New York

Jaschi Klein

Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery

At first glance, Jaschi Klein’s photographs (all Untitled, 1986–87) seem more than a little bathetic. The figures pose in somewhat stilted dramas, which take place mostly in natural settings—other scenes are overtly theatrical, having been staged in an outdoor theater—that suggest a staged, forced expressivity, somewhere between intellectual soap opera and neo-Wagnerian case presentation in a psychiatric ward. The landscapes run to the wastelandish, making the figures—particularly those that are nude or semi-nude—look all the more vital by contrast. But then one begins to realize that these are not simply photographic souvenirs showing how Germans abandon themselves on holiday, but tests of the photograph’s narrative possibilities. Not that any narrative can be named; rather, Klein toys with the photograph’s narrative suggestiveness. She deliberately provokes our tendency to read a story into the still photograph, making it “move.” It is not clear what is going on in these pictures or why. Indeed, the signifying of motivation is probably one of the hardest things for a photograph to achieve, and while Klein comes nowhere close to doing so, her figures do seem highly motivated, if their motives remain unclear.

Klein’s narrative is finally one of space, or rather of the relationship of figure to space. This is particularly evident in one work, staged on dunes, in which a figure stands, bent downward, in a dried water hole—a false oasis—in the middle distance, while in the foreground four figures (one clothed and reading) lie on the sand. In all these works, the space is bleak, the figures incompletely civilized, or else abortively making a return to a “natural” state. The scene as a whole is an ingenious study of fast-paced black-and-white contrasts. The figures can be read as pure shapes, their more or less redundant, stereotypically German-serious miens cancelling out the apparent authenticity of their expressivity, if not exactly showing them up as emotional frauds. The medium triumphs over the expressive message—whatever it finally is—as so often happens involuntarily in photography. Yet it seems a truth of photography that no matter how much one poses for the camera—no matter how deliberately one tries to attain a certain affect or sense of presence—one’s effect has more to do with the photograph’s light-mediated surface than anything else. Indeed, light cancels or dematerializes as much as it reveals, and while Klein’s light hardly does that, it is still the most important thing in her photographs.

Donald Kuspit