Aspen

Thomas Demand

Aspen Art Museum

The fact that Thomas Demand is only now being granted a traveling museum survey in the United States might seem surprising. What's perhaps more surprising is that the organizing venue is a small museum in Colorado. The AAM's exhibition space is limited, but all thirty-five hundred square feet were turned over to the show. And because Demand only makes a handful of images each year, curator Dean Sobel (the museum's new director, former chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the Milwaukee Art Museum) was able to install nearly one-third of the artist's career output, eleven large photographs and one film work, with ample breathing room for each piece.

Demand's approach is well known by now: His large-scale, figureless images are photographs of life-size models, which he meticulously constructs of paper and cardboard to resemble scenes he has found on the Internet or in the news media. What viewers at first take to be real are in fact elaborate and, at least momentarily, deceptive constructions. They rely largely on old-fashioned artistic techniques, though they have a decidedly vanguard feel and could have been more easily created using less time-consuming digital means. And yet as records of paper constructions based on fleeting media images, his photos are as hollow and distanced from the natural world as the electronic and virtual imagery that increasingly pervades society. And that, of course, is the point.

The scenes themselves have only latent connections to the major and minor news events from which they originate. Such links are so obscure, in fact, that they only become apparent with the help of accompanying texts, adding another layer of remove to the work Rolltreppe (Escalator), 2000, a continuously repeating stop-action film of side-by-side paper escalators, recreates a London location where a surveillance camera captured a group of hooligans on their way to commit a murder. Poll, 2001, is based on the rows of desks at the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center in Florida where vote recounts took place during the hotly contested 2000 presidential race. Rather than show some aspect of the newsworthy events themselves, these photographs present vaguely unsettling reconstructions of their residue, taking the imagery a step further from reality. In so doing, they comment on the way perceptions are shaped and sometimes distorted through the media and how transitory news can be. A place that explodes into the headlines one day can just as quickly revert to its previous anonymity.

Looking back at the first eight years of Demand's output, the viewer may wonder what will come next. Will the artist find inspiration in some recent series of events, such as the Enron scandal? Or will he raise the stakes by adding yet another layer to his project, perhaps injecting a new level of subversiveness into his subtle manipulations? As this survey demonstrates, there is plenty of solid ground to build on.

Kyle MacMillan