Philadelpia

“Photo-Mannerisms”

Lawrence Oliver Gallery

“Photo-Mannerisms,” a group exhibition of 18 artists, posited photography as the quintessentially mannerist art form. The intriguing conflation of the two was here arrived at via a Lacanian interpretation of Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524, which the show’s curator, Klaus Ottmann, expounds upon in a brochure that accompanied the show. According to Ottmann, this painting corresponds to the essence of photography. “The photograph,” he writes in the middle of the brochure, “substitutes the mirror, the reflection of the Self, for the experience of the Other.” He shores up and extends this idea by invoking a variety of art historical, philosophical, and literary sources: Arnold Hauser, Roland Barthes, John Ashbery, José Ortega y Gasset, even Marshall McLuhan. The exhibition’s principal points of formal and conceptual comparison—fragmentation, alienation, ambiguity, paradox, loss of meaning—are all ideas current in most discussions of recent art. However, the notion of examining them through the lens of mannerism, seen broadly as a recurring tendency in art history, seemed particularly interesting. What might an analysis of post-Modernism as an “anti-classical,” mannerist phase yield?

“Photo-Mannerisms” was most successful when its theme was framed in terms of the formal contradictions and extremes of stylization that support the ideational tensions of mannerist work. These include a penchant for an intellectualized estheticism, spatial distortion, incongruity of scale, artificial color, and allegory. The installation’s opening images provided a persuasive juxtaposition: the Starn Twins’ N. H., 1987, an enormous, grainy, sepia-toned, taped-together image-grid derived from a photograph of a statue of Nathan Hale, paired with Untitled (White Robe IV), 1987, a large, highly resolved color Polaroid of a shadowy, Zurbarán-like white-robed figure by Marina Abramović and Ulay. In both works, the underlying loss of subject—and inherent ambiguity of representation that Ottmann suggests as a link between post-Modernism and mannerism were convincingly conveyed through subtle relationships and disparities of color, scale, and texture. This was a resonant coupling. Other works in the show served to clarify its thematic parameters with varying degrees of success. The small image-fragments floating in empty fields that threaten to overwhelm them, as found in works by Jennifer Bolande, Hirsch Perlman, and Peter Hopkins, were far more effective analogues for isolation than Ken Schles’ much too literal depiction of an empty chair in the corner of a barren room, Forgetfulness, 1987. And while Lamp I, 1986, Mac Adams’ staged scenario reflected in the polished convexity of a lamp base, offered itself as the obvious successor to Parmigianino’s painting, Ellen Carey’s distorted, psychedelic-hued self-portrait (an untitled work, 1987) presented a more compelling, contemporary counterpart. But no amount of rationalization could adequately stretch the show’s thematic canvas to cover the inclusion of works by Ange Leccia and Tim Maul, which, however interesting or amusing on their own, were distinctly out of context here.

Ottmann also included some mixed-media works in “Photo-Mannerisms” to suggest that the photographic experience resides in other than purely photographic images. Although this was a good idea, it was not implemented well. Dan Devine’s untitled mirror sculpture, 1987, for example, did make a connection to the theme—of self-reflection, but it needed the reinforcement of similar and better works to make its point. I also found the meaning of John Lamka and Josef Ramaseder’s mixed-media pieces as they related to the show’s thesis to be just too obscure. A mannered presentation and a mannerist esthetic are really quite different; this show at times confused the two.

The strength of a group exhibition with a complex, theoretical armature lies in how well the selected works illustrate its premise as they inflect and comment upon each other. Here the explication of a worthwhile concept was hampered by an uneven assemblage of objects. A more rigorous selection, with more works by fewer artists, might have better served and elucidated a first-rate theme. Retake, please.

Paula Marincola