I Am a Lie and I am Gold
YOSSI MILO GALLERY | December 11, 2015 – January 23, 2016
“On the surface an intelligible lie; Underneath, the unintelligible truth”
—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The familiar image of Diane Arbus’s iconic twins greet viewers by the entrance. Yet something is immediately amiss—it is not a photograph but a meticulously enlarged replica of the image drawn in pencil. Daniel Davidson’s Mirror (Diane Arbus) (2015) gives the first hint at the challenges of this exhibit. Three rooms of the gallery have been packed with a wide range of work, from text-based pieces to traditional oil paintings. Although not a single photograph is on display, each artwork addresses an old concern: “How has photography influenced our perception?”
Playfully titled after a line of “I Am a Photograph,” a song by the disco queen Amanda Lear, the exhibit I am a Lie and I am Gold differs from most current studies of photography. Rid of cynicism, the exhibition is filled with seductive and challenging pieces that emphasize the open-ended nature of the medium. The curator, Marco Breuer (known for his intricate camera-less abstract photography and his continuous efforts to broaden the medium) has carefully assembled the pieces to transform the initial question into a deep study of the medium as a fluid phenomenon. “Photography is a principle, not a product,” states the press release.
Mel Bochner’s famous Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography) (1967 – 1970), opens the conversation in the first room. This piece—the only residue of the last century—consists of ten offset cards. Handwritten on each is a quote. The authors vary immensely, from Mao to Wittgenstein and Duchamp, but each make a statement about the medium. Proust announces, “Photography is the product of complete alienation.” Encyclopedia Britannica dictates the counterargument: “Photography cannot record abstract ideas.” As a whole, the authoritative definitions, all equally profound and insufficient, mock themselves. Bochner implicitly calls for a balanced and unbiased exploration of the medium.
Breuer takes up the challenge, creating a two-sided narrative of the relationship between photography and its environment: one group practices their own mediums while accepting and embracing the photographic perception and the other explores other mediums to highlight their photographic concerns.
The artists exploring their own medium but adopting a “photographic perception” provide much of the visual and emotional impact of the exhibition. Marcin Cienski presents impressive photo-based oil paintings. By the Stove (2012) depicts a middle-aged woman caught by a harsh flashlight in a dark domestic environment. Looking down upon the interrupted heroine to catch a fragile moment, the artist underscores photography’s ability to create intimacy. Others like Martin Wilner employ photography for its ability to tap into the subconscious. October 2014, Marco Breuer (2014), resulted from a month-long collaboration between the artist/psychotherapist and Breuer. Breuer committed to submit a photograph of his creative process everyday; Wilner would then use them to create a final piece, a two-sided panel. On one side, he makes small drawings of Breuer’s submission—as thumbnails—and on the other he creates an intricate, surreal diagram/drawing that withholds his analysis.
The second group, immensely varied in concept, create a layered criticism of the medium. Some artists examine the medium’s usage. Davide Cantoni meditates on the information lost in photo-journalism. His painting, “Afghan Elder (2007) portrays an elderly bearded man from a familiar source photograph. After decades of antagonistic stereotyping by the mass media, the title and facial hair are enough to turn the depicted man into a feared guerrilla fighter. But this piece is painted in translucent Acrylic paint. From a distance the piece appears as an empty canvas; only by stepping closer is the image of the man revealed. His haunting gaze reproaches the viewers, questioning the attached stigma. Other investigations are socially based. Glenn Ligon’s Self- Portrait at Eleven Years Old (2004) is a painting duplicating an iconic photograph of Stevie Wonder. By mocking his own adolescent fabrication, he points to the role of popular imagery in conditioning one’s identity. Others examine our contemporary photo-bombarded world. Anna Plesset presents The Pretense of Beauty I: Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches (Golden Arrow) (2015), a small oil painting of a landscape; what might have once been viewed as sublime is now reduced to pure banality.
Whether it is artists with other practices yielding to today’s photo-culture or the inside arguments of photographers, the core questions spiral towards the concept of photography. In a separate room, Molly Springfield presents detailed replicas of scanned photography textbooks. In Under the Sign of Saturn (2015)—based on Susan Sontag’s book of the same name—Springfield meticulously paints a double page, half filled with paragraphs of text. The artist carefully recreates all the appearance, including the the paper’s scratches from the scan and the text describing a photograph. The text is transformed to a painting, cognition and imagination called upon, and so the photograph is reborn from a memory.
As inclusive as Breuer’s collection is, it is still comprised of only European and American artists with the single exception of Cynthia Lin—Crop2YCsidemouth41407 (2007), a mesmerizing large black-and-white abstraction that, isolated here, fails to communicate beyond the surface. Confining his investigation to the familiar Euro-centric narrative makes it easy to dismiss the importance of the social, political, and historical context in shaping the medium. Breuer’s epic study remains confined within the image and refuses to include—or fails to explain—the emergence of the contemporary social/conceptual photographic works. Still Breuer’s broad illustration of both—diametrically opposed—ends of photography is impressive. I am a Lie and I am Gold is a much-needed study of the medium in action. While stemming from a contemporary angst, it is a celebration of the medium’s endless possibilities.