New York

Michael Bishop

Light Gallery

At first sight, the color in Michael Bishop’s photographs seems merely compositional—a tool to accent (not describe) figures and a way to flatten space (in the mutuality of color). The collapse of space, its compaction on the surface, was, of course, a profound reform in painting, and I assumed that Bishop had transferred the strategy, now a convention, to photography—which seemed trivial. But this is not the case, or at least not entirely: color is a more complex issue here.

The photographs are landscapes that question that category. Landscape is more and more cityscape and our vista a heterogenous zone that is neither one nor the other. Bishop seems concerned with this unsure signification. In that zone, buildings subsume whole grounds—indeed, become like the “grounds” of landscape painting, the fore-, mid-, and backgrounds that are traditionally represented by three, more or less distinct, planes of color. In several photographs, buildings are figures in the landscape and also ground-planes of the photograph; the demarcations of natural space and print surface are oddly equivocal. In a translation of space to surface, the traditional order of grounds is often rearranged, reminiscent of the way the Johns’ yellow-red-blue paintings play with the sign-system, the codes of color and plane, of landscape.

In any natural/cultural dichotomy the interest is not in the catalogue, the list of paired things on either side of the slash, but the slash itself, the mark that represents and conceals the process of “culturation,” the passage of a natural thing to a cultural sign. The passage is one-way: a raw thing, once cooked, cannot be raw again: but a cooked thing can—and often does—substitute (as a sign), then displace (as a thing) a raw thing. This we see in one photograph of a lake in which a fish insignia substitutes for a fish. Oddly, it is more immediate than the actual thing, more “fish” than a fish, just as Magritte’s pipe is more “pipe” than a pipe. It seems Bishop would photograph that slash or mark of culturation—the sign in the act of displacing the thing.

Mostly, he sees this in terms of landscape as a cultural sign: how “landscape” has come to mean more and more a certain type of art-object; how “space” is more and more a privileged term of the visual arts. The mastery here is that, though an accomplice to such culturation, Bishop is not sentimental (“the sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done”). Photography, now more than painting, encloses landscape within museums, makes of it a fetish, a commodity of desire. Bishop, I think, offers a critique of the process.

Hal Foster