Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sex Objects by Eric Kroll - Sex Theaters by Andre Gelpke

You know, Eldon (Eldon Hoke aka. El Duce, drummer and front-man for The Mentors)... his starting line when he worked at The Ivar Theater as the film man was "Gentlemen, pitch your tents!" and the guys would pull their jackets up over their crotch. - Carlos Guitarlos

You cannot blame porn. When I was young I used to masturbate to Gilligan's Island. - Ron Jeremy

We'll have this room fumigated when you're out of it! - Kathleen Howard to Barbara Stanwyck from Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)

To pursue an intellectual discourse is not usually the first response one has when seeing a person naked. The debate has heard a billion opinions whether women who get paid to expose their bodies are in positions of power, or being exploited. Photographers have loved nude bodies. Old camera clubs would mask the perversity of group photo-gangbang sessions by having the models pose "artistically" in the woods or perched on rocks near an ocean as if they were just stumbled upon frolicking around, communing with nature - mother nature as fuck toy. The two books in this post, each calling themselves "a documentary" delve into the world of camera clubs, massage parlors and sex theaters.

The first is Eric Kroll's Sex Objects: An American Photodocumentary published by Addison House in 1977. I first saw this book at Paris Photo in the booth of a dealer who assigned it a hefty price tag. I figured it was rare (I had forgotten to look it up online) but a copy turned up at The Strand Bookstore for 35 dollars so I grabbed it.

Kroll, who had been photographing women since he "was 16" became interested in women who made money through their bodies. Whenever he traveled for a commercial job he would search out massage parlors, nude shows and sex shops and engage in another commercial activity - paying women to allow him to photograph them. Sex Objects is the result of photographing 50 and interviewing over 100 women in 30 different US cities.

Make no mistake, Kroll's photography in this book isn't much beyond the expected. He frames the women posing in their workrooms or against studio seamless in a matter of fact way. He offers two or three photos of about 30 models, shooting them in both black and white and color.

What is good is the way the book is put together. It has a surprisingly playful design for a book from the late 70s with multicolor paper stock for the text pages and contrast between the color and b+w pictures. Large horizontal color images are oriented as verticals, their palette seems to mimic the glossy girly mag spreads from the time period. In some ways the women could be seen as a parade of possible choices within the context of this "documentary." In the interviews the women express a range of attitudes towards what they do for a living. Kroll's own notes include a variety of price lists and ways in which these establishments avoid charges of prostitution by skirting local state law.

Time will tell as to how this book stands after a few readings. I sense that the funky 70s color has much to do with the appeal.

Andre Gelpke's Sex-Theater made its appearance a few years later in 1981 published by Mahnert-Lueg.

Shot entirely in black and white 35mm, Gelpke's approach isn't really much better nor dynamic than Kroll's. In fact, both have very similar sensibilities to arranging their frames - many of which are center weighted images that feel repetitive.

Gelpke starts by alternating images of women painted onto strip club windows with portraits of the real performers. Once inside, the theater's stage is mostly a bare-bones affair with the performers going about their act; fucking, stripping or trying their talents as acrobats. One familiar with Garry Winogrand's pictures in the Ivar Theater in LA will have an idea of the sometimes dreary atmosphere made all the worse by Gelpke's evenly lit flash. In the glaring light of the exposure we see the grime and wear and tear of the stage curtains and walls.

There are some good pictures here but most get treated as if shot from the same vantage point from the audience. Rarely do we see any other audience members other than a hint of them by random disembodied arms stretching into the frame. In the last couple images the stage is filled with a variety of characters as if for a grand finale. Those two pictures become a bit more interesting with potential but sadly they just end the book. Maybe Gelpke is hinting that these places are always a bit of a let down. Surely a stretch but how else does it all manage to look so mundane.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Weavings Performance #2 by Corin Hewitt

Dear Friends: I am obviously distressed by the jury's verdict but I take comfort in knowing that I have done nothing wrong and that I have the enduring support of my family and friends. I believe in the fairness of the judicial system and remain confident that I will ultimately prevail. - Martha Stewart, March 5, 2004

Reading the materials list from Corin Hewitt's
Weavings Performance #2 one might start conjuring the image of a una-bomber type hidden away in a shack (in Portland? Maybe outside of Portland), assembling his devices partly by plan and partly by instinct. The "four turkey feather balls" or "photograph of Ed and Nancy Kienholz's Sollie 17" on the list were items added obviously to aid with the insanity defense.

