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Not Just Pretty Pictures

Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Still #34 (1979)

The camera, that mechanical eye which can be rigged to print the images it targets, has been a potent catalyst for change in the visual arts since its inception in the mid-Nineteenth Century. After an early modernist period in which photography sought and achieved acceptance on its own terms as art, use of the camera became popular, affordable, and portable. It was one of the first devices adopted by the general public in what would become the arsenal of personal technology we're now accustomed to toting around every day.

Works by 57 international artists have been assembled by Douglas Fogle, associate curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, for the exhibition "The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography, 1960-1982," on view at Miami Art Central through June 12. It is brilliantly curated and attentively installed. The caliber of this exhibition should incite a riot in these parts. Allow a leisurely amount of time to absorb the original approaches of these artists.

Meteoric cultural and perceptual changes were afoot in the United States and abroad during the period 1960-82. The introduction of the birth-control pill opened the door to the sexual revolution and the feminist movement. Affordable air travel brought remote corners of the world closer to one another. The explosion of television and print media during those years saturated living rooms with blaring news broadcasts featuring moving images direct from the front lines of Vietnam, while racks of glossy magazines exhorted consumers to improve their lifestyles.

Artists, clustering around a rapidly expanding number of fine-arts programs at colleges and universities, were able to nurture their intensity and eccentricity under the tutelage of charismatic artist/professors. After Pop Art's embrace of the banality of advertising and its celebration of consumer prosperity, visual artists adopted the more detached stance of philosophers. Academia provided a laboratory in which definitions were critical, linguistics and semiotics ruled, and artists' actions demonstrated conceptual theories. Quasi-scientific and philosophic discourse demanded documentation, anecdotal evidence of its proofs -- and the camera, as an instrument of reportage, was enlisted to that end.

Artist Robert Smithson was a giant of the era, and his influence reverberated across many a college campus. His interest in decay, entropy, and artwork that resisted commodification had broad appeal. In "The Last Picture Show," Smithson's slide presentation Hotel Palenque documents from various perspectives a decrepit Mexican hotel, accompanied by his own audio narration. It was prepared originally for architecture students, as if the hotel were part of Palenque's famed Mayan ruins.

Physical dimensions of things could now be investigated with a detail previously unavailable. The camera recorded visible, if mundane, phenomena such as weight gain and loss, the minutiae of hair growing, and Dennis Oppenheim's humorous and exhibitionistic Reading Position for Second Degree Burn. Repetitive forms in the built environment were catalogued by photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who reveled in the gestalt of the industrial landscape -- water towers, silos, blast furnaces; and by Ed Ruscha, who scrolled along Sunset Boulevard dispassionately documenting the storefronts and sidewalks.

Recognizing that perception is a tool of consciousness, the fledgling advertising industry began applying popularized notions of psychology to the rapidly proliferating image world and monitoring the effects on consumers. And so the field of marketing was born. Media guru Marshall McLuhan advised that we needed to become sensitized to the power of images, especially television images, to manipulate and propagandize. While the camera could be counted on to report simple visual facts, it could also thwart normal perception. The gap between documentation and illusion offered fertile ground for artistic exploration.

None of the photographs in "The Last Picture Show" escaped the influence of Marcel Duchamp and his photographer/co-conspirator Man Ray. Dust Breeding (1920) took advantage of "the evidentiary power of photography to abet a hoax," as described by curator Douglas Fogle in his essay. Man Ray's portrait of Duchamp disporting as female alter ego Rrose Sélavy was echoed decades later by Andy Warhol, who photographed himself in drag. Prints made in the prosaic photo booth -- the camera you can sit in -- were the perfect vehicles for Warhol's cinematic obsession and love of repetition. Joseph Beuys, the influential German artist and teacher, attained mythological stature while fomenting new developments in performance art and social critique. His hermetic, highly codified works were received as dogma by devoted students on both sides of the Atlantic during the Seventies and Eighties. Enterprise 18.11.72, in which he documents his family watching an episode of Star Trek, is a glimpse of a lighter side of Beuys not often seen.

A countercultural movement of anti-photography rebelled against the pristine modernist photographic masterwork, and Sigmar Polke's open-minded approach to focus and depth-of-field yielded painterly, ambiguous results charged with atmosphere. Additional methods artists employed to degrade the purity of the photographic image included photographing other photographs, television screens, and printed material. Sherrie Levine tested viewers' ability to suss out the originality of photographic works by rephotographing Walker Evans's revered series of portraits that accompanied James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and in the process questioned conventional assessments of the value of a photograph. Required reading for any viewer of contemporary art and photography is German writer Walter Benjamin's seminal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which exposed subtle distinctions between an original work of art and its facsimile. Photographs also compete with the memory of an original experience: What is lost in these operations? What is transformed?

In attempts to scrape away the veneer of postwar suburban prosperity, artists gladly performed the roles of trickster, misfit, and political agitator. Hans-Peter Feldmann's series Sonntagsbilder (Sunday Pictures) from 1976 to 1977 mock the sentimentality of Life magazine spreads and Hallmark greeting cards. Sarah Charlesworth's April 21, 1978 is an eye-opening work in which she isolates the photographic images appearing on the front pages of daily newspapers collected from around the globe.

The swiftness with which a celebrity can be minted via the photographic process is commonplace today. Artists Cindy Sherman, the team of Gilbert and George, and Andy Warhol created evidence of "personas," or photogenic, ersatz reconstructions of self. Warhol was particularly invested in the creation of a pantheon of art stars, something unimaginable without harnessing the power of the camera and the media. Cindy Sherman's breakthrough Untitled Film Stills (1977-80) was enormously influential, and the images still look fresh after all these years. Sherman's work presages photography's role as indispensable henchman to the glamour and celebrity industries that were on the verge of dominating popular media -- fashion, styling, drag culture, MTV, cosmetics.

"The Last Picture Show" is an in-depth look at a rich period in art production, vastly different from the one we are now experiencing. The inflation of the Eighties art market had not yet hit, and neither had the upsurge in master's degree programs for artists. Working in esoteric veins on the margins of cultural production, the artists featured in "The Last Picture Show" were able to throw well-aimed rocks at the establishment. They hijacked the technology of the camera and retrained it, as they formerly might have plied a pen or brush, collapsing boundaries between art forms high and low, among static art and performance, earthworks, architecture, urban planning, appropriated imagery, and social commentary. Today the position of many young artists tends toward an amiable collaboration with the establishment and the marketplace, and perhaps as a result much contemporary art evinces conservative tropes such as nostalgia, escapism, juvenilia, narcissism, and soft porn. These works are content to arouse titillation instead of instigating radical thinking processes. The works in "The Last Picture Show," in contrast, encourage intellectual liberation as they court the absurd, the unpredictable, and the mysterious.


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