Monday, October 25, 2010

Lewis Baltz: Works

Have you ever had a night of pure gluttony? Ever sat down, watching for instance the playoffs for the World Series - seeing both your hometown and adopted town lose - on your lap is a half gallon of ice cream and in your right hand, a spoon. You keep making a mental note that you shouldn't have anymore because the carton is three quarters empty and the edge of your spoon-hand is practically a plaster cast of sugar. Yet you take another spoonful and press the substance to the roof of your mouth making those little half swallows like a baby suckling a breast. While savoring the flavor, the coolness or the slight grit to the ice on our tongue, your hand automatically motions downward for another shovel full. You feel slightly disgusted with yourself. That is how I felt as I kept methodically turning pages of every book in my first choice for Book(s) of the Year - the Lewis Baltz: Works box set from Steidl. I couldn't stop. Just one more picture. Then another, and another, and another, as if the books would disappear off my shelf the following morning.

It probably comes as no surprise that I have been a fan of Lewis Baltz since art school and have sought out his books over the years. I saw him speak once in the late 90s where he recounted a story about showing John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art his New Industrial Parks photographs. While looking at the photos John had made three piles of pictures - when he was finished he showed Lewis the prints the museum would want to purchase. Lewis said he was a bit offended and said they would have to buy all of the set or none - it wasn't divisible.

I shyly asked Lewis about this after the lecture because I didn't understand why he was so offended about John choosing images. I asked "isn't that a curator's job to chose images etc." Baltz responded with a few elegantly worded sentences, 50% of which I couldn't understand because of my stunted vocabulary but what I did comprehend without a dictionary was the idea that dividing up the work could contextualize it differently than if it were kept together. Would a painter cut a canvas if the curator only wanted a section? (Ray Johnson would but who else?). Baltz asked if we could continue the conversation outside so he could smoke but I took the opportunity to slink back into the crowd and disappear being that, although he was extremely nice (Michael Schmidt once described him "with oriental politeness"), I felt completely intimidated by him.

I think I partly respond so strongly to Baltz and Robert Adams and maybe to a lesser extent, Gossage, because the describe landscapes that seem so familiar because I grew up in Arizona where construction/expansion and destruction are linked. Where ideas of money outweigh all common sense. I would ride my bike through entire neighborhoods with paved roads and cul-de-sacs but no homes to be seen - the investors pulled out just before any foundations were laid.

The dividing line between nature and suburb was defined by where paved roads bled into dirt and the no-mans-land strip where people would drag their refuse into the desert for illegal dumping. To come across a sun-blistered washing machine miles from the nearest home in the desert feels like stumbling across a crime scene - violence sensed in the shimmering heat off its surface.

Three books of this ten volume set were released a few years ago through the Whitney Museum and RAM - The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, California, The Prototype Works, and The Tract Houses. This set includes; Park City, Nevada, Maryland, San Quentin Point, Sites of Technology, Near Reno and Continuous Fire Polar Circle. The only large body of work that is missing is Candlestick Point which I assume was excluded because it is Baltz's only book which is not in a square format.

In comparing some of my older first editions to these some differences can be seen. Firstly, the printing always looked good to my eye with Baltz's books but compared to these new Steidl printings, the plates are more open and yet retain their richness revealing more detail. In Park City, Baltz has moved the captions opposite the images much like in his New Industrial Parks book rather than as a list before the plates start. He also replaced the Gus Blaisdell essay - in the original edition, a "Foreword" which appears afterward - with a newer essay by Hubertus van Amelunxen. Maryland, which was released originally as a booklet from the Corcoran Gallery of Art as a part of the 1976 exhibition The Nation's Capital in Photographs, shows all of the images from the exhibition in their correct order since the catalogue, for whatever reason, is sequenced out of order. Nevada, a 1978 Castelli gallery catalogue I never owned so I cannot compare but this version contains 15 images and I imagine is the same.