Corin Hewitt might actually share working habits of such a recluse. He constructs a work space, locks himself away in it for days on end, works with a variety of tools (some not conceived for the tasks at hand), and creates objects which are partly about transformation. Only, if Hewitt's objects exploded, you'd probably start laughing while wiping the beat-juice stained pasta from your forehead. He uses mostly food stuffs; fruits, vegetables, pastas, juices, and makes sculptures out of it. He ingests his material and spits it out, cooks it, lets it rot, photographs it, paints it, leaves it alone, or, as the book's title suggests, weaves it. A FANTASTIC new book (yes I was shouting) from J+L called Weavings Performance #2 is itself an artist book documenting (maybe not) one of Hewitt's performances.

While in the midst of his performances, Hewitt has many mimetic devices (4X5, 35mm, polaroid and digital cameras) at hand to shoot the still lifes he creates within his studio. Not so much for strict documentation as his polaroid pictures sometimes appear within the still lifes not only complicating the picture plane but our sense of image purpose. Is this a procedural? (no). Is this even a representation of the performance? (I doubt it, as a viewer could not look at this stuff so closely). It is an object put together with intuition much like the piece itself - hunter/gatherer-style.

I haven't seen one of Hewitt's performances but from what I read, his constructed studio/workspace is only accessible for the viewer through hinged trap doors and tiny windows, through which you can see him working. These set perspectives (one is described as a lens making the box into a metaphoric camera obscura) would provide our human viewpoint where the images he shot which make up this book are mostly close-up and reductionist. We have little sense of scale, nor lay of the land around the studio. Our faces are thrust into his creations while Hewitt, the performer, stays mostly out of the way. Or perhaps this is his vantage point we are seeing, through the looking glass peering outward. His presence appears in only four pictures - three really, in the fourth he is felt by the blue flame of a torch which is burning the meristems on a head of purple cauliflower (or, at least it looks like cauliflower - could be a severely rotten piece of fruit).

I keep thinking of Fischli and Weiss. Art-making is a serious business so let there be whimsy. A half-eaten plasticine apple sits next to its real, also half eaten, counterpart. Pasta is woven into a partial basket (or is it an Aztec toupée?). Throw some discarded shavings, some straw and a torn up photo into the garbage - photograph it as a discovery. Pay attention, just putting a 5 litre pot on the shelf has potential. As Beckett said, "To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now."

The book is pitch perfect from the layout to the bellyband that graces the cover. Each book is unique, the bellybands were stained by hand with dye made from cherries and cabbages at the printer's facility in Korea. Three inserts are hidden away in a flap on the back cover board. An essay by Marisa C. Sanchez, a conversation between Hewitt and Michael Brenson, and a materials list broken into two categories: Local and Historical. After sitting with Weavings for while, you'll never look at your compost heap the same again.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Douglas Blau ICA Catalog

Douglas Blau is a curator, writer, artist, and obsessive scavenger of images. His exhibition Fictions: A Selection of Pictures from the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries from 1987 presented a wide swath of images from contemporary painters alongside historical artworks in addition to film stills and photographs that all express a visionary or romantic sensibility. The highs and lows sitting in relation to each other were reduced to dark, bluish-hued monochromes. It was a curatorial feat to create narratives and fictions through the multitude of possible picture connections. For Blau, art's object is to make the relationship between reading and looking, depiction and meaning - accessible and engulfing. A new catalog of his latest work from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Pennsylvania breaks Blau's last ten years of self-induced silence in the art world.

