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JOE FIG Project Room and Work in Progress

P.S.1 – MoMA


In Project Room, a three-person show at P.S.1, and in Work in Progress, a solo show at the new and very small Plus Ultra Gallery, Joe Fig presents his dioramas of artists in their studios. In a funny conflation of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Hans Namuth, we see a bulky de Kooning out at East Hampton with his slippers and overalls, pre-Alzheimer paintings stacked around him. Barnett Newman relaxes with a cigarette in a chair before a few tableaux, contemporary artist Steve DeFrank considers his containers of Lite-Brites, and a sickly Matisse snips colored paper for the collages as he lies propped-up in bed. The P.S.1 show includes only the dioramas, and none of the photographs that seem at least an equal part of Fig’s endeavor.

Joe Fig, "The Sublime is Now! (Barnett Newman 1951)," Digital Print, 2001. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

The dioramas are impressive in their detail: everything feels accounted for, down to the dirty floorboards and each hair in the paintbrushes. Plus Ultra includes only one diorama among the photographs, and it is built into the wall; one cannot, as at P.S.1, walk all the way around the piece to examine it from different angles. This restriction adds to the way the space is experienced, and makes the interior and exterior lighting appear much more miraculous. When they are freestanding, the dioramas feel oddly unresolved, literally unwilling to take a position. They appear crafty, and much more like objects than discrete moments. The photographs further liberate the works from their objecthood, allowing the scenes to expand into narratives. Objects blur out of focus, obscuring, at least initially, the awkward details that root the pictures firmly in artifice. One thinks of a host of references, including Thomas Demand, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Laurie Simmons, and the various Miniature World-type tourist attractions. But the kind of ontological games Fig plays with his photographs find their earliest expression in Victorian allegorical studies in which the photograph’s elegiac properties are manipulated. Artists like Henry Peach Robinson set up Neo-Gothic tableaux of women actors of funeral biers, taking advantage of our trust of images (which at that time was yet unharmed by digital technology) to collapse living and dead. Time is caught, and its passage disregarded. The other profound effect of photography, of course, is its contempt for scale. This is what truly separates Fig’s photographs from their dependent models. It is true that there is something enjoyable in discovering those moments where Fig isn’t quite able to flawlessly scale down the materials of our world to the world of his artist-subjects. But by opening up the scale, the photographs enlarge the scope of Fig’s project. We are allowed across decades and/or distances into these private moments, and once we figure out the proof, can come and go as we please.


Peter Eleey


The Brooklyn Rail

JAN-FEB 2002

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