New York

Diana Michener

“Diana Michener is not shy when she chooses her subject matter,” the press release states. What is to recoil from in laboratory specimens of deformed fetuses ca. 1900, in handsome glass jars, floating in formaldehyde? One has two heads, another two crania and one face, another’s torso dwindles into a fishtaillike flap of skin, another has one half-formed eye in mid forehead. No gorgon here, or basilisk, or the Duchess of Malfi’s corpse: “Cover her face,” says her brother, who had her murdered, “mine eyes dazzle: she died young.” If style mirrors perception, Michener sees through a black and white version of rose-colored spectacles. Gleaming glass, glowing flesh, formaldehyde like liquid crystal—had she photographed costume jewelry for Vogue she couldn’t have gussied it up more with light than she has these specimens.

No, not shy, scared, rather—but not by her subject. Eight pictures were on view, one jar in each, its fetus roughly centered, the jar less so but to no effect. Such repetitiveness implies an artist fearful of (unhappier alternatives are “ignorant of” and “unequal to”) the challenge in any subject: to transform it into a figure in art and thus to reveal herself. Michener apparently never turned a fetus as an artist turns the model or a drawing teacher a bowl of apples. Her subject matter “has . . . been often recorded in photography,” the press release says, but her work belongs to a more crowded tradition: photographs of sculpture. Having treated each jar as a still life she cannot object to the observation that each fetus, stilled into a single gesture, was a protostatue in the grotesque mode. She apparently neither photographed one in profile or from behind, nor considered just a face, hand, head, or foot, nor set jars in rows, nor turned one on its side (nonviable nature in repose). The photography of sculpture is full of such moves; in life, lovers take a part for the whole, parents dote on a child’s ringlets, children investigate things by pulling, banging, and poking—“Man,” said Schiller, “only plays when, in the full meaning of the word, he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays”; even cats toy with their kill. Michener’s photographs express neither curiosity, obsession, fancy, imagination, nor a will to form. Occasionally her eye seems guided by her heart—a few small faces, all too human, elicit pathos; mostly she seems to have gone through the motions—a window giving onto any mid-Manhattan sidewalk at rush hour is more interesting. One small printed card briefly describing the specimens and jars, telling where they are housed and ending, “They’re simply fabulous! Fantastic! A must see!” would have been bold and true, and also generous: assumed in us a capacity for responses Michener denied herself by cleaving to run-of-the-mill journeyman craftsmanship and the structure and inexpressiveness of sample-book illustrations.

She also exhibited a few extremely large black and white prints, each showing the severed head of a butchered cow. Salient details: staring eyes and lots of blood.

Ben Lifson