New York

Evergon

In the six large-format Polaroid photo-works shown here (each consisting of one to six 20-by-24- or 40-by-80-inch sheets), Evergon borrows themes and styles from paintings of the 16th to 18th centuries. Some are based on specific works, as in Re-enactment—Goya’s Flight of the Witches #3, 1986, which shows the prostrate body of a man borne aloft by several men in green cellophane skirts and funny hats, while a donkey and a frightened attendant look on. In others Evergon uses costumes, props, lighting, and composition to give his works a generalized pseudo-antique feel. The Three Fates, 1987—in which three women in 17th-century Dutch dress act out the Greek myth of the title, spinning, casting, and cutting the allegorical yarn of life—is a reminder that many post-Renaissance paintings were themselves restaged and updated versions of earlier themes.

Unlike Richard Polak’s turn-of-the-century reworkings, after Vermeer, of 16th-century Dutch interiors, which Stieglitz reproduced in Camera Work, Evergon’s reenactments aren’t meant to be taken seriously. They’re more like records of a game of dress-up, recalling party Polaroids, in which everyone mugs and poses for the camera, or, in a more serious vein, Julia Margaret Cameron’s misty, full-costume stagings of the Arthurian legends of the Idylls of the King. Not that Evergon doesn’t try to make his pictures convincing; he matches his pictorial means, especially the lighting, to whatever style and period of painting he’s imitating. At the same time, however, the precisely rendered yet occasionally haphazard detail of the photographs forces us to remember that these are self-consciously constructed symbolic scenes.

As George Bernard Shaw noted in 1909, “there is a terrible truthfulness about photography,” a quality that Modernist critics have pointed to in arguing that the medium should not be used to create allegories of this sort. Of course, similar restagings have become commonplace in recent photography, although the models for such pictures tend to be taken from mass media—film noir, say, or fashion photography—rather than from pre-Modernist painting. The essential shift in attitude that has led to the acceptance of such unabashed borrowings is that many people no longer think it necessary or even desirable for the photographer to “hide his hand,” in John Szarkowski’s phrase: to make the photograph as transparent as possible and to cover up the techniques by which it was made. Instead they want to draw attention to the stage machinery by which the photographic illusion is created—like Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Oz pumping away at his contraptions.

As any good magician knows, though, showing how the illusion is produced doesn’t make the illusion go away. Instead it makes the audience aware of its own complicity in the creation of the illusion, forcing it to recognize the illusion as the fulfillment of its own desire. Such a recognition brings with it a degree of confusion and chagrin at being found out. While Evergon’s work retains the emotional qualities of the pictorial models on which it’s based—their blend of earthiness, melodrama, and hyperventilated dreaminess—the act of quotation gives it a knowing and somewhat sad cuteness as well.