New York

Sheila Metzner

International Center of Photography Museum (ICP)

In Sheila Metzner’s photographs beauty is truly skin-deep. An early black and white picture, Evyan, Kinderhook Creek, 1977, captures her husband’s young daughter skinny-dipping. The real subject of the work, however, is not leisure, play, or family, but wet hair, hard nipples, and goose-bumps. Metzner has described art as “a call to the recognition of surface and beauty as a transforming power,” and it is precisely this fascination with surfaces that has made her work so popular with fashion moguls like Oscar de la Renta and Elizabeth Arden.

The exhibition begins with works from the late ’70s that demonstrate Metzner’s recurrent interest in period techniques and styles. For instance, Children Asleep, 1977, a small gelatin silver print depicting three young girls nestled together in a bed, pays homage to Julia Margaret Cameron and the early pictorialist work of Alfred Stieglitz. Softly lit and vaguely focused, it is just the sort of saccharine image that die-hard Modernists denounce as unphotographic. Metzner’s images were to become even less photographic when she began to have them printed by Théodore Henri Fresson in 1979. The results, as is evident in Painted Gladiola, 1980, are similar to gum bichromate or even Pointillist painting. The image is composed of minute specks of color that flatten the disparate surfaces of the photographed objects into a continuous field of specks.

Though Metzner has subsequently moved away from this self-consciously pictorialist esthetic, her work continues to function as something of an art-historical matrix. She has done a series of photographs in homage to Man Ray; a series of exquisite still lifes of silvery objects made in the ’50s by French lighting designer Serge Mouille (a separate exhibition of these photographs is on view at the James Danziger Gallery); and another of landscapes of the Southwest desert, perhaps a reiteration of Stieglitz’s move from New York to Taos. Metzner herself explains that it is the responsibility of the artist “to absorb the artworks of the past—no matter how we receive them—and to transmit them to the future. I have no desire to be ironic, but to be sincere and truthful.” Though her art-historical sampling is thus not a matter of post-Modern pastiche, is it as innocent as Metzner claims? Fashion is notorious for its ability to recycle the past—Walter Benjamin saw it as a secular form of Eternal Return—and given the commercial nature of much of her work, you have to wonder if there is a degree of cynicism involved in her stylistic choices. Is Metzner’s work successful because it repeats the past? Or does it repeat the past because it’s successful?

Such questions are particularly ironic in light of the repeated assertions by Metzner, pasted on the gallery walls, that photography is a form of truth. “The beauty of photography is the truth of it. . . . Painting is always an interpretation, but photography is interpreted through life itself. It’s direct. It’s real. It’s life transformed.” Photography may indeed transform, but is it really more genuine than painting? I saw Uma Thurman in person once, and she didn’t look anything like Metzner’s arresting portrait of her. l don’t think Uma was wearing any makeup when I saw her, but perhaps that’s just the point: surfaces are easy to manipulate. However, it may be the case for Metzner that to concede such a point is to risk stigmatizing her work. Like her pictorialist forebears, she wants to be taken seriously as an artist, and this recourse to Truth is one means of laying claim to Art. Her mild paranoia is reiterated by Anne Hoy, who cocurated the show with Neil Gutman. Hoy claims, for instance, that Metzner’s work is not complicit with a commodity culture or an exploitation of women, but is, rather, a “celebration of the eternal feminine.” What a load of nonsense. A bolder exhibition would have thrown caution to the wind and reveled in the decisive fact that, where Metzner’s photographs are concerned, what is gained in publicity is not necessarily lost in art.

Keith Seward