New York

Duane Michals

Sidney Janis Gallery

The desire to create a situation which leaves the viewer uneasy is of course a recurring motif in the Dada/Surrealist tradition in which Duane Michals claims to participate. In his most recent show, optimistically titled “New Ideas in Photography, Painting, and Photograph/Drawing,” he sought to unsettle the accepted perceptions of art by manipulating in tandem, two separate codes of representation—either photography and drawing, or photography and painting.

This kind of juxtaposition requires wit, partly because it is no longer a new idea. And wit seems to be an attribute which Michals possesses in small quantity. His work often has charm, sometimes humor, but it never has enough bite to be truly witty. There is a fatal timidity, a refusal of the extreme, that constantly renders the work merely cute.

An example of his shying away from the possibilities of extreme positions is the series comparing photography and drawing. Laid out in the simplest, most direct manner, each piece consists of a black-and-white photograph placed next to a rendering of the same image in pen and ink. Neither photograph nor drawing is exceptional, and that is the problem. To rise above the utter banality of a rather dull, easily acknowledged comparison, demands panache. The execution should be dazzling—either ravishingly exact, or careless to the point of absurdity. But something is needed, anything, to breathe fresh life into the pale shadow of an idea which on its own is too dull to merit attention.

The trouble is that Michals undervalues the potential of the cliches with which he works. It’s as if he fails to get his own joke. His painting style, like his method of drawing, is totally conventional, but either he does not know this, or cannot bring himself to acknowledge and exploit it. Painting grapes over a group portrait so that the grapes appear larger than the heads of the people fails to illuminate anything new about scale. Painting a still life over the bottom half of a photograph of a young man looking down barely gets us thinking about different kinds of depicted space. Painting a face off to one side of a photograph of the back of a head tells us next to nothing about the kinds of possible depth in contrasted media. The fact that the face belongs to Picasso and the balding head to Michals adds nothing to the latter’s stature. Picasso understood the way in which collage can pull asunder the expected reading of a picture, throwing the “natural” seamlessness of any form of representation into jeopardy. Magritte, another ghost honored by Michals, also understood these things. Michals, in drawing attention to the masters he would emulate, only makes us realize how far his work falls short.

Thomas Lawson