MOMA: New Photography 2009

The MOMA’s annual New Photography exhibit is pretty much the only reason I go to the MOMA anymore, because the place is incredibly hectic, overwhelming, and crowded with tourists vying for a spot in front of Dali’s Persistence of Memory. The New Photography is usually empty (relatively) and I’m always interested in hearing what the MOMA has to add to the conversation that is contemporary photography.

Normally, the New Photography exhibit is more or less a showcase for lesser-known and emerging photographers. This is the first time that I’ve ever seen them choose to organize the exhibit thematically. These are all photographic works by young artists that, according to the curator, “examine and expand the conventional definitions of the medium.” And it’s true, the show did present a diversity of technique and the artists displayed a post-modern deftness and agility in working on the invisible borders of their medium. But I felt cheated. I came to see photography and what I saw was something else entirely.

Sara VanDerBeeck‘s “A Composition for Detroit” is a four part series of photographs of structural collages that she creates, lights in a studio, and photographs.

VanDerbeek2of4

Sara VanDerBeek, Composition for Detroit (detail)

The temporary quality of the structures, the fact that all we have is a single moment and referential point to their once-and-now-gone existence is obviously thematically intelligent. It forces a conversation on temporality and is an effective, if didactic, comment on the fallen state of Detroit as a formerly important city left to wallow in its own remains post-globalization. Nevertheless it seems, to me, to be the work of an adept art-school student and not much more. Pretty and smart, but ultimately more academic than emotional.

Sterling Ruby digitally manipulates photographs of graffiti, carving thickly painted scratches that exist on a plane outside the original.

Ruby_Animal

Sterling Ruby, Animal

I don’t really get it, to be honest. They look like they were digitally manipulated with MacPaint. Maybe he’s saying something about the menace of digital manipulation? The playboy bunny looks threatening, but I feel like it looked threatening as graffiti, so why does Ruby add?

Leslie Hewitt is the closest thing this exhibit has to a traditional photographer, and I thought her work was pretty interesting.

Hewitt2

Leslie Hewitt, Riffs on Real time

She composes still lifes made up of found objects that look natural, quiet but laden. Then she flips them upside down. Looking at her photos, I felt like I imagine I’d feel if I accidentally came across something I knew to be my grandmother’s in a thrift store. That sense of uncanny, the disruption of the psyche-home. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any high-quality reproductions of this stuff online. “Riffs on Real Time”, shown here, was also on display.

Walead Beshty‘s work is more a feat of technical prowess than anything else.

Beshty

Walead Beshty, Three Color Curl (CMY: Irvine, California, August 19, 2008, Fuji Crystal Archive Type C)

It is a physical art that I see more in line with the process art movement, such as the liquid metal sculpting of Richard Serra, than with photography as a medium. That is, Beshty’s work is pure technique, it is the doing of itself, it is the process manifest. He is a conceptual artist. In his newest work, shown here, he takes massive sheets of photo paper and exposes them to various parts of the light spectrum, rolling the sheet out and playing with the curves, creases, and shape of the paper itself. The result is a an abstract expression of light itself. The epic proportions of his work is exciting and is ill-expressed on an internet blog. But I wouldn’t call it photography.

Of all the work on display, I thought Daniel Gordon‘s to be the most striking and perhaps most successful, at least in terms of the organizing theme of the exhibition, i.e., how photography can continue to be relevant in a contemporary environment. Gordon’s work successfully navigates what i see as i kind of minefield of attempting to comment on the ubiquity of images in an increasingly visual/imagistic contemporary culture while remaining visually interesting itself.

Gordon_NudePortrait

Daniel Gordon, Nude Portrait

He creates weird diorama-like mise-en-scenes using magazine cutouts, constructing Frankenstein women, nightmarish collages of body part. I felt sad for his monsters, their obvious body dysmorphism made manifest and their faces looking masked as though they were ashamed of the fact that they were on display. And although Gordon’s work was mixed-media like the rest of the artist’s on display, I thought his stuff most elegantly utilized a specific historical context of photography – the space where art/fashion collide – to comment on the state of photography overall. While definitely mixed media, it is also definitely portrait photography.

Lastly is Carter Mull, a RISD graduate who rephotographs and then manipulates already-made images, in this case, daily newspapers. I like his aesthetic a lot – the colors he uses and the way he arranges the pieces of his images makes it look like he’s x-raying the newspaper, revealing a more sinister and essential meaning beneath the surface level of the daily news.

Carter_Mull

Carter Mull, Eleven

His choice of the LA Times is apt I think – LA, to me, is the city that most clearly (or unclearly as the case may be) expresses the human capability (and sometimes strategy) of holding two intensely dichotomous emotions at once. Mull’s work is subtle, and requires close attention, but is worth the time. It’s also not really photography. Calling Mull’s work photography is akin to calling Rauchenberg’s work photography.

Sara VanDerBeeck‘s “A Composition for Detroit” is a four part series of photographs of structural collages that she creates, lights in a studio, and photographs. The temporary quality of the structures, the fact that all we have is a single moment and referential point to their once-and-now-gone existence is obviously thematically intelligent. It forces a conversation on temporality and is an effective, if didactic, comment on the fallen state of Detroit as a formerly important city left to wallow in its own remains post-globalization. Nevertheless it seems, to me, to be the work of an adept art-school student and not much more. Pretty and smart, but ultimately more academic than emotional.
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