New York

Alan Belcher

Josh Baer Gallery

Alan Belcher’s exhibition of photographic portraits of Liberian blacks exists in the name of a noble cause. Part of the money from the sale of the works will be donated to the World Food Programme’s international emergency relief operations. The portraits were made in Monrovia, where Belcher traveled, with United Nations status, to observe the program in action. In other words, the images are premised on grim environmental and sociopolitical circumstances. However, many of the faces shown are smiling, and only a few seem to belong to starving people. The confrontational stares of some of these subjects suggest a nobility of spirit impossible to match; indeed, their glances are like a gauntlet thrown down to the spectator, who can only shrink away in guilt.

So here is the first myth of much recent sociopolitical art: the overtly suffering are more human than the rest of us mere neurotic sufferers. The second myth is that by presenting the work in a supposedly scruffy way (the photographs are bound to sheets of corrugated metal) one is using an esthetic appropriate to the all too human subject matter—an esthetic that will induce empathy for, and metaphorically convey, their suffering. Given the nature of Belcher’s previous show (he used real pelts, sometimes of endangered species, in a gesture that was alternately taken as an act of the glibbest cynicism and a more pointedly critical jab at the pieties informing much politically motivated work), it remains uncertain whether he inhabits these myths fully or calls them forth in order to deflate them ironically. Indeed, Belcher’s use of rope to hold the images to corrugated metal is quite effective emotionally, but not perhaps in the literal way one might at first expect. It comes across as formally innovative rather than as a ramshackle construction altogether discrediting form. In other words, it is esthetically exciting, not simply as a reference to the West African environment—a synecdochic bricolage. At the same time, it does not break down the boundary between art and life but peculiarly strengthens it by treating it as though it can easily be crossed—as though all the artist has to do is transpose some material from life into an art context in order to clarify both. In fact, Belcher’s installation confirms that something happens in the transposition—that something is lost from life, and something gained for art.

Indeed, art dominates life in Belcher’s installation, which acquires interest through repetition of the images and through their placement on the gallery floor (the works not only hang from the walls in a conventional manner but some lean against the walls and columns as well). Their shiny surfaces reaffirm the point that this is art, that is, cleaned-up life. Belcher has, in effect, slickly packaged his victims, facilely idealizing them (which no doubt adds to their self-idealization). He has in fact used a low-tech media method to glamorize them. Whether this kind of esthetic charity does the worthy cause any good or even casts much new light on the problematic interface of art and politics is a matter of debate.

Donald Kuspit