I like group photography shows for two reasons. As quick visual surveys, they provide leads to a wide variety of artists who may or may not be worth contemplating. They also give you a good sense of a gallery’s direction as a whole: what kinds of photographers, subjects, and stylistic considerations a gallery director currently finds engaging. Silverstein Photography and Michael Mazzeo Gallery have mounted two very different group shows, but both deserve a mention. This post will be devoted to the Silverstein annual; my next post will cover Michael Mazzeo Gallery.
The Silverstein Photography Annual gathers together 10 photographers chosen by 10 curators, each of whom accompanies a selection of photographs with a curatorial statement. Because the photographers were chosen by independent curators, the show doesn’t tell you much about the gallery, but it provides a nice global perspective on the contemporary scene. The curators come from all corners of the globe: Australia, the Netherlands, Canada, Israel, etc. It turns out that the global scene isn’t too different from the New York scene–the same approaches and pre-occupations known to the casual New York gallery-goer dominate the annual. Silverstein has examples of photographers interested in the environmental impacts of suburban development; sexuality; the legacy of twentieth-century horrors; and living with Islam, among others.
Still, it’s foolish to judge works based on originality of theme alone–trailblazing or not, there’s great work here. Rob Hornstra’s images of Russian citizens are some of the best environmental portraits I’ve seen in recent years. They provide enough context to feel honest and true to his subjects, but maintain enough critical distance to keep the viewer from indulging in portraiture’s fantasy of capturing or revealing the depths of its subjects. As Frits Gierstberg writes in his statement, “[Hornstra’s] photographs radiate a warm humanism with a slight surreal touch.” It’s refreshing after seeing series after series of portraits that treat subjects (who are, at the current cultural moment, sexualized, effete, and occasionally pre-adolescent) as estranged, de-contextualized, and symbolic. Hornstra’s work is corrective of this tendency without being reactionary–it makes for a happy and overdue medium.
Raphaël Dallaporta’s series “Anti-personnel” consists of beautifully sensual images of one sub-category of explosives: those designed to maim and kill human beings. Set against a black background, the prints ironically reference the fetish items of auction catalogues, reminding us of two easily forgotten truths: that aesthetics are incorporated into weapon design and that explosives are highly desirable commodities among certain kinds of bidders. I like Dallaporta’s international approach–everyone is implicated here, since these bombs and mines come from around the world–and the detailed objectivity of his captions. The captions provide comprehensive information on origins, theaters of use, and the intended effect on the human body. In many ways they remind me of what, when my brother and I were kids, was always considered the most exciting part of any video game instruction manual–the images and explanations of available weaponry. Seeing that same destructive glee transported to the real world of international warfare provokes conflicting feelings of sympathy and horror. The one major drawback here is that this work isn’t new–Dallaporta was showing the same work in Aperture’s “Re-Generation” show over two years ago. Much as I like it, it makes me worry that Dallaporta doesn’t have much else up his sleeve.
Two documentary photographers featured in the annual have built significant bodies of work by taking different approaches to otherwise well-trodden areas. Olivia Arthur’s series on Iranian women belongs to the post-9/11 hot-button documentary field of “the Islamic world.” But the role of religious custom in the lives of Arthur’s subjects dwindles as she examines them up close, in personal and social settings sheltered from the domain of religious and national law. The resulting photographs reclaim the humanity of these women from both political oppression and their representation as powerless victims in standard Western portrayals. Guillaume Herbaut’s quiet pictures on the aftermath of Nagasaki gather strength from their indirectness, building an argument from a series of glancing blows at a subject we’re emotionally inoculated against in its more direct presentation.
Not all of the work here is so strong. The black-and-white photographs of Gaston Zvi Ickowicz don’t have the visual or conceptual weight to compete with anything else in the exhibition; pressed to explain, even the curator who chose them seems to be at a loss for words. (The work is described as “a puzzling dichotomy of vision and context” and while “the broader social/political point of view in the work” is mentioned, it’s only to be dubbed “very personal and enigmatic”–sort of the opposite of a broad socio-political point of view, in my opinion.) Orrie King’s work of people in bed in various states of undress adds little to either the show or contemporary photography as a whole. And while images of cosplayers are inevitably fascinating and weird, most of their impact comes not from the photographer but from the subjects themselves–a fact that detracts from Oliver Sieber’s otherwise alluring images.
Sometimes the work in this show triumphs in spite of itself. Another series on the social and environmental upheaval of suburban homebuilding is the last thing anyone wants to see, but Isabelle Hayeur’s prints from the series “Model Homes” are so well-composed and lusciously printed that I couldn’t dislike them. Her strategy of capturing these homes at fortuitous times–the incomplete windows and doors of the house in Jade frame the few stands of scrappy pine allowed to remain in the process of development; the castle-like house in Catherine is spiffed out with pumpkins and witches for Halloween, adding a second layer to its faux-medieval menace.
Hayeur’s images serve as a nice stand-in for the show as a whole. If it isn’t conceptually groundbreaking, the photographs throughout are strong, and they accomplish the SPA’s stated mission–to offer up little-known photographers worthy of “further exposure within New York’s cultural milieu.”
The Silverstein Photography Annual runs through October 11, 2008. Top image © Rob Hornstra; bottom image © Guillaume Herbaut. Both from Silverstein Photography.