New York

Zeke Berman

Soho Center For Visual Artists

When you walk into my apartment, the first two photographs you see are ones taken from roughly the spot where you are standing. The first photograph is a two-section color panorama of my living room in which I appear in both sections, but in different clothes and at different times of day. The other photograph is a view of the world you can see just outside the living room. This picture has been reproduced in a stat and cut into fifteen parts, each part framed by the mullions separating fifteen panes of glass in an upper dormer window which hangs on my hall wall. Only one of these photographs—the panorama—can be taken seriously as a photograph. But I have them together because I love the metaphysical joke that they share. Part of the appeal photography has for me is its ability to make such jokes about reality.

I mention this only so you’ll understand why, when I walked into the Soho Center and saw Zeke Berman’s photographs, I felt right at home. All thirteen of the photographs Berman had in the Center’s group show tinkered magically with the relationship between reality and perception. Like all metaphysicians, Berman contemplates only the most ordinary, handy realities—the dishes in his drain rack, a teapot, a measuring cup, the toaster and foods on his breakfast table. The only message in his choice of subject is that he’s a young photographer who hasn’t been eating very well up till now.

But this isn’t what interests him. His interest is in the way that a hodgepodge becomes a composition when you take a picture of it. It is in the way that the particular becomes the general and three dimensions become two. This last especially fascinates Berman. In one picture, he makes a clock face out of a clay line looped from foreground to background over all sorts of objects and surfaces. In the photograph the clay figure reads as a circle standing vertically in one plane. In another photograph, Berman has made a frame inside the picture space by running a rectangle of masking tape down into his kitchen sink, up the wall behind it, across the cabinet above, etc. A third photograph has its diagonals drawn in by a vacuum cleaner tube, an umbrella and other skinny objects propped up in an arrangement that recedes into one corner of his darkroom.

Conceptual art is very attractive to photographers because it makes generalizations about art that transcend differences between media. Photographers are welcome among conceptualists in a way that they aren’t elsewhere in the art world. But the pleasing thing about Berman’s work is that it isn’t too conceptual. He is unafraid to take liberties with the concepts he’s formulating. He doesn’t permit himself to be intimidated by his ability to think, as so many artists do. The concern with illusion and reality found in Berman’s photographs is like that seen several years ago at the Museum of Modern Art in a series of stills made by multi-mediaist Michael Snow. But Berman’s series has more oomph as art because he doesn’t try to make the propositions he is stating rigorous and abstract.

As the geometry in his photographs is made out of found objects, dribbled water or crudely sculpted clay, Berman’s work has an intentional clumsiness about it. We have to will into existence the illusions it suggests. This self-assertion that Berman’s pictures tease us into gives his work a dimension Snow’s doesn’t have, and it shows Berman to be a photographer as well as a philosopher. Berman is comfortable with ideas. He is able to have some fun with them. He can relax, enjoy life, make a few jokes. . . .

Though no one else on exhibit at the Soho Center is making a start in photography as fresh as Zeke Berman’s, several others do deserve notice. One reason it’s so hard to make a good start is that everybody’s field of vision is already clogged with snapshots. The universal practice of photography makes the medium almost irredeemably trivial. It’s depressing to begin a career by having to recognize the near hopelessness of it. Nevertheless, photographers do come along who manage to do something decent. In recent years there have been those who succeeded by exploiting the problem itself, by creating a “snapshot esthetic” and thereby turning “hells into benefits,” as Emerson said.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.