New York

View of “Fia Backström,” 2017. Photo: Adam Reich.

View of “Fia Backström,” 2017. Photo: Adam Reich.

Fia Backström

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

View of “Fia Backström,” 2017. Photo: Adam Reich.

For her recent exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery, curated by Piper Marshall, Fia Backström put together a group show that used a strange scaffolding of the artist’s own design as its armature. Comprising gray metal dowels coming off a central shaft—something like a towel rack if one had a bathroom big enough to put it in—each of the six custom contraptions sported outstretched arms on which Backström hung photographs. Outfitted with clamps that grabbed the photos and thrust them out into space, the devices had a dynamic quality that might have reminded some viewers of the avant-garde exhibition designs of El Lissitzky. Framed and unframed (some of the prints were simply taped to panes of glass), the photographs came from a diverse assortment of photographers, ranging from the Surrealist war correspondent Lee Miller to the radical nun Sister Corita Kent to contemporary artists including Katherine Hubbard and Backström herself. And yet despite this temporal heterogeneity, many of the works possessed a similar quality. Largely black and white and invested in texture and trace, landscape and longing, they all seemed to communicate some crumbling sense of time, some elegant form of intimacy.

Other artists, of course, have done similar things, putting themselves aside to open their practices to something other than themselves. Take Louise Lawler, for example, who has curated collections of other artists’ works into colorful “arrangements.” When Lawler staged her own “non-solo show” at Metro Pictures in New York in 1982, the works were available for sale only en masse. If Lawler deferred her authorial voice in order to take a cold, hard look at house styles and art-world economics, Backström wants to animate her photographs via the company they keep. There are precedents here, too, especially in that gray zone—think of Edward Steichen’s 1955 exhibition “The Family of Man”—where art meets propaganda. And yet her work doesn’t instrumentalize images in quite the same way—or at least it doesn’t use them quite as triumphantly. Indeed, there was something a little janky about Backström’s display. If the photographs occupied territory, they also drooped in the space somewhat dejectedly.

Judging by the phrase emblazoned on the silvery pamphlet available at the entrance of the exhibition, Woe men – keep going, which doubled as the title of the show, Backström seems interested in distilling these arrangements of photographs down into concepts (or clusters of concepts) that might then be activated and put to work in our political moment. Here we found that one image grouping encapsulated “body/landscape/ruin,” while another captured “mold/moisture/fold.” Many of these clusters came close to terms traditionally associated with womanhood, and judging by her essay, Backström does not shy away from such associations. (“I feel that I want a mother, an earth mother to hold me, us and everyone who are now feeling unsafe,” she writes.) Many of the photographs, too, zoomed in close on female bodies. Backström’s interest, however, appears to have less to do with making any kind of essentialist claim than with mapping out a series of keywords that might be put to work in our own dire times. (There was a tension between image and text in this exhibition that I am still trying to get my head around.) A poster by Barbara Kruger for the Women’s March in 1989 greeted visitors at the gallery entrance. Clearly the affinities between that moment and ours are strong, but there are also dramatic differences. Whereas Kruger’s generation was interested in fighting culture wars—her poster offers a woman’s face divided down the middle into both positive and negative exposures, its slogan your body is A BATTLEGROUND, spelled out in the artist’s signature red capitalist-Constructivist font—Backström seems to be interested in learning lessons from something like human nature.

Alex Kitnick