New York

Sheila Metzner

Daniel Wolf

Once photography had to be arty: to be an art it had to look like one, i.e., like painting or drama. Then came the modern purge. Photography too had a formalist rage against the impure, the theatrical. Clarity was the call: purity. Out went story, symbol, allegory.

SHEILA METZNER revives them somewhat. For example, one photograph shows a man in profile comforting a baby in tears but, beneath a cold moon, there is no one to comfort the man. One objects not so much to the picture’s pathos as to its mode: gauzy allegory. Perhaps modernism’s puritanism is too much with me, but the mode here is regressive.

The show abounds in arty photos—vases, flowers, portraits. Indeed, there are so many of young girls that Metzner seems like a modern Gertrude Kasebier. Only one suite is free of sentimentality, and this is because of the subject—a girl old beyond her years. Specifically, she is aware that she is an actress, aware of how she is being used. Like an Alice who knows that we Lewis Carrolls are dirty old men, she scowls at our voyeurism. Somehow she cracks through her roles to charge an otherwise dull cast of characters. In one photograph she is in a red cape. Hair wild, she looks surly, like a Little Red Riding Hood just raped by the wolf. One is made aware of abused girls—without further abuse, i.e., without sentiment. In another, she plays a gypsy, with scarf, tacky gold pearls, sailor shirt, and hot pants, all signs of debased status. Again, she refuses our pity. In still another, she looks like a Portuguese maid in a French apartment. The still life next to her is more important than her own maid genre. Here too, she lets us feel her contempt. But then there comes a photo in which she is nude, out-of-focus, framed by flowers. One, a red one, is right where her heart is. It is pretty (call it “Innocence Imperiled”) and Oh, so sappy.

Such arty photography is banal at best; at worst, it is barbarous. The true artist is aware of how his or her work is inserted into our cultural nexus. Like Seltzer, Metzner is unaware, and so conservative. The work is evidence of our artistic narcissism, our consciousness gone flabby. Its beauty is decadent.

Hal Foster