Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Massively Critical of Critical Mass

I went to the opening of the “Critical Mass” show at Photographic Center Northwest tonight.  Critical Mass is an event that is under the umbrella of Portland’s PhotoLucida but it takes place each year rather than every other year.  My cynical opinion is that, among other things, it is more than a bit of a cash cow for PhotoLucida.  Here’s the process:
·       There is an open, world-wide call for photographers to submit 10 photographs from a body of work, jpegs of course, along with an entry fee.
·       A small body of reviewers winnows the gazillion entries down to 200 and the semifinalists pay a substantial fee to continue.  Digression: It seems to me that this is the narrow middle in the hour glass.  While I certainly agree that sending all gazillion entries out to all the reviewers isn’t practical, these reviewers are the gatekeepers as to what the larger body of reviewers see.  This gives them enormous leverage – really more than the reviewers themselves.  Here endeth the digression.
·       The 10 photographs of each semi-finalist go out on CD to, I believe, 200 world-wide photography professionals; teachers, curators, publishers, critics, gallery proprietors (significantly to me, no photographers.)
·       When each reviewer’s score sheet is in hand, they tally up the votes to select 50 portfolios.  These are held up as representative of this year’s state of contemporary photography.
·       A single curator, this year Darius Himes of the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, chooses one photograph from each of these 50 projects to make up the show that is currently at PCNW and will travel to Newspace in Portland later in the spring.

It seems to me that making a cohesive show out of 50 prints each taken from a different portfolio that the curator had no hand in choosing is a daunting task.  Instead, Mr. Himes quite reasonably chose to emphasize the diversity of work being done as part of the contemporary photographic scene.  He chose a purposely vague title for the show – “Love, Hate, (several other words), and everything else.”  He then divided the prints into several groups, numbered, but I could certainly not divine the characteristics that made a given print fall into group N rather than group M. 

Digression:  Since he had no hand in selecting the portfolios, I suppose that they do represent the contemporary scene – at least in the opinion of the gatekeepers and the 200 reviewers.  Does that mean that nearly everybody working in contemporary photography is obsessed with the disheveled, despairing, despondent, disadvantaged, disorganized, and angst-ridden?  Has “Art does not have to be beautiful.” mutated into “Art may not be beautiful.”? There isn’t much evidence to the contrary in this show.

A notable exception is one of Mitch Dobrowner’s stunning thunderstorm photographs.  It was the one print in the show that cried out to be printed big.  (It wasn’t.)  There were many that did not benefit from being printed big.  (They were.)

Or maybe the 200 semifinalists represent the tastes of the gatekeepers.
Here endeth the digression.

Mr. Himes was here to give a talk on the state of contemporary photography and to describe how he curated the show.  He is well educated, articulate, and obviously passionate about photography as an art form.  He is steeped in contemporary theory – a firm advocate of the position that what matters in art is the idea and the process and not the result.  He is also an advocate of semiotics as a vehicle for decoding art – regarding the visual content of art not as visual content but as symbols of coded meanings -- peeling off the outer, superficial, visual layer to expose the layers of hidden meaning that the artist may not even have intended.

He anchors his position on the 1985 “The Spiritual in Art” show at LACMA that attempted to show how the geometrical paintings of Piet Mondrian et al and the abstract expressionist paintings of Mark Rothko et al were bearing the torch of spiritual content dropped by the demise of representational painting – expressing the deepest, most personal yearnings of the artist/human being.  Moreover, he holds that the rising tide of university-trained photographers is building on that foundation to take contemporary photography to new heights of depth and idea-content.  He then showed photographs, mostly chosen from the show, to illustrate his position.

Mark Rothko insisted that his color field paintings were window looking into deeply felt ideas and emotions.  

They do? 

I’m sure Mr. Himes would agree – he showed a color block painting and a very similar color block photograph and observed that they are really commenting on the objectivity -- or maybe it was lack of objectivity – or maybe it was the irrelevance of being objective or not being objective -- of older and more superficial art.

I completely agree that what a photograph is “of” – what is shown in the print – and what the photograph is “about” – what the photographer’s intended to convey and/or the viewers opinion about what the photograph conveys – are often not the same.  I get lost, however, with Minor White’s “What else is the photograph about?” and that, as I understand it, is the basic method of semiotics – identifying elements of the photograph as coded symbols (both Steiglitz and Minor White called them “equivalents”) that carry meanings hidden from the superficial viewer and unconnected with the visual content of the photograph.   In my opinion, that is the point at which the connection between artist and viewer is lost unless the artist is consciously building the semiotic structure of the photograph – and the artist and the viewer read the same books.  Painters in the renaissance certainly had a lexicon of coded symbols that they consciously used, but a modern viewer who does not know that a small bird perched on the portrait sitter’s finger represents innocence and purity may mistake it for a small bird.  Idea-based art in general is a lot like a joke.  If you “get it” it is either funny or not according to your taste in humor.  If you do not “get it” then having the teller explain it to you rarely gets more than a shrug of your shoulders.

If you grant Mr. Himes his assumptions, then everything he said makes sense.  If you do not (and I do not) then it doesn’t.  I hold steadfastly that photography is very good at showing what something or somebody looked like at a specific time and place.  It is often good at conveying an attitude or emotion illustrated by the visual content.   It is not very good at expressing ideas and the more abstract the idea the worse it gets at doing so.

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