New York

Stephen Laub

Koury Wingate Gallery

For all their pointed particularity, photographs suffer from a lack of physical presence, like creatures that are all brain and no (or virtually no) body. Abstract sculpture, on the other hand—especially when it is based on geometric forms—often suffers from the opposite problem. Stephen Laub addresses both of these potential lacks by combining the two media, making objects that, depending on one’s point of view, can be seen as either abstract wall sculptures with tiny photographs set into them, or photographs for which these sculptures serve as elaborate frames. The objects are derived from the photographs, with Laub selecting an element depicted in each photograph, simplifying it to a pared-down form, and enlarging it. In this way he sets up a smart formal game in which the viewer first sees the sculptural object, then must step up to peer at the tiny photograph in order to figure out what object in it the abstract form refers to.

But the real point of the work is the pictures Laub bases the pieces on, news photographs of more or less familiar events of recent history. One, for example, is of Hitler giving a speech; the object that Laub has chosen to enlarge is the lectern he stands behind. In another, a long boxy form frames a photograph of the railway car in Compiègne where Hitler forced the French to surrender in 1940. By monumentalizing details for the scenes depicted in these photographs, Laub is able to crack the shell of familiarity that has formed over the historical events, and to give them a fresh reality. Often the elements Laub chooses to blow up have a striking intimacy, recalling Roland Barthes’ idea of the punctum, the seemingly extraneous detail in a photograph that pierces the neatly ordered summary offered by the image and opens up the messy, conditional reality behind it. In some cases, the details have an almost unbearable poignancy to them: from a photograph of a black man being kicked in the belly by a white youth, Laub enlarges the jaunty boater the black man clutches—the hat he was wearing, no doubt, to hide his bald spot. By forcing viewers to step up close to the object to look at the photograph, Laub forces them to confront the scenes they depict, with results that at times are shockingly powerful. Two panels shaped like swinging doors have small circular windows cut into them; one looks first in the left-hand window and sees. . . nothing, then looks in the right-hand one and sees. . . an oven in a concentration camp, its doors (the doors we are looking through) swung open, bodies and ashes spilling forth.

It could be argued that all this formal gimmickry somehow undercuts the seriousness of the historical events that Laub addresses. It can also be argued that the events themselves (World War II, and especially the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews; racism and segregation in the South; the war in Vietnam) have become easy targets for outrage, subjects in which right and wrong are by now clearly delineated. Nevertheless, Laub’s work rescues these events from the suffocating closure imposed on them by their translation into mediated versions. In doing so, he reminds us that we too are making history, a history different from that offered by the evening news.

Charles Hagen