New York

“In Plato’s Cave”

Marlborough | Midtown

Given the oppositional rhetoric that has characterized much critical championing of so-called post-Modernist photography, it’s more than a little ironic to find an exhibition of such work here, in the House of Lloyd. But the practice and rhetoric of post-Modernism have been taking distinctly different paths recently. While critics have spoken of this work as exemplifying Roland Barthes’ “death of the author,” the “authors” themselves have been busy achieving public prominence, lending themselves not just to exhibitions such as this one, but to advertisements and magazine covers as well.

In her catalogue essay, Abigail Solomon-Godeau characterizes these post-Modernist photographers as “clinical diagnosticians” of “the cultural body.” Insofar as they identify and isolate (and implicitly criticize) cultural clichés and stereotypes—the well-worn coins of conventional representation—they may be considered in these terms. But when post-Modernism fails, it becomes simply a restatement, and a reinforcement, of the very codes of representation that it proposes to subvert. Too often the artists in this show merely repeat the most banal conventions of depiction, already thoroughly analyzed and discredited. Thus James Casebere’s photographs of models of suburban homes add little to an understanding of the sterility of suburban life and architecture that hasn’t been said and shown often before. In the same way, David Levinthal’s set-ups of dolls in steamy assignations—mood-lit like a Susan Heyward weepy—don’t so much analyze or provide a critical view of the conventions they present as merely reiterate them. James Welling’s draperies make a witty comment about the “fine art” that’s absent from his frame, but the notion of art they attack is an obvious, too-easy target that doesn’t have much to do with the art scene today.

Underlying many of these works is a mood of sentimental yearning—the stereotypes are accepted, longed for, rather than challenged. Often these artists are not “clinical diagnosticians” of the cultural body so much as unrequited lovers. The tone of yearning is especially strong here in Laurie Simmons’ photographs of cutesy porcelain ballerinas in front of magazine photographs of real ballet scenes. In this work there’s none of the sense of the ominous bizarreness of social relations that marks another group of Simmons’ work, in which she set up tableaux using ugly plastic figurines, made in Taiwan, of American teenage types. Ellen Brooks has moved away from the Barbie dolls that populated her earlier primal-scene set-ups; her child’s-eye views of parental relations now feature pairs of generic figurines in ambiguous (not to say meaningless) situations, centered in the middle of black fields of space. The effect is reminiscent of Nicholas Africa-no’s theatricalizations, but without the wit and insight.

Despite critical caveats that we are not to take the work at face value, these pictures are not without esthetics; instead, they borrow them from the sources they quote. When a critical frame is not clearly placed around the source referred to, when the quotation marks are obscured, the pictures become more or less sincere, more or less inept restatements of the esthetic codes they adapt. In Figures, 1983, one of Sarah Charlesworth’s two pieces here, the quotation marks are virtually absent, as the artist borrows conventions of splashy color and large format from advertising not to call attention to the form, but to use its power to present a different message. Centered on paired panels, one glossy red, one shiny black, are silvery photographic images—one of just the body of a woman in a form-hugging evening gown, her head and arms blocked out, the other of an apparently female figure trussed up in what seems to be a body-length bondage outfit. The juxtaposition of the figures is a shorthand notation of a complex argument; by borrowing conventions from advertising Charlesworth gives it an immediacy and force, but risks converting it into a simple visual slogan.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this show, other than its location, was the inclusion of work by Mac Adams, whose conceptualist-based photographic “Mysteries” of the early ’70s anticipated the current interest in media conventions. Here he commented wryly on art styles in. Still Life with Cézanne and Still Life with Guernica, both 1977. In each, an apparent murder is reflected in a broken mirror, producing a style echoing that of the art print that also appears in the scene. In The Hunter Orion, 1980, Adams draws attention to an older pictorial convention, that of tracing figures among the stars. In one half of a diptych a young girl juggles balls against the sky; in the other a set of child’s jacks forms the map of the celestial hunter against a dark floor. Adams’ photographs stood out from the other work here because of both their sharp humor and their incisive conceptual underpinning.

Charles Hagen