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New Photography 2005

The Museum of Modern Art

October 21, 2005 - January 16, 2006

Dreams of What Might Have Been and the Importance of the Ordinary

"Stone Flag" by Rhode

"Stone Flag," by Robin Rhode, Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, (Fund for the Twenty First Century), nine chromogenic color prints, each 12 1/16 x 18 1/16 inches, 2004

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.

Photos by Bertien Van Manen

"Toulouse, France," above, and "Photograph from Auschwitz: Budapest, Hungary," below, both by Bertien Van Manen, both 2002-2005, Chromogenic Color Prints, 15 3/4 x 19 11/16", Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York

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.

More photographs by Van Manen

"Miners, New Sharlston, Yorkshire, England," 2002-2005, above, and "Rubiera, Italy," 2003-2005, below, both by Bertien van Manen, Chromogenic Color Prints, 15 3/4 x 19 11/16", Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York.

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 modern metropolis.

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.

Photographs by Philip Pisciotta

Above, "Woman Reclining on Futon, New Haven, Connecticut," 2002, 15 15/16 x 19 15/16 inches, above, and "Sister Terri Holding Sign, New Haven, Connecticut," 2004, 12 15/16 x 19 1/8 inches, below, both by Philip Pisciotta, both Chromegnic color prints, both courtesy the artist, 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 more information.

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.

"From the Tralani Building, Portland, Maine" by Pisciotta

"From the Tralani Building, Portland, Maine," by Phillip Pisciotta, Chromogenic color print, 19 1/8 x 12 7/8 inches, 2001, Courtesy the Artist, New York

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.

Photos by Robin Rhode

"Board," 10 chromogenic color prints, each 11 3/4 by 18 inches, by Robin Rhode, courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, New York

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 angst.

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.

"Untitled, 2004" by Garaicoa

"Untitled, 2004," by Carlos Garaicoa, gelatin silver print, thread and pins, 48 1/4" x 70 1/2 inches, Collection of Kathryn Fleck, Aspen

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.

"Untitled" by Garaicoa

"Untitled," by Carlos Garaicoa, gelatin silver print, thread and pins, 48 1/4 by 70 1/2 inches, 2004, Collection of Kathryn Fleck, Aspen

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 around them.

"Untitled," by Garaicoa

"Untitled," by Carlos Garaicoa, gelatin silver print, threads and pin, 47 13/16 by 59 1/16 inches, 2004, collection of Lori and Alexandre Chemia, New York

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.

"Untitled (L.A.)" by Garaicoa

"Untitled (L.A.)," by Carlos Garaicoa, two gelatin silver prints, thread and pins, each 39 1/2 by 59 1/4 inches, 2004, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Fund for the Twenty-First Century

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 work."

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.

 

 

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at www.amazon.com and at www.ashraya-ny.org

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