San Francisco

“(photo) (photo)2 (photo)n: Sequenced Photographs”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

What are the things on the wall and the floor? They are called photographs, but forget the official exhibition title and really look at the things. There are works I would have sworn were paintings (they are, after all, referred to as so many “panels”) and look quite painterly; some look like regular ol’ Conceptual pieces. I mean, do you think Wegman really cares about photography as a medium? Some look like poor man’s cinema (we get to look at the frames one by one, unprojected) or perhaps good magazine illustrations of video pieces. This is something called “(photo) (photo)2 (photo)n: Sequenced Photographs.” It’s full of everything: Bill Beckley, Michael Andrews, Duane Michals, Eleanor Antin, Robert Cumming, Thomas Barrow, Wegman, LeGac, Dibbets, Baldessari, the Bechers, Jan Groover, Les Krims. I was pleased to see the work, and I didn’t care that it was a meal with hors d’oeuvres but no main dish. The statement of intention by the curator of the University of Maryland Art Gallery, where the show originated, clearly states that there is no general comment you can make about the artists represented, although they fall roughly into “narrative” and “formal” groups. The question is, who was in which group? I didn’t know, so I tried to concentrate instead on how the works might be misread and misjudged, not individually, but as a unit.

It is not unintentional that the photographs are given a lot of painting attributes; by placing these mostly unconventional works in a relatively staid institutional space, they have to be made just a little bit more serious because, as they stand, a lot of them are really funny. A lot of them can be read superficially as mere jokes (as a local writer put it, “There may be a formal relationship among the images . . . but a playful tongue-in-cheek quality makes it [Wegman’s piece] the most amusing piece . . .”); Antin’s food and dieting jokes; Wegman’s (easily classic) dog pieces; something with a hare and rabbit race; none of these look very straight-faced, although they are all straightforward. The more-or-less less entertaining Bechers, Jan Groover, and Thomas Barrow strip themselves of arty professional magazine-type fashion finish which comprises the bulk of (Bay Area) photography, so they need some kind of hype. On top of that, photos look terribly disposable. Someone has to validate this strange stuff and make it art, right?

No, not right. I saw the show on a typical Sunday afternoon, surrounded by a typical Sunday-afternoon crowd of middle-class parents and their children, and it was obvious that everyone was having a good time. Without the help of history, the assistance of art-talk or art history and philosophy, the work was, on a general level, quite comprehensible. Across the hall from this exhibit is a large room of permanent collection paintings, mostly second-rate examples of all the big names from the ’60s. I sit here and think of how many times I have been in that room and watched people stand dumbfounded without the slightest idea what those large abstractions meant. So here is a show that is enjoyable to a large audience and you have to ask why? I could try the fact that the photos are in sequence; you read all of them left to right, top to bottom, like a book (no one seems brave enough to break that convention yet) and it implies narrative, or storytelling. Nothing has more appeal than a story.

Not too far under the surface is the feeling one gets that this story must have a purpose, staged by the artist; it was a conscious mental process, meaning was actually created and not just “found” the way a mountain, a tree, or a murder for the front page of the newspaper is “found.” The half-way intelligent viewer can grasp this, while he cannot when confronted with color field painting. That viewer stumbles upon an issue of primary importance to artists while the art itself two-times with narrative and traditional modes of presentation. (Something I don’t think has received enough attention is how much certain Conceptualists work with popular culture and use it for inspiration, usually at the expense of appearing inferior to the source material. Michael Andrews photographs himself disappearing behind sheets of paper or black boxes, and it looks like poor imitations of Robert Crumb comix. LeGac, supposedly using photos to tell the story of an inspiration to paint with soft focus color and thus really dealing with “art” issues, is really parodying the popular, romanticized notions of what an artist does, nevertheless reinforcing those stereotypes.) The traditional nature of the work, and its accessibility belie avant-garde attitudes; most of the work is perfectly clear to uninitiated viewers. The institution grants approval to works by giving them dubious but distinguished pedigrees, making them difficult and deep, because people find the work so simple and easy to understand. I wonder which artists would be glad to be found accessible (as a bow to “the people”) and which would find it unappealing,since the audience would miss the “deeper“ meanings, the art historical intentions behind the work. What place do photos in which medium is only an expedient have in the total history of photography? In thinking of how the works were misinterpreted by the artists’ intention of making products of serious art history, I end up confirming them as completely understood by a public which cannot possibly know the questions raised or answered by the artists.

Jeff Perrone