Sunday, December 2, 2007

So What's Up With Photo?

Aside from suffering from debilitating migraines and doing idiotic personality tests on Facebook, your truly has been a bit social last week, attending the panel discussion at LACMA about the relationships between art and photography. As noted previously I was dubious about the subject matter. I mean, it's the 21st Century, and after being rammed by simplistic theories about the-death-of-painting-because-of-photography's-mimetic-qualities for I don't know how long (and witnessing how painting is still very much alive, thank you very much) I should think the debate was closed. My friend Daniel who used to run Jeff Wall' studio said as much, when I invited him to come to the event.

So I mostly went to show support for LACMA's photo department, which was left dormant for too long after the untimely passing of Robert Sobieszeck in 2005. Tim Wride and Eve Schillo kept it afloat until finally the delightful Charlotte Cotton was named Department Head this Summer. In passing, it's great that LACMA at last gets a thirtysomething Department Head, as usually the younger-ish generation there is confined at best at Assistant Curator level, but more often than not toils in obscurity in temporary research positions and other various fellowships. Well, 35 is the new 21, I guess. I'm glad I've found the fountain of youth in middle age!

Anyway,the panel discussion was a good opportunity to gauge the temperature of LA's photoworld, a few months away before the opening of BCAM (Feb. 08). And boy, was it hot!
The Brown Auditorium was packed to the rafters, metaphorically speaking since there were no rafters, but extra sitting had to be provided in the aisles. James Welling was there, as well as Shannon Ebner, Susan Stilton, I think I've spotted Lauri Firstenberg, and also a delightful artist named Michael who gave me a ride to a party back in August. I fail to remember his last name, sorry I didn't say *hi* Michael, alas you left before I could disentangle myself from the group I was with, and I'd love to have a studio visit with you some day, BTW.
There were a few gallery owners as well, and many, many younger people, which given LACMA's usual audience is very encouraging! I suppose it takes a dynamic young curator to bring more young artists at this type of event (no,no I'm not being heavy with the ageist mentions, not at all!).

The panel itself was a bit blah, given the somewhat tired topic, and organized as such: each artist gave a short presentation of his work after being introduced by Charlotte, then the panel proceeded in a languid way, followed by the usual questions from the audience. These questions were fairly typical of the zillion panels organized in museums and academia the world over.
Pointless questions about how people respond to a photographer working in an open space (answer: they don't), one long rambling monologue-statement about someone's own work and how it apparently doesn't have an audience now (at least I think it's what the rant was about), someone speaking in CritTheoSpeak (or should it be CritSpeak? Next week's poll!) who I think was Shannon Ebner, and then they were a couple of other monologue-statements I failed to get the drift of. James Welling said something apparently very interesting but I didn't hear very well, which was unfortunate.

I think Charlotte's questions were oriented toward the way Contemporary Art perceives photography, rather than really questions whether photo is art, and I guess she was referring to 1990s stuff like Thomas Ruff et alii, so her panel in contrast included people using photography in their practice equally with other media (media, as in plural for medium) and whose work is conceptually-oriented.
From my perspective there was one elephant in the room, documentary photography, an area that is usually not considered as *art* in certain contemporary circles, but is nevertheless collected in museums. I think the debate would have been more fruitful (or more agitated!) if rephrased around this question.

Personally, I left the evening reinforced in my feeling that over the last 6 or 7 years, what has happened in the artworld (in which I include photography, we're not xenophobic at FBC!) is, we have regressed quite a bit, to use Buchloh's phraseology. Let me explain.
In the early 1990s Thierry de Duve had published a series of books explaining that with Minimal Art and Post-Minimalism, instead of being divided by medium the old-fashioned way, the artists stopped being defined by a sole medium (*painting* as in I'm a painter, *sculpture* as in I'm a sculptor, *photography* as in I'm a photographer) to become *artist in general*. Being an *artist* allowed practitioners to mix mediums, and to include in their works things that were neither this nor that: performances, installation, poetry, text-based works, public participation, choreography, cinema, video, earthworks and other time-based events.
De Duve relied heavily on Kant via Greenberg (unconvincingly I must say) to base his theory on questions of taste, and more successfully on Duchamp's legacy and its impact on artists such as Donald Judd and Joseph Kosuth. If we follow de Duve, after Duchamp and with Minimalism, artists didn't make as much specific objects than art in general.

It all made sense in the 1990s since at the time the artists who marked the era, say Felix Gonzalez-Torres, our very own Mike Kelley, Cady Noland, Cindy Sherman, Robert Gober or Matthew Barney were exploding every single medium in new genres and were not confined to a single one. If the question of the medium arose, it was precisely in photography where people such as Jean-Francois Chevrier were hailing Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Jean-Luc Mylaine etc. as a kind of newer Neue Sachlichkeit that had successfully killed painting to reincarnate it triumphantly in apparently straightforward, colored, giant-format photographic depictions of reality.

[Charlotte, if you read me, I know I am over-simplifying, but this is a blog, not a learned journal, and I have a few non-art readers who must be utterly lost by now. Sorry, dear non-art readers, I promise you food entries soon]

Anyway, it seems to me that there are not too many artists now who are exploding the boundaries between media, but on the contrary the last few years have seen a shift in refocusing practices by medium, at least here in the United States (there's a huge divide between the art made and seen in the US and what people in Europe or even Latin America are doing at present).
The boom in the art market has pretty much been a boom in painting (See the so-called Leipzig School, lots of Chinese artists are painters, LA has been guilty in churning youngish painters by the bucketful, see also the under-Richter such as Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans, the precious little masters like Elizabeth Peyton or John Currin, whatever Saatchi is promoting at the moment,etc.)
With this conservative move re-centered on one medium other practices such as video art, performance , installation (I know many artists who practice installation who now define themselves as sculptors for example) and obviously photography have been set aside. They are still very much alive and seen abroad, but not so much shown or even collected in US institutions, where a large fraction of the holdings come from private donors many of which simply follow the market.

Of course I am over-simplifying again, since for every mediocre dabbler in figurative acrylic out there, there is an Anri Sala or a Melik Ohanian working, there's the huge success of Doug Aitken (just when his works stops being interesting, IMHO).
The phenomenon that is the Performa Festival in NYC also shows that however much crappy painting is splashed all over the newspapers and magazines other kind of arts are still alive and vibrant. And, to be fair, the resurgence of painting as a commercial phenomenon permit to direct the spotlight toward great artists who were not so favored before, like Mary Heilmann or closer to us Ivan Morley.

Anyway, it seems to me the real question last week at LACMA was really about the separation of art practices between medium/media and whether it was still relevant today, or even if it should be relevant at all. Not for my chic and nevertheless Frenchy self, and I suspect neither for the classy and lively Charlotte Cotton!
Charlotte, welcome to LA and I'm glad you are stirring the soup.
If you wish to see more of Charlotte's fabulous energy, I recommend you check the website she launched, here.

PS: Full disclosure, I've written my Master's thesis under Thierry de Duve.
The picture above is from the post-panel drinks.

No comments: