subject of a solo exhibition
at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and included in
the Venice Biennale. His images speak volumes for the fate of
the architecture of the past anywhere in the world today as a
new millenium sets in and the pressure is on to provide housing
and workspaces for larger populations.
The reinstated photography
series highlights the Museum's ongoing commitment to the work
of less familiar artists and to represent the most interesting
achievements in contemporary photography. This is the kind of
forward thinking that has gained the museum the reputation as
the most innovative museum in the world. Peter Galassi, MoMA's
Chief Curator or Photography says:
"From 1985 through 1989,
the New Photography series introduced recent bodies of
work by 56 artists from 12 countries - among them Philip-Lorca
deCorcia, Thomas Demand, Rineke Dikstra, Olafur Eliasson, Boris
Mikhailov, and Vik Muniz. We are delighted that a three year commitment
from JGS, Inc has enabled us to bring the series back in our expanded
gallery for contemporary photography."
Says Eva Respini, Assistant
Curator of Photography who organized the show:
"Photography today is
too varied in approach to submit to a comprehensive survey, even
in an exhibition ten times this size. Nevertheless, by focusing
on outstanding individual achievements and maintaining a regular
annual schedule, the New Photography series aims to suggest the
diversity and international scope of contemporary photographic
When contemporary visions are
unfurled in MoMA's expanded photography galleries we are able
to chart the course of this extraordinary medium with ease, because
the permanent collection in the surrounding rooms contain works
by the great photographers of the past - Atget, Man Ray, Walker
Evans, Ansel Adams, Steichen, Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, amongst
others. It is reassuring that the tradition of innovation contiunes
- how shocking Man Ray's imagery must have seemed to the general
public when he first exhibited them.
In New Photography '05 the
diversity and internationalism is repetitious, revealing the sameness
of our longings, memories and the common bonds of family, friends
and "home" - even those homes and lives that rest on
unresolved ground. This show demonstrates the impulse of contemporary
photographers to to keep pace with our times - and to share their
optimistic, often bizarre, humorous and non-judgmental visions
of our world with us.