Critics’ Picks

Jochen Lempert, Oiseaux-Vögel (Birds), 1997/2004, twelve silver-gelatin prints, 78 x 90 1/2" overall.

Jochen Lempert, Oiseaux-Vögel (Birds), 1997/2004, twelve silver-gelatin prints, 78 x 90 1/2" overall.

Lisbon

Jochen Lempert

Culturgest
Rua Arco do Cego, 50
February 7–May 10, 2009

If any complaint can be levied against Jochen Lempert’s first solo survey outside Germany, “Field Work,” it would be that there is simply not enough work to compensate for his deficient exposure. For Lempert’s photographs of the natural world and its animal subjects are so ripe with prodigious, idiosyncratic beauty that their scarcity on the international scene can appear like an indictment of that scene, as much as testimony to all it overlooks. The artist’s inconspicuousness at this stage in his career might be due to the quiet heterodoxy of his vision: His silver-gelatin prints on thick paper, which he neglects to flatten so that it warps as it dries, activate a material presence that likens them to drawings, distancing him from both documentary and conceptual traditions in contemporary photography. The photos are unframed and affixed to the wall, and their granular surfaces beckon the viewer: Each work evokes not the serendipity of its capture but the destiny of its presentation, as though the photographs, in their strange physicality and still stranger mélange of abstraction and figuration, were themselves rare birds in the rarefied terrain of the museum.

Lempert, who trained as a biologist, is a specialist in these attractions. His photographs convey a longing for rapport with the natural world—caught in moments of grace and of hominid ungainliness. The photographs in this exhibition range from urban scenes where birds soar to a series of barely pigmented sheets on which a smatter of dashes, akin to the erring of a pencil wedged inside a book, reveals itself to be a bird flock rearranging itself across the sky. Other series include matrices of bird portraits, resembling selections from a natural-history archive that both bear witness to nature’s diversity and cast that diversity into the past. The kitsch of animal photography is averted by Lempert’s supreme control of focus, depth, and exposure: Each photo seems like the image of an idea, and each bird its fleet vehicle. What separates these works from sentimental nature photographs is the sense that humans articulate the world in order to know it and, in these articulations, stand outside it. Lempert’s impositions of order and epiphanies of form make his work less about this distance than the enchanting fruit of it.