Critics’ Picks

Kohei Yoshiyuki, Untitled, 1971, gelatin silver print, 12 1/4 x 18 5/16".

Kohei Yoshiyuki, Untitled, 1971, gelatin silver print, 12 1/4 x 18 5/16".

Trevor Paglen, “Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage,” “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera since 1870”

Amid the year’s constant shuffle (art fairs; retrospectives; group, solo, and MFA shows), the exhibitions that stuck with me most provided a strange parallax to the present moment. This was certainly the poetry of Trevor Paglen’s “Unhuman” at Altman Siegel, which continued the photographer’s meditation on systems of surveillance while mining an unexpected history, namely the painterly legacy of Turner and Friedrich. His elegant images offered an enigmatic collision between our technocratic moment and the visual regimes that continue to haunt us like spectral apparitions or retinal afterimages.

By contrast, “Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage” at the Berkeley Art Museum revisited a very familiar history, bringing together an impressive array of works from the 1910s and ’20s. Its impact lay not in unearthing unplumbed narratives, however, but in the simple presentation of the materiality of his gestures. Given the recent turn to construction in much contemporary painting, this also served as a timely addendum, perhaps best captured by the full-scale re-creation of Merzbau, 1937, Schwitters’s massive sculptural environment that was destroyed in 1943 during the British bombing of Hannover. The pristine re-creation certainly lacked the patina of history, but managed to divine something of its import.

Finally, though it technically opened in 2010, one should take any occasion one can to mention SF MoMA’s sprawling photography survey “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870.” Not only does it stand as one of this year’s best shows; it constitutes one of the most ambitious and action-packed exhibitions in years. Accumulating an impressively researched archive of images, “Exposed” was a real testament to the skill and vision of curator Sandra Phillips, who has long been invested in tracing the vernacular of photography in all its messiness. Prescient and paranoid, it certainly merited a long, hard look.

Franklin Melendez is a writer based in California.