September 10 – October 17, 2015
It was doomed to just be a surface, as photographs are.
Fuss—the spiritual symbolist among the non-conventional photographers—returns to New York with λόγος, an exhibition of new works exploring old thoughts. He continues to mine the space between the rational and the spiritual through the most unlikely medium: excluded, modern, mechanical, cynical, nihilist, self-negating photography. Though Fuss has remained apart from conceptual arguments and has continued to successfully employ the medium to serve his own thoughts, questions surface in his experimental approach. This exhibition, perhaps more than ever, offers a space to explore Fuss’s thinking and work through its attendant complications.
Fuss is known for making enormous photograms, but unlike many of his contemporaries employing similar alternative photographic processes, Fuss is neither interested in challenging representational modalities nor seduced by the nostalgia of the old techniques. Fuss’s famous photograms of his recurring subject/objects—babies, snakes, water, rabbits, and guts—with their monumental size, vibrant colors, and vacant compositions—have continuously aimed to be first and foremost symbolic parables. The use of photography has remained too secondary and effortless to be discussed. Yet in this exhibition the role of photography is more central and it offers a chance to study what has always made Fuss’s work gratifying, troubling, and occasionally moving.
The gallery’s main room holds Fuss’s “Waterfalls”; six large photograms, all titled Logos (2015). As with most of Fuss’s successful works, there is so much mystical poetry in these pieces that all rational arguments seem irrelevant. Here he turns to the element most essential to all his practice: water. Six long horizontal pieces, each more than 100 inches high, are of what appears to be close-ups of waterfalls. What is being viewed here, however, are not images of waterfalls. To present the experience of the waterfall itself, Fuss set up his light-sensitive paper to be directly impacted by the rage of the falling water. These six papers are survivors of this encounter. What is perceived as image are the bruises on Fuss’s paper. What is captured is the movement, the energy of the flowing water itself. Still, as one steps closer to study what appears on these papers—now secured and separated behind the frame—all that is available to the viewer is the surface: flat, abstracted, unreachable, and as distant as photography has ever been.
In the back room, one finds work that is much more challenging, courageous, and problematic. Taking a brave step, Fuss, like his contemporary Thomas Ruff, aims to explore photograms in the digital realm. But unlike Ruff—and his complex software-simulated equivalents of contemporary photograms, Fuss once again bypasses the conceptual querls and takes the simple, pragmatic road. Fuss places one of his favorite subject/objects—the snake—on the digital equivalent of light-sensitive paper: a scanner. In the three resulting pieces, Fuss is successful in establishing a sense of symbolism, and the undeniable digital abstraction of the moving snake is enchanting. The moving snakes become falling landscapes, the alphabets of a language unknown. However, standing in the room, anxieties surface that are inherent to the practice of Fuss, this modern western mystic. The issue lies neither with the move to the digital nor within the images, but in the choices that come after. The decision to print them on canvas mocks the unpainterliness of these digital objects. Furthermore the—almost identical—pieces are titled after some of the most iconic Chinese landscape painters (After Shen Chou (2015), After Li T’ang (2015), and After Kuo Hsi (2015)). While the parallels are obvious, borrowing the names of three master painters from a rich and complex culture is not only imposed and surfaced, but ultimately careless. From this vantage point the Greek title “λόγος”seems artificial and heavy-handed. Suddenly one is aware that the same question can be raised about the marriage of Fuss’s ancient and spiritual philosophies to the medium of photography. The work risks going beyond photography’s flatness, and becoming simply shallow or worse: reductive to the point of approaching orientalism.
But then there are moments in this exhibition that transcend such objections; the mesmerizing pieces filling the last room of the exhibition offer such a space. These four pieces, incredibly silent and still, offer a chance to contemplate and finally enjoy the poetics of Fuss’s world. In this meditative space, Fuss presents a piece very different from the others. Small, dark, printed on metal, and completely black, Grain of Sand (2015) withholds a dense and heavy world of darkness. Facing it on all sides are three enormous photograms of white curtains (all titled Logos (2013)) with light gently passing through them. Imagining the process that would give birth to photograms of such a delicate subject, the subtlety gifts the viewer a moment of true silence. Unlike any other work in the exhibition, these four pieces offer unattainable texture longing to be felt. Here the light and the dark come together effortlessly. One finally stands on Fuss’s side, wondering about the light on the other side. The words of Omar Khayyám resonate:
“There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil past which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of ME and THEE
There seemed—and then no more of THEE and ME”