All follow the same design and size, all are covered in cloth the color of freshly poured concrete. It was printed in 1100 copies all of which are signed and numbered. I had heard this will be a quick sell out so I hope some of you that can afford the price can still manage to get a set.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Three Annual Reports from Ringier

The Swiss-based media company Ringier founded in 1833 has for several years published over 400 fine art books under their imprint JRP Ringier with the likes of Richard Prince, John Baldessari, Louise Bourgeois, Fischli and Weiss and others. What some might not know is that Ringier commissions an artist each year to spice up the corporate droll of their annual reports. Some of these titles are later released for sale (minus the company's financial graphs and information) as artist books but recently I picked up a few of the actual annual reports. Often these differ slightly from the "released" version of the book but they are interesting none the less.

The first is the latest from 2009, John Baldessari's Parse. As you know from some of my past postings I am a big fan of Baldessari and Parse is a new favorite. Working from a large and seemingly endless archive of film stills he "processes" the images by cropping, clipping and juxtaposing them into new visual realizations. Often full of humor and absurdity, they create new narratives like a badly acted B movie.

Within the "chapters" of Parse, Baldessari reveals the original picture in its un-cropped fullness. This can have the effect of a mental flashback where the viewer rests for a moment on the "real" context of the original yet recognizes that the original is as strange as his processed edited version. The way Baldessari designed each page in Parse makes for a fascinating panorama of images where the flow of his fragmented language compels the viewer to make connections.

This "report" edition varies from the released artist book in paper stock and binding. This version is softcover with a thick cardstock covers which for this somewhat thick book makes for a flimsy shell. This is not really a criticism, as it's drooping and floppy nature, for me, is as enjoyably unruly to hold as his images are to decipher.

The second I received is a report from 2005 created by Richard Prince called Jokes and Cartoons.

Made up of clippings, paintings and emails, Jokes and Cartoons repeats a hand full of old gags based on social cliches and expectations engendered by the cultural mainstream. As Prince has said of his material: "Jokes and cartoons are a part of any mainstream magazine. They're right up there with the editorial and advertisements and table of contents and letters to the editors. They're part of the layout, part of the 'sights' and 'gags.' Sometimes they are political, sometimes they just make fun of everyday life. Once in a while they drive people to protest and storm foreign embassies and kill people."

The third report is the oldest from 2002, HELLO... created by the artist Alexandra Mir. If the Baldessari is my favorite, this one runs a close second.

Mir, in trolling through the picture archives of Ringier has created a daisy chain of images where each picture, often a family snapshot or press image includes two people. The person on the right side of the frame connects to the following image where that person appears with a third person which connects to a fourth person and on and on and on. As Ringier is a company has been family owned from its beginnings, this chain work starts with a picture Hans and Annette Ringier on the cover and moves through a world of public figures including the artist herself. Eventually, the chain comes full circle where the last photograph include Hans Ringier again, of course on the right side of the frame connecting him to the cover image - and round and round we go a second time.

This report over its 60 pages makes only a couple hundred connections but the structure of this could potentially amount to a lifetime's work of connections made that encircle the span of the world's photographed population. Skiing is a repeated motif which, for me, appropriately accentuates the ease in which Mir presents these often cleaver connections of people.

Other reports that haven't been released for sale include works by Josh Smith, Richard Phillips, Matt Mullican, Christopher Williams, Liam Gillick, Harold F. Müller, and Christian Philipp Müller.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Der Rote Bulli and Eyes Look Through You

This year I was invited to contribute a couple essays to books that are currently available. Since blogging is more or less pressure-free, I accepted these challenges with great apprehension but I'm fairly happy with the results. You be the judge.

The larger of the two is a brick-like catalog from the NRW Forum Dusseldorf called Der Rote Bulli: Stephen Shore and the New Dusseldorf Photography. This is an exhibition curated and edited by Christoph Schaden and Werner Lippert on the occasion of Dusseldorf's Quadrennial 2010 that examines the generations of photographers that have studied at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf under Bernd and Hilla Becher. At its heart, is the transatlantic dialogue between Germany and the United States that rose due to the influence of Stephen Shore's work that would appear in his landmark book Uncommon Places.