The exhibition and catalog brings 16 works from 2008 and one larger work (188 frames) from 1993-95. Each work is a grid of images collaged and grouped under titles which might hint at the narrative being explored. The work Playtime (2008) offers on first glance a game of hide and seek between two girls that slowly reveals itself to be a larger narrative set in the Gilded Age. The 'stage' is a series of images that toss us between ornately decorated drawing rooms, vast staircases, libraries and theaters. You can enter the grid at any point, become the film's editor and piece together your own inspired narrative. The departure in strategy for Blau's recent work is these groupings hold to one particular moment in history instead of his usual sweep across time.

In many of the works, Blau finds multiple copies of each image reproduced through various types of techniques from letterpress to four-color, etchings to photographs so each grid is in its own way an homage to the history of printed matter. It holds to what the digital age is discarding.

The design of this volume is worth noting as printed catalogs are always an important aspect of Blau's work (one might assume due to its long lasting accessibility as opposed to the exhibitions). Each framed grouping was photographed as installed in the ICA and interspersed are detailed close-ups of one section of each piece. These further crop and dissect the individual pictures, zooming in and out the way one might navigate the exhibition. Mostly these detail spreads are designed to break the repetition of just seeing grid after grid since the individual pictures can appear too small to fully investigate. Because of this, one gets the basic gist of each piece but to become fully engulfed is simply not possible. His catalog from the Fictions exhibitions I remember suffered from this same dilemma, we are held back from falling into these worlds as he does in meticulously assembling this work.

As a side note, I highly recommend reading Blau wherever possible. Here is a link to the piece “Solid Air” he wrote inspired by the work of Vija Clemins that appeared in her ICA/Whitney Museum catalog from 1992.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Record 1974/1975 by June Leaf

In November of 1974 to January 1975 June Leaf kept a sketchbook of her time in Mabou Mines, Nova Scotia where she lived with her husband, Robert Frank. Steidl has just released a facsimile called Record 1974/1975.

Record starts with Leaf questioning her thoughts and ideas - trying to find the 'stimulation' to proceed. She writes: "Let me start with the series of the woman in the lifeboat. That is the oldest of the ideas. It is also the most faint to me. Perhaps it is already abandoned. I will therefore recount it here...I recalled that in my last series I had become interested in the shape of a knot." For several pages after she sketches a seagull figure whose eye is a knot in string and as the drawings get more frantic and impulsive she declares: "I've come to a dead stop. Should make a sculpture - don't want to! Should play the fiddle - don't want to! Should take a walk - too cold! Where's the inspiration?"

What I find powerful about Record is it is a diaristic outpouring of thoughts, creative bursts and frustrations. One almost feels embarrassed to be witness to these inner states, dreams and confessions. Working in pencil, ink and watercolor the page to page dynamic is jarring. One is splashed brightly with uplifting color while the next is covered with a violent looking scribble impossible to decipher. Thrown into the mix, Robert appears both as a muse and a dark figure, absent and mourning the death of his daughter Andrea who died in a plane crash that same winter.

Throughout Record Leaf's psychological state seems put to paper. One drawing over which she has written "first demon?" starts a fit of violent pages which the pressure from her pencil varies, making deep rich lines over softer squiggles and finally ending with the figure of a man whose mouth is gushing lines. Leaf notes the lines could be either flames or rolls of paper. A few pages further, another figure is made out in crude rendering over which she writes in a childlike hand "Some demon is responsible for all this."

Towards the end of Record her confessional writing turns back to Robert and living in Mabou. In it she writes of the pain of defeat she experiences and the final understanding that, "we can not really live here. I tried, but like the majority of people here, I tread on ground which is not solid. Yes, I would be a fool to stay...Nothing can grow here. The Mabou Coal Mines are finished. Robert will never understand...He wants to be a man alone on a hill looking at the ocean - it is his picture in his mind that he wants to live. This place is no longer a picture to me. It is a graveyard, only good for starved city souls and eyes."

This dark passage of soul-baring is followed by a small drawing on the last page of a peaceful looking landscape drawn in black ink and captioned with the hopeful passage "Sun falls across this page." The drawing is dated November 24th - two days before her first entry in the sketchbook. The knot was still being examined then, perhaps the hope of unraveling it was still a possibility.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Half Dozen Non-photo Books (for your pleasure)

Here is part one of a barrage of books with short descriptions, this time mostly non-photographic ones I have enjoyed over the last half a year. Yes I have a great number of non-photo books and although I stand by the statement that photographs work best in book form and that most all other mediums suffer to an extent in reproduction, these are well done and worth a look.

