New York

Lutz Bacher

Taxter & Spengemann

THIS IS BIEN HOA LOOKING AT IT FROM THE AIR BASE. THIS IS A PRETTY GOOD PICTURE. NOW DO YOU THINK THAT’S BEAUTIFUL? These sentences, written in blue ink by a man named Walter (presumably a US Air Force serviceman during the Vietnam War), accompany a black-and-white picture of a cluster of ramshackle buildings in one work from Lutz Bacher’s series “Bien Hoa,” 2006–2007, one of this exhibition’s two focuses. In each Bien Hoa, Bacher displays the often-annotated back of one of Walter’s original photographs, a cache of which she purchased from a thrift store, below her own larger photograph of its front, the camera pulled back far enough that narrow margins separate the two compositions’ edges (the old worn, the new clean). Whether we, the unintended recipients of the message above, think the subject is indeed beautiful matters less than our uncertainty as to whether that subject is Bien Hoa or the picture. The equivocality underscores the curious thing about these photographs, which Bacher’s framing draws out: Walter entwines the activities of documenting and aestheticizing his life, a tendency that both disturbs (in its implication that one’s life, however violent the circumstances, can be considered a series of postcards) and invokes empathy.

Walter’s tone in his written messages is calm and matter-of-fact, regardless of the scenario. He says, for example, of a photograph depicting a helicopter that had been shot down over rice paddies: I THINK THIS IS ALSO A GOOD PICTURE; and of another, in which firemen extinguish a burning mass: I MESSED UP ON MY BORDER AT THE TOP OF THE PICTURE. The only two photographs without commentary are those in which people (a Vietnamese woman in one, Walter in the other) brandish guns, though neither is engaged in combat. The violence of Walter’s circumstances remains primarily an undertone; most of the images show merely the humdrum daily routine of an army base. What we get is a soldier’s personally crafted story—its intimacy enhanced by the messages’ handwritten script and by Walter’s salutations (YOUR MAN; I LOVE YOU; LOVE YA)—told to us by an artist. The physical proximity of what are essentially two faces of one work allows the same imperfections, such as folded corners and water stains, to appear on both as though reflected, the doublings in form paralleling those in concept.

An older project, Men at War, 1975, was shown in the upstairs gallery. The suite comprises two groups of nine photographs developed from different parts of one found negative on paper slightly larger than the gray wooden frames allow, an incongruity that makes the prints slightly concave. The subject, bathers, is classical, but is here rendered not with women, as tradition would have it, but young men. Serving almost as a corrective to Norman Rockwell’s idealized 1921 painting No Swimming—in which three wet, half-dressed boys, one of them looking anxiously over his shoulder, run past a No Swimming sign—Bacher’s photographs show adolescent males, some naked save for white towels draped across their waists, as arrogant enforcers sunning themselves at a watering hole. The swastika drawn on the chest of one figure wearing a sailor’s cap, the inoculation scar on another’s arm, the black-and-white stock, and the swimwear styles all suggest the picture was taken quite some time ago, but exactly when and where (Nazi Germany? America?) is unclear. Given their common source, the prints often feature the same details, variously developed and cropped: A face appears crisply in one image, overexposed in the next; a minor player here is central there. If history repeats itself, this sequence suggests, it also backtracks, stops, and stutters.

Kyle Bentley