Der Rote Bulli - The Red Bully - refers to the red Volkswagon van that appears in Stephen Shore's photograph Church Street and Second Street, Easton, Pennsylvania, June 20, 1974. This image was made on the first day Shore used an 8 x 10 camera that he had been given by the influential Metropolitan Museum curator Weston Neuf after Shore set off to the industrial regions of Pennsylvania. He had made only one previous photograph before setting up his tripod on Church street, a straight on portrait of Easton resident Nicholas Bader wearing an unbuttoned pink shirt. In that image, Bader stares directly into the lens with a questioning gaze, presumably a mirrored reflection of Shore's own expression as he was depressing the shutter - figuring out how this new tool would greatly shift his approach to photographing.

In Schaden's book and exhibition, the Church street image becomes an important marker that would connect the German and US dialogue on current practice. One year after the Church street picture was made it appeared in the legendary New Topographics show in Rochester. The Becher's, who were the only European photographers to have work in the show, had seen the image and eventually purchased a print of it for their own collection soon thereafter. Whatever the presumed attraction they might have had to that particular image, one superficial link is interesting to note, they had also owned an identical red VW van in which they had logged thousands of miles documenting industrial architecture until Bernd's death in 2007.

In examining Shore's influence on the Becher students of the Art Academy in Dusseldorf, Schaden has chosen a smart edit of images from the expected stars (Gursky, Struth, Ruff, Hutte, Hofer), but more importantly, from unexpected or less familiar artists like Volker Dohne, Wendelin Bottlander, Tata Ronkholz, Andi Brenner, Claus Goedicke. This is an important inclusion since the Becher's taught almost 80 masters students between 1976 and 1998.

Several texts accompany this 344 page book, including essays by Christoph Schaden, Maren Polte, Gerald Schroder and mine on the reception of the Becher's work in the United States between 1968 and 1991. My essay is based on, and indebted to, the in-depth two year research by Christoph Schaden on the various ways the work was perceived here in the US which often ran in opposition to how the Bechers saw their work.

The exhibition in Dusseldorf will be on-view at the NRW-Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft in Dusseldorf until January 16, 2011.

The other book I contributed to is Eyes Look Through You from the Brooklyn-based photographer Ted Partin who was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Kunstmuseen Krefeld, Germany.

For the last decade Partin has been photographing his friends and extended tribe in Brooklyn and elsewhere with the lush description from an 8 x10 camera. His subjects, mostly thirty-somethings around the age of Partin himself, persuade us to see their individualism in these intimate portraits. Neither completely real (Partin often directs his subjects) nor consciously conceived fictions, his pictures sit within a territory where the dividing line between the innocent and perverse, reality and fantasy, is often blurred.

His subjects aren't fearful of presenting their personal idiosyncrasies to his camera or the larger world in general. They tattoo their bodies and modify themselves in the hopes of shaping their personal identities. In the image that graces the cover, a boyish-looking young woman lays on a table as the tattooist's gun, barely perceptible, works on her shoulder. She gazes as calm as if simply deep in thought. Pain has become a commonplace experience that is endured, perhaps even invited. This is one thread which links many of Partin's photographs; life is full of discomfort, arm yourself and adapt, get used to it.

Partin acknowledges that sitting before a camera creates a level of discomfort for most of his subjects, so why not work within this emotional space and use the effect to the picture's advantage? This sentiment is felt by noticing how many of Partin's subjects find themselves posing upon uncomfortable looking surfaces. Tabletops, asphalt rooftops, sidewalks, iron gratings echo of the world's hardness.

What do we ultimately take away from Partin's pursuit? His pictures persuade us to see individuals, giving them volume and weight. Beyond age difference, tattoos or clothing we enter a common human exchange as if meeting someone face to face. Their image is to be considered and though photographs do not allow us to fully "know" these people in any real sense, we draw a resounding connection through their poignancy, in hope of knowing just a little more about ourselves through their presence.

Eyes Look Through You is hardcover and includes two essays and a transcript of an interview between Partin and Sylvia Martin, the exhibition's curator.