New York

Peter Piller

A quietly persuasive lesson in how destabilizing—and enriching—the effects of experiments with accumulation and strategic recontextualization can be on the function and meaning of images, the absorbing New York solo debut of German Conceptualist Peter Piller demonstrated once again the almost inexhaustible latent potential for menace, humor, or pathos that resides within even the most colorless visual artifacts.

Piller brings a rich set of source materials to his enterprise. During a stint at an advertising agency, where his job was to sort through regional German newspapers to verify that the firm’s ads had been correctly displayed, the artist began clipping examples of mostly anodyne press images he came across, eventually amassing a cache of thousands of such pictures (as well as others from different sources) that he’s spent the last decade reclassifying in a variety of ingenious ways. Classification is everything for Piller. Like that of his fellow countryman and conceptual forebear Hans-Peter Feldmann, his work pursues an archival poetics built on proliferation and reframing that looks to wring resonance from photographs whose ostensible meaning often seems, at least superficially, to be exhausted.

Piller’s recent exhibition featured more than a hundred ink-jet reproductions of images from his personal archive, separated into a wide variety of heterogeneous categories. Some of these were represented by a single photograph (“People in Shelter,” “Bombs in Hole,” “Policecar”), others (“Looking Into Holes,” “Man and Fire,” “Vandalism: Benches,” “Unpleasant Neighbors”) by several. The flurry of photos was further activated by what seemed to be a purposefully randomized approach to installation, creating sometimes improbable adjacencies between sets that opened up further avenues of potential collective interpretation. Yet even when the various groupings’ internal and relational organizing principles were not immediately apparent—a frequent occurrence—the slow emergence of thematic congruencies from the thicket of often incongruous visual information seen in the wall-based arrays made for a by turns wry and poignant game of free association.

Many of the sets are primarily intended as isolated one-liners. On one wall, for instance, six images of people (mostly spandex-clad teenage girls) dancing in front of large product logos shared space with the eerie series titled “Local Glow” (2000–2006), eighteen pictures in which some element of reflective fabric on the getups (usually uniforms) of the individuals posing caught the light, bathing the groups—typically local firefighting brigades or junior police-corps types—in an ethereal nimbus. Similarly droll and unconnected were the two dozen images in the “Decoration and Munition” array from 2003, depicting oversize pieces of military ordnance displayed, presumably for sale (they’re taken from eBay), in people’s living rooms like tchotchkes from a survivalist’s bric-a-brac cabinet.

While a number of image sets had darker undertones—three walls of images of police groups searching through fields and groves, presumably for victims of or clues to various crimes, or a series of aerial images, acquired by Piller from a real estate firm that unsuccessfully tried to peddle them to the various homeowners, featuring homes directly adjacent to cemeteries—that the most vivid sequence of images in the show was also the most vague is a testament to our consistent compulsion to fill in the blanks where blanks are left. Simply called “Projection Screens” (2000–2006), the five largest images on view—depicting totally unremarkable yet strangely ominous sites like a forest path or a swimming pool—are, as their title promises and the show bore out, examples of the ability of images to fluctuate between what they depict and what they suggest, their power to absorb nearly anything we project onto them.

Jeffrey Kastner