Starting with the most popular artist of all time, Warhol from the Sonnebend Collection published by the Gagosian gallery in 2009 (distributed by Rizzoli) is a beautifully produced oversized book of mostly early work (1962-65) that Ileana Sonnebend collected while she represented Warhol to Parisian audiences.

The Gagosian gallery has been publishing a lot of very impressive books, all of which appeal in design and quality. This publication comes in a cardboard slipcase upon which is silk screened to look like a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. After presenting about 50 works the back section of the book delves into the history of the exhibitions held at Sonnebend's Paris gallery. As a bonus, facsimile reproductions of each gallery catalog and booklet published for each show are slipped into glassine holders.

Also included are dozens of photographs taken during the exhibition openings and a great essay by Brenda Richardson describes the complicated relationship between Andy, Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnebend during his rocketing to fame.

Gerhard Richter's Elbe from Walther Konig and the Gerhard Richter Archive in Dresden concentrates on 31 monotype prints Richter made in 1957. These constitute some of his earliest works as a recently graduate from the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste. He had enrolled in a class for printmaking, he found a disinterest in proper technique and instead spent his time trying out unevenly applied ink on linoleum and wooden blocks.

Many appear to be abstractions while others offer a direct reference to landscapes - some moonlit. In a couple, Richter has penned in figures so the unevenly distributed ink comes across as an atmosphere or haze - something his later work would reflect.

Elbe is softcover and employs a very deadpan design - a straightforward presentation printed on very nice cream-colored stock. A short text by Dieter Schwarz lends insight into Richter's method and motivation.

Sol Lewitt once said that "Artist books are not valuable except for the ideas they contain." I wish that were true today as I would be able to afford his Autobiography and Cock Fight Dance. This book from Edizioni Viaindustriae is a study of Lewitt's complete bibliography of artist books from 1967 to 2002. Although well illustrated, it doesn't go as far as to discuss each individual book - most of which are confined to a single page of coverage. Still, it is a good reference work sure to spawn further exploration into these fine books.

Andrew Dodds' Lost in Space is a small artist book from Bookworks from 2006 which sets out to examine what artifacts were left behind on the moon by the Apollo space projects. He corresponds with scientists, lecturers and heads of physics departments asking what they imagine these objects would look like today after such a long time abandoned on the moon's surface. Complimented by archive photographs and other supporting historical material, it is Lost in Space's design which makes for additional enjoyment. Now if only someone would inform Dodds that the moon landing was faked!

Another book which is based upon historical fact is Jeremy Deller's The British Civil War Part II published by Artangel in 2002. This book documents two things, first the personal accounts of participants of the 1984-85 miners' strikes in Northern England, and second, Deller's reenactment of the confrontation between the strikers and the police in Orgreave in South Yorkshire in June of 1984 - over 800 people participated in this reenactment. Less an attempt to tell the definitive history of the strike or that day but taking the idea of a 'living history' and exploring how that can be interpreted and presented over something that was essentially chaos. The British Civil War Part II contains lots of archive material along with a DVD of present day interviews of people who were in Ogreave that day in 1984.

Lastly I want to mention a new book on Josef Albers' Homage to the Square just published by Editorial RM. Made on the occasion of an exhibition at the Casa Barragan. Albers saw this group as "platters to serve color" which attested to the infinite possibilities of hue and light - colors influencing change on one another. This edition is elegant with a sturdy slipcase out of which comes a small but very nicely conceived book of plates. Accompanying are essays by Nicholas Fox Weber and Brenda Danilowitz, both from the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.

I will be serving up another six titles in this vein in just a few days.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

In Boksburg: The original 1982 edition

In the early 1980s a man named Paul Alberts had a plan to create the first serious photographic book publishing company and gallery in Cape Town. The gallery would assemble an archive of South African photography out of the book prints used from each project - the name he chose was The Gallery Press.

