“Speech”

Pace/MacGill Gallery
32 East 57th Street, 9th Floor
February 9, 2017–April 29, 2017

Jim Goldberg, Prized Possession, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008, gelatin silver print, 19 1/2 x 15".

A brutal truth: Images have long maintained an unyielding tyranny over words. The notion is relayed at the entrance to this show, where a colorful heap of anti-Trump protest signage is quietly arranged. It’s a curatorial ploy apt for this photography ensemble concerned with depictions of speech, a theme vague enough to let a stark image of a young, sinewy Congolese refugee cradling a radio (Jim Goldberg’s Prized Possession, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2008) hang near Irving Penn’s swankily gothic portrait of Carson McCullers, whose own devastating possession is a luxe cigarette holder (Carson McCullers, New York, 1950). A literal and intellectual toothlessness are implied in Gregory Halpern’s Untitled, 2016, in which a brown, manicured hand holds out an upper set of dentures, a bit of plaque accumulated between a cuspid and a premolar. Two naked men, one masked, converse in Duane Michals’s A Man Talking to God 1975, a photographic quintet that charts an existential crisis with handwritten dialogue. In one frame, the unmasked man asks why he doesn’t know that he’s talking to himself. The masked man’s retort: “You choose not to know. You’d rather make noise.”

Elsewhere, the First Amendment is celebrated more directly. Photojournalistic images of Civil Rights revolutionaries and representations of queer culture amplify countless citizens’ abiding struggles to be heard. In an exhibition that can sometimes feel like a greatest hits of photographic expression—though the show is clearly a response to our current political perils, only six of forty-three works were made in this century—the less thematically obvious works resonate longer. Take, for example, Susan Paulsen’s Wilmot, 2013, in which an older woman stands at a church pew, arms raised halfway, fingers straightened, mouth partially open. One would be forgiven for believing that speech had ineluctably slipped into song.

Zack Hatfield