303 Gallery | September 11 – November 1, 2014
Stephen Shore’s extraordinary eye for exquisite moments in banal situations is once again on display, this time focusing on Israel, the West Bank, and villages of Holocaust survivors in Ukraine. Amidst the loaded history of these locations and one’s inevitable, media-sponsored preconception of them as tense sites of permanent unrest, Shore’s lens opens up seemingly quotidian scenes and implores the viewer to step in and intensely contemplate.
Stephen Shore is widely credited as a pioneering master of color photography. He received his first dark room set at age 6, sold a photograph to MoMA at 14, showed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at age 24, and dropped out of high school to hang at Andy Warhol’s Factory. He is known, however, for his love of the ordinary. In many ways these new images continue the immediacy and pursuit of autonomously meaningful views from Shore’s celebrated Uncommon Places (1977) and American Surfaces (1972) series, albeit this time in some of the most politically volatile contexts available.
His new digital prints retain the trademark stillness, unforgiving details, and even aspect ratio of his previous large format 8 by 10 inch images. The exhibition’s unfussy arrangement includes two walls of 16 by 20 inch prints, and two of four larger views. All the photographs are grouped by location. The perspective is similarly straightforward; one sees the view of the participant—a half-finished hummus plate is glimpsed from the vantage point of the diner wielding that knife cut off at the bottom edge. The glass chosen for these frames is also conspicuously reflective, and the viewer’s face is included with particular focus against empty patches of open land and clear sky.
The photographs of Israel and the West Bank emanate the zealous emulsion of theology, nationalism and ideology noted by the American media, and are perforated here and there by secular vices such as Chanel, satellite TV, teenage mischief, and urban decay. Shore’s pictures focus more plainly on the humdrum humanity of the citizens and refrain from didacticism. For example, “Sderot, Israel, September 14, 2009” (2009, printed 2014) shows a pointing hand hovering above a map of Israel, casting an engulfing shadow. The finger says “attack here,” “great seafood,” or simply “look at this.” The map underneath is irrigated by red and green boundary lines that look like arteries and veins of ephemeral and debatable victories that pulsate in this complicated land as if it were living tissue. A poke anywhere could lead to a bruise, and that darkness might never lift.
Another memorable picture from this series is “Jerusalem, Israel, January 9, 2010” (2010, printed 2014). Shooting in an unremarkable neighborhood, Shore has crafted the scene around bold and decisive shadows organized by the desert sun. A leafy palm shades the scorched road, and a woman in heels and bare legs casually strolls down the sidewalk. It is all very easygoing, and for a second one imagines it could be Los Angeles. The fact that it isn’t seems sobering. It is a photograph that requires a readjustment of one’s expectations and a reconsideration of the outlets that triggered such assumptions. In this regard, Shore’s work demonstrates a quiet but distinct political stance.
The comparatively insular series on Ukraine offers the most engrossing images of the exhibition. These photographs emanate the sensation of a cooling aftermath of devastation, tragedy, and quiet economic struggle. We see rat-bitten volumes and walls cracking from layers of repainting. There are all sorts of clocks measuring the passage of time. In other images, power lines drape left to right over streets like festival banners, flattening the picture plane and the anticipation of further destinations. There is little penchant for progress and much appears to have been repaired. Entropy, one is reminded, can be considered a sustainable form of progress. There are piles of fallen fruits in progressive stages of rot, and plump forest mushrooms—decomposers that feed on dead matter—are plentiful and sold by young people.
“Tsal Groisman, Korsun, Ukraine, July 20, 2012” (2012, printed 2014) portrays a sensibly dressed older gentleman leaning on an ergonomic metal cane in a lushly disorganized garden. The plants showcase a few options of life: seasonal grass, annual squash, apple trees that have seen other summers. The picture contradicts more prevalent images of a war-torn Ukraine. In his attention to the unexceptional, Shore reveals a more profound truth than what the mass media would have us visualize. All the foliage entangles into a green backdrop, and Mr. Groisman is peering up with all the cheerful optimism a man of his experience could sincerely display. He has a lazy belly now, and a canopy of service medals on his jacket blossom peacefully like leaves to a tree.