Alberts' approach to distribution was through a series of mail campaigns to gather orders directly instead of being subjected to the heavy discounts demanded by bookstores or other distributors. The entire venture with The Gallery Press failed after releasing just one book, David Goldblatt's In Boksburg. It nearly bankrupted Alberts.

After doing our study of Boksburg in the Errata series I was notified by Thomas Alberts, the son of the publisher Paul, that a couple boxes of the original book had been found in storage complete with dustjackets. He is making a few of those books, freshly signed by David Goldblatt, available for sale.

These copies have been in a sealed box since 1982 when they were manufactured so they are nearly perfect. The dustjacket is the original black jacket seen in Parr / Badger's Photobook: A History.

Interesting note about those jackets is that not enough were made for the entire print run of the book. Alberts had run out of money by then so many books were left sitting in boxes without jackets. When not enough orders were coming in for the books with the black jacket, they decided to breathe life back into the project by redesigning it to feature a photograph. Thus the second 'ballerina' grey cover appeared on a majority of the books.

In Boksburg has a long and storied history from its rejection by Optima magazine to print the photographs (with accompanying text by Alan Paton) because they didn't like Goldblatt's viewpoint, to the fact that black and white duotone hadn't been perfected by printers in South Africa and Boksburg was an early test case in getting it right. It is an important book that appeared at a time when photographic books on South Africa, produced in South Africa were in their infancy.

On the lower spine of In Boksburg there is a small number one printed in white. No one could know that this would be the first and only publication that The Gallery Press would release. It was a huge start in retrospect, but maybe at the time it was overestimated the number of people who would want to pay 14 Rand ($3.50) to look at their own values and complacency within Goldblatt's portrait of apartheid.

Click here to inquire about copies of this original edition of In Boksburg which are signed by David Goldblatt and protected in mylar.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Robert Frank: 81 Contact Sheets

A couple years ago I had heard rumored that the eccentric Japanese publisher Kazuhiko Motomura was working on a special "book" on Robert Frank's contact sheets from The Americans. That rumor had quieted a bit after Sarah Greenough's masterwork Looking In seemed to beat it to the punch by reproducing every sheet that had an image that appeared in Frank's final published edit, but Motomura proceeded anyway and Robert Frank: 81 Contact Sheets from The Americans is out. I have seen it and I have to say it is pretty amazing.

Now before you get too excited; A) it is very expensive at $1500.00 B) Mr Motomura only sells books to people who have bought in the past or will buy a set of ALL of his previous publications which totals around $7500.00 (including this new Frank). So that leaves me out and I guess a few of you too.

If you're one of his past patrons or wealthy, here's what you get. After getting past the shipping carton which I heard was a solid wooden crate, you discover a large very sturdy black box approximately 20 X 24 inches in size. On the front edge, a label with the edition number lets you know which copy of the 300 you own. Lifting the lid reveals a second box made of light wood - burned into the surface is an enlarged version of Frank's signature. Lifting that lid reveals the interior which is foam lined and cradles a silver folded portfolio upon which is embossed Frank's initials. This is lifted out and when opened, reveals a handmade japanese paper enclosure with a dark silver star at the right edge. Opening that you get to the meat of this endeavor - 81 individual enlarged contacts sheets held in place by a large belly-band.

The enlarged sheets are duotone printed with grey boarders and although I didn't measure them I estimate they are between 16X20 and 20X24 in size. Each individual frame is enlarged to approximately 2x3 inches - double the size of a normal 35mm frame. The reproduction is very well done. the images look sharp and certainly you will be able to discover more in each picture than in the Greenough book.

At the bottom of each sheet there is a number which corresponds to Frank's sequencing as they appear in the original book. Like in the Greenough's extensive study, these sheets have edit markings and show some edge wear of the original source material. They are unbound so leafing through them can be a bit cumbersome. My friend Ed, who has the copy seen above, said it took him a few days to get through all of it after an extra day or so getting the energy necessary to tackle it in the first place.

