New York

Aharon Gluska

Robert Mann Gallery

Aharon Gluska’s early abstract paintings achieved a contradictory beauty by balancing conceptual coolness and gestural expansiveness. These paintings often featured dark grounds from which abstract and geometric shapes seemed to emerge. Over the past five years, Gluska has replaced these shapes with identity photographs of Auschwitz detainees taken by the Nazis, drawn from the archives of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

His recent installation of “photographic paintings” presented these photographs through varying layers of mediation. In some cases, Gluska glued the photographs onto stretched canvases, covered them with clear acrylic or painted glass, and then rubbed the paint off in selected areas to uncover what lay beneath. Others were placed into plywood box frames and covered with a thick layer of blue-tinted gel, or affixed to unstretched canvases that appeared to have been warped and crumpled. Three larger-than-life-size figures were shrouded in black gauze, peering down at the viewer like ghostly graces.

One imagines that all of these manipulations are attempts to mirror the processes of remembering and forgetting, to materialize the effects of memory and history, but the combination of documentary images and mediating formal devices is not so easily controlled. To varying degrees, but in every case, these icons of inhumanity and despair completely overwhelm Gluska’s treatment of them. As a painter, Gluska is too much in awe of these “emanations of the referent” to be able to work effectively with them. He is left to decorate their frames, to cover and uncover them, to patine and becloud them. The artist’s manipulations do mirror the accretions and distortions of history, but not in the way he intends: the anonymous human faces gazing out from beneath Gluskavs glazes seem merely mute and immutable, unable to speak for and of the past.

More than anything, Gluska’s current work illustrates the extreme difficulty of incorporating documentary images with this much weight into an esthetic framework. These death-camp identity photos are very near the baseline of the photographic as documentary evidence. Their radical haecceity threatens to turn any manipulation into obfuscation. What could one possibly do to “enhance” their effect? When dealing with such loaded material, the zone between the represented and its esthetic form becomes a battleground so treacherous that only the best and the luckiest survive it. Christian Boltanski and Ania Bien have successfully negotiated this territory through restraint, Alfredo Jaar through excess. Gluska seems to want it both ways: to simultaneously objectify and internalize the images. The result is a sort of earnest confusion.

David Levi Strauss