New York

Anne Turyn

Art City

Like most structuralism-inspired artists, photographer Anne Turyn picks modest, basic literary genres on which to work out theoretical conundrums. The formats and subjects are usually clichés, and the more ordinary—even banal—they are, the better. The point is to show how information is structured by perception and social convention, and to let information (i.e., story, conversational tone, conclusions) seep out through the cracks between various linguistic codes. Beginning with her first “photo nova” Dear Diary, 1979, which consists of photographs of an open notebook with diaristic jottings, Turyn has explored increasingly complex juxtapositions of word and image, playing off narrative against narrative method, drama against symbol, and anecdotal incident against conceptual atmosphere. In her recent works, photographs and text don’t mesh, they coexist, and in the gap between their individual autonomy lies “meaning”: polymorphous, elusive, unstable, multiple. Turyn’s particular accomplishment is to illustrate clearly these intricate strategies without overdoing them, and to inject some sensuous juice into what is too often a dry exercise. Turyn’s luscious, rich colors, dramatic cropping, and wry humor give her photographs a distinctive tone that marks the works as something more than laborious illustrations of knotty concepts. It’s as if her borrowings from Jacques Derrida were leavened with doses of William James’ pragmatism and touches of William Wegman’s deadpan wit.

This exhibition displayed selected examples from three early photographic series and 15 from a new grouping; an exquisitely printed large-format book, Missives (Alfred van der Marck Editions), contains selections from all four. In the three previous projects (Dear Pen Pal, 1979–80; Dear John, 1981; and Lessons and Notes, 1982) the tactics are similar: juxtapositions of aphoristic sayings with close-cropped, emblematic, staged images. All exude an easy if obvious humor as they neatly outline their schematic, small-scale insights. In each of these efforts, Turyn also searches for an appropriate personal voice within the chosen limits of her conceptual structures, trying on sub-textual stances from that of a critical American citizen to a wounded and witty female and ponderer of cognitive psychology as seen in children’s learning. While definite attitudes are adopted, they’re all muted, under cover.

The recent series, “Flashbulb Memories,” 1986, seems more assured, more assertive in the complexity of its conceit. The title refers to intense memories created in the instant of learning about emotionally significant and/or traumatic events. In her visual take on this psychological curiosity (the structuralist’s social-science equivalent of the diary literary form—revealing yet tightly bounded), Turyn juxtaposes major newspaper headlines from 1922 to 1986 with frozen moments of ordinary activities and/or scenes. Each photograph implies an absent viewer—the props are carefully chosen to reflect the appropriate time period—and provides a sensation of looking through time into someone else’s recollection. In terms of the doubled perceptual games structuralism sets in motion, the photographed “memories” also become remembrances of the viewer after they are seen as art works. Turyn’s “voice here confidently straddles several dialectics—personal anecdote and historical vignette, extreme emotion and intense self-consciousness, narrative and perceptual exercise—without committing to either side of any continuum. Like Proust’s madeleines, these photographs may be more valuable for the parallel “flashbulb memories” they evoke than for any discoveries made from contemplating them as objects. By successfully conveying the idea of perceptual process, Turyn sidesteps the static categorizations of linguistic structuralism, thus creating a perverse form of photographic research that not only avoids pat conclusions but provokes more questions.

John Howell