It's a damn impressive presentation but for me it is a bit over the top considering Frank's bohemian personality. If looked at through that perspective, this is so far removed that until you get to the sheets themselves, it doesn't feel like Frank's sensibility at all. I'd imagine Frank being more comfortable with each just showing up in a scruffy, edge-worn photo paper box. His photos are precious but the prints rarely seem as such.

Accompanying the sheets is a silver softcover booklet approximately 11 x 17 which has an index of each photo with commentary by Frank both in Japanese and English. To my knowledge, most of this commentary hasn't appeared elsewhere and although some of it has become the lore of The Americans there are many anecdotes that will certainly be of interest to Frankophiles.

Since the taste of sour grapes is strong, I am just going to buy a $15.00 loupe, unwrap my copy of Looking In from an oversized cigar box insulated with cheese cloth and have at the same material. That's the way I imagine Frank would have wanted it.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Blumen by Collier Schorr

The photograph reproduced on the back cover of Collier Schorr's Forests and Fields Vol. 1: Neighbors (Opium, 2005) describes a young girl's back as she sits on the slope of a hillock. Her long blond hair and white t-shirt providing a clean backdrop for some wild flowers and long strands of grass which she sits among. It is an image that seems to mark a starting point for her newest volume of the Forests and Fields work Blumen just published by Steidl.

Schorr has been photographing in the small town of Schwäbisch-Gmünd in Southern Germany over the past fifteen years. Her work includes portraits, landscapes and her own stagings which question both the identities of what it is to be "German" and her own status as an outsider. Her approach is quiet yet provocative, with many allusions to history and warfare.

In Blumen, Schorr has undertaken another kind of arrangement leaning more towards the abstract. A majority of the images are photographs of ephemeral flower arrangements which she constructs, not in a studio, but outside where they can be set against the sky. Using string and cut or plucked flowers, the fragile site-specific works are then photographed before the flowers wilt or destroyed by the wind. Seductively beautiful with their saturated color, many constructions, although static, introduce the sense of the blossoms caught in mid-flight to the ground - a slight departure from much of her other work which has a very stayed appearance. Others are almost bondage-like, tense and dominating.

Interspersed throughout Blumen, Schorr includes several images which purposely break what would be a straight forward thematic grouping of pictures. The best of which refer back to the floral constructions - a workshop wall of saw blades and tools haphazardly displayed; a stack of bricks with a bright blue product container and grouping of potatoes laid at its base; a store window display of translucent plastic containers - but have a quality of having been found in situ.

In Ripple (2006) she describes the shoreline of a lake with an arrangement of an open red knapsack, some yellow plastic bags, a small towel draped on a tree stump, all set against the dark rippling of the water's surface. In her past body of work she employed black and white tonalities and dressed her scenes with historical props - military uniforms and architectural details which scream of the past. With this work we are steeped in the present and the two books sit in interesting contrast to one another as chapters of on-going work.

I am conflicted with the full success of Blumen simply due to the inclusion of a couple images. Ideally there is a tension between what I perceive as the carefully constructed photographs and those that appear more impulsive but some of the latter seem simply superfluous. A picture of a slightly blurred garage wall with the hood ornament of a Mercedes for instance. Granted there are only a couple within the 50 images but for me they stick out so strongly that they brought me out of Schorr's fictional description of place and instead back in my mind questioning their blandness.

Blumen's design is elegantly simple. Several gatefolds break the rhythm, slowing the viewer down and enticing further consideration. The cover features no type and instead a wondrously topsy-turvy black and white image of plant shadows - I am not sure if it was originally a horizontal or a vertical - whose only sense of color comes from the tiniest speck of red.

For some, Schorr's theatrics might turn them away. My initial instincts towards such contrived work years ago was to question why I should invest myself in further thought towards images that are so contrived. Playacting demands a certain talent to entice and suspend bias in favor of exploration and discovery. In both of these books I find Schorr achieves a method which I am more open to even when she is pushing my limits. With Blumen she has done so with flowers, a subject which in the furthest reaches of my mind I wouldn't have believed possible.

Collier Schorr will be signing copies of Blumen at Dashwood Books at 33 Bond Street in New York City tomorrow Tuesday March 9th from 6-8pm. Sorry I previously listed the incorrect date!!