New York

Luigi Ghirri,  Rimini, 1977, color photograph, 5 7/8 x 4". From “La Carte d’après Nature.”

Luigi Ghirri, Rimini, 1977, color photograph, 5 7/8 x 4". From “La Carte d’après Nature.”

“La Carte d’après nature”

Matthew Marks Gallery

Luigi Ghirri,  Rimini, 1977, color photograph, 5 7/8 x 4". From “La Carte d’après Nature.”

In his preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth announces the necessity for a new kind of poetry. He resolves to “choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.” More than two centuries later, his then-revolutionary literary objective resonates throughout “La Carte d’après nature,” an expansive group exhibition curated by Thomas Demand. The artist derives the title from an art journal published sporadically by René Magritte between 1951 and 1965 that usually consisted of a mere postcard, which he addressed to friends and fellow artists. On one of the postcards, Magritte wrote Quel sens donnez-vous au mot poésie? (What meaning do you give to the word poetry?) I think a lot of people—smart, cultivated art­istic types no less than philistines—regard poetry as pretty retardataire these days; the beauty of Demand’s show is that he obviously doesn’t. The coloring of imagination rendering ordinary things astonishing suffuses the whole of it.

Demand’s exhibition—a reconfigured version of one by the same title at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco in 2010—is a brilliant work of time travel, representing Magritte’s own time, with the painter’s L’Univers démasqué (The Universe Unmasked), 1932, for example, and a 1925 photograph of models attired in Sonia Delaunay’s dresses, striking poses before the cubistic trees; looking back to photography by August Kotzsch (ca. 1860s–70s) and a dazzlingly mysterious 1911 autochrome by Léon Gimpel; and reaching forward, through divagating paths, to Sigmar Polke, Ger van Elk, and especially the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri. “Contemporary art” is amply represented, with works by, among others, Rodney Graham, Tacita Dean, Martin Boyce (who designed the exhibition’s brilliantly convoluted layout), Henrik Håkansson, Saâdane Afif—and Fridge, 2011, commissioned by Demand from Kudjoe Affutu, a professional Ghanaian coffin maker (yes, it’s a freestanding functional coffin in the form of a refrigerator). If this list of names seems random, well, at first it is. This show requires a patient, inquisitive viewer, one willing to live for a while in doubt and confusion while moving hesitantly and breathlessly through its complex installation, coming upon one gorgeous, weird, difficult, sometimes just plain opaque artwork after another; there’s no gestalt look that you simply “get.” For example, Dean’s 16-mm film Pie, 2003, a rear-screen projection of twittering magpies nestling in desiccated branches, is juxtaposed with Håkansson’s New York, 2011, his recording of birds in Central Park, played over and over again on a turntable. Graham’s Phonokinetoscope, 2001, was installed in an area toward the rear of the gallery, yet long before one encountered the full piece, one could hear quite clearly the Syd Barrett–y/Pink Floyd–y song that Graham wrote, sang, and recorded as its phono component, evoking beforehand a druggy, zoned-out, (sur)-natural haze: chirping birds on LSD.

Magritte provides the foundational conceit for this show, but the selection of photographs by the comparatively obscure Ghirri is so replete (forty photographs), it stands to reason that he should be regarded as a figure informing Demand’s thought processes to a degree that is almost as imposing as that of the Surrealist superstar. Ghirri’s characteristically faded palette renders many of his works ready-made old photos. Time is out of joint, but so too are nature and culture, as Ghirri revels in images of dislocation and in photographs that often appear to mimic the processes of collage. In the postcardlike Bari, 1982, for instance, a blatantly artificial, almost cutout palm tree stands in a bleak “dirtscape” of derelict construction. A series of photographs titled “Rimini,” 1977, picturing a faux-mountain theme park, further demonstrates Ghirri’s predilection for the absurd amid the mundane, a Surrealism of bizarre built environments and unnatural nature.

Throughout “La Carte d’après nature,” the Wordsworthian colorings of the imagination are shot through with tenebrous shades, as in Magritte’s own “dry” paintings, which insistently proffer a strong undercurrent of negation and refusal, rather than the “standard” Surrealist celebratory liberation of words and images from sense. (This is not a pipe; the treachery of images.) The poetic feeling that pervades Demand’s Wunderkammer is one of melancholia.

David Rimanelli