ANDREW KREPS GALLERY | JUNE 24 – AUGUST 19, 2016
A cresting hill forces a sharp incline in the otherwise flat highway. Industrial grays and frontage greens fly by the window in the driver’s periphery. From over the hill, a figure emerges into view, a woman’s outline—an apparition sheathed in a sheer curtain—imposes itself on the landscape. As if lying in wait for the appearance of the image, the photographer is rather overtaken by the image.
Peter Piller’s photographs in the series Erscheinungen (2016) (the title has the sense in German of appearance, apparition, phenomenon) document advertising images of women that Piller noticed on the back of tractor-trailers while traveling on a highway between Hamburg and Leipzig. He followed the trucks, taking the photographs at rest stops. The works exhibited appear to be straight photographs, but in fact Piller has also removed any advertising copy or text from the images. At the center of the gallery, a dark room accommodates a slide show entitled Kraft (2010) that documents a Kraft brand sign in all seasons and times of day along the same highway.
The images that the photographs in Erscheinungen capture are designed to tantalize. But, the open highway is hypnotizing, not tantalizing. Piller’s images document traces of a commute more so than a romantic road trip. The photographs fail to rise above their quotidian appearance. Like the daily commute, they do not offer self-discovery, do not so much dumbfound as leave one with a blunted intellectual or aesthetic experience of the highway. In his previous series Umschläge (2014), Piller juxtaposed images of women and war materials found on the front and back covers of an East German military magazine published between 1956 and 1990. The photographs in Erscheinungen, shorn of the textual juxtaposition of their ad copy, offer less of a framework for interpretation. In a world glutted on advertising images, particularly ones of women, they are expected and do not add to our sense of what a photographic image can tell us.
Despite this absence of juxtaposition, the selection of advertisements that feature women nevertheless guide a certain kind of consideration. In Erscheinungen #13 (2015), a woman clad in what passes as a Pacific Islander costume (think: green feathery bikini bottom) kneels before a cornucopia of fruits, dangling a cluster of grapes over her open mouth. She seems to elicit the kind of analysis Roland Barthes gives in his structuralist schematizing of connotation and denotation in the image, the system of visual and cultural codes that signify abundance, fecundity, exoticism, sex for the viewer.
In Erscheinungen #18 (2016), a Jessica Rabbit-type model provocatively handles a phallic section of wood beam. The reading here is more blatantly psychosexual, but in a caricatural way. The image captures this Jessica behind the lines traced by the truck door’s metal slats—a kind of prison for this phallic provocatrice who does not quite achieve her provocation. The advertisements that Piller has collected in these photographs surely have not been designed to sell anything sexier than wood flooring, canned fruit, perhaps a mattress at their most suggestive.
The slides give more shades of highway hypnotism, as well as of Ed Ruscha’s 1963 artist’s book Twentysix Gasoline Stations. But, in the dark room, the stoppage of the slides, the varying degrees of focus and blurriness, intimate something more at work in the Kraft slide show. The logo signpost soon becomes a denatured mark, in some slides nothing more than a stain of light. More than fecundity or sex, the advertisements—like the Kraft logo—signify a capitalist banality that takes on its own romantic aura. On his website, Piller, quoting Goethe, reminds us: “Man suche nur nichts hinter den Phänomenen; sie selbst sind die Lehre.” (“Search nothing beyond the phenomena; they are themselves the theory.”) In this series, however, such advice seems to mislead the viewer. The phenomenal appearance of these images comes freighted with the weight of sex and gender, and so begs the further context of juxtaposition that Piller’s editing disallows.
PHILLIP GRIFFITH is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City.