If Bruce Silverstein’s group show avoids exercising the gallerist’s personality in favor of a team of international curators, Michael Mazzeo hides his curatorial influence behind the personalities and preferences of the photographers themselves. Every photographer in “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” is represented by 1-3 images (or, in one case, a sculpture) and an accompanying statement. These statements don’t belong to that staid and conventional genre of The Artist’s Statement, though. Mazzeo seems to have left the content almost entirely up to the artists themselves, with only the prompt that it relate to the classic back-to-school theme that gives the show its title.
The written results are surprisingly varied and personal: they look like nothing so much as individual posts to a group blog. Will Steacy writes a polished narrative fragment that adds context and emotional depth to his portrait of an undressed woman looking over a lake. Julie Peppito writes an excruciatingly honest description of the natural birthing of her daughter. Caleb Charland presents his summer as a list of physical activities and emotional milestones.
In an age when most gallery shows tactfully leave the artist’s humanity out of the affair, the confessional tone of “How…” is a breath of fresh air. The format adds depth and feeling to the work even as it helps bring about a unity rare for a group show. At times, of course, the confessional tone risks being sappy or embarrassing, but that’s an inherent flaw in the genre that the gallery has chosen to embrace.
So if the idea and the wall plaques are good, do the pictures hold up? More or less. The work, like the statements, carries a whiff of summer with it. As such it leans toward road trips, love affairs, and wide open spaces. These are all “classic” subjects, and for the most part they’re competently handled here. Paradoxically, though, what stands out are those photographers whose work breaks from that theme, either visually or conceptually.
A good example is fellow photo-blogger Cara Phillips’s UV portrait. Maybe because she already has a blog on which to voice her opinions, Phillips’s essay takes a more meditative and indirect approach to her subject–in this case, the UV images used by the beauty world to stir up fears of invisible skin damage. For those who don’t know, the thought process goes something like this: UV damage, which can cause skin cancer and the appearance of premature aging, is visible on the UV spectrum long before it reaches our limited eyes (if it ever does). Consequently, UV portraits have been embraced by the anti-aging industry as evidence of invisible skin damage to be either avoided or minimized through the use of various skin-care regimens.
Photography is a temporal medium, but by its very nature its subject matter is normally confined to the past. Phillips manages to break this barrier, using the methods of the anti-aging industry to look Janus-faced at both the past and the future. By revealing invisible skin damage that presages the face-to-come, her pictures subvert the nostalgic orientation of photography in favor of a Cassandra-like warning of looming catastrophe. On the other hand, her statement reveals the longing that lies beneath this series, a wish for the return of a past in which sunbathing was an innocent summertime activity, before medical and cosmetic concerns made every decision a matter of (eventual) life or death. Her portrait also seems to comment ironically on the extent to which cosmetology has destabilized our notion of beauty. Rather than trying to make less attractive individuals feel beautiful, UV portraits gaze deeply into their subjects in a tireless search for ugliness and disease, not content until even the most hidden shortcomings are made visible.
The other real stand-out of the show is Caleb Charland. Charland has been on my radar since he got honorable mention in the Aperture Portfolio Prize in 2007. His black-and-white pictures of homemade science experiments re-mystify the dull world of laboratory empiricism. There’s something eerie about the dark indeterminate settings of his pictures, but they’re saved from mere spookiness by the Mr. Wizard-inspired set-ups he constructs from bubbles and candles and magnets. This tension between science and the occult saturates and sustains every image Charland makes. The final prints hearken back to the early days of photography, when capturing motion and pyrotechnics on film seemed almost miraculous.
“How I Spent My Summer Vacation” runs through October 11. Images © Cara Phillips and Caleb Charland.