Columbia College Chicago, 600 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60605
The three approaches to photography taken by the three photographers currently on view in the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s (MoCP) exhibition “MP3II” demonstrate the breadth of current practice, sometimes even spilling over into realms one may not consider wholly photographic. On view is work made in the tradition of American Transcendentalism (John Opera); work that addresses the conflicts in the Middle East (Curtis Mann); work that mines pop culture hits like Dawson’s Creek for the stuff of real life (Stacia Yeapanis). The result, MP3II, resembles our daily lives as we navigate our political, spiritual and personal worlds for meaning.
Curtis Mann. Abstract #6, soldier (Baghdad). 2007. Courtesy of the artist and MoCP.
Entering the museum, you will be in the gallery devoted to Curtis Mann’s Modifications series, and you will immediately notice that the images have indeed been modified. According to the exhibition notes, Mann gets his images from “online auctions, photo-sharing sites and estate sales. These are already once or twice removed from their original authorship, form, context . . . He specifically looks for records of violence in places like Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Kenya.” Mann then manipulates these images slightly with Adobe Photoshop, orders conventional chemical color prints via an online service, uses varnish to preserve specific areas of the print, and bleach to remove other areas. The result is an image with preserved recognizable areas divided by bands of white-hot orange and red. These divisions represent borders, religious sects and violence.
Mann’s pièce de résistance, After the dust when you come over the hill (Beirut), 2009, is a grid of eighty-four images on the wall opposite the entrance, presented to best effect here without frames. Each image is a vignette of possible stories and meanings, but the overall presentation always rushes back due to the composition and especially the inclusion of ground running the length of the bottom of the piece (more info on Curtis Mann's website.) One can pick out a body or a piece of a car contained in this fiery red/orange/white composition. Gradually, it seemed to me as though I was looking at a massive explosion frozen in time. The images are disturbing; they remind us of the violence faced every day in these areas of the world, which many of us only know through the media, if at all.
John Opera. Rotating Ice Disk. 2005. Courtesy of the artist and MoCP.
The work of John Opera is also on the first floor of the museum and takes a more straightforward and realistic approach to photography. Writing last year on Opera’s work for ArtSlant; Chicago, Erik Wenzel described it in terms of “mystery and danger,” Opera’s depiction of nature is “where the wooded areas get thick, where civilization stops and the wild begins.” The works included at the MoCP continue to explore this feeling of mystery that Erik described. A smart curatorial decision to forego labelling each work, and instead listing multiple works at the corners of the gallery, cuts down the visual clutter and further increases the aura generated by these pieces all together.
Opera's Rotating Ice Disk (2005) depicts an almost perfect circle of spinning ice, caught in a frozen creek. This attention to natural geometry is echoed in other pieces in the exhibition like Interior Abstraction, 2007, an image of overlapping squares that at once evokes the unlikely combination of a Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series and the feeling of entering a cave. Opera's images do not yield their secrets readily and I found them to be the most intriguing in the exhibition.
Stacia Yeapanis. Spike. 2007 Courtesy of the artist and MoCP.
Upstairs on the second level is the work of Stacia Yeapanis from her Everybody Hurts series. These works are embroidered screen shots from popular, prime-time, television shows. Among the ones I could identify were The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Dawson’s Creek and Battlestar Galactica. Yeapanis chooses to depict moments in these shows where the character has an extreme emotional response; the result sometimes highlights the cringe-inducing acting, as James Van Der Beek demonstrates in Yeapanis’ Dawson Leary (2005). While that caused me an initial eye-roll, on further thought I found this to be part of the point: something obviously cheesy can have significance and meaning to us no matter what. The hand embroidery of these TV moments speaks to the fanatical love of fans, their desire that these shows never end, that there's something to hold on to, possess, whether it’s the entire series in a boxed set or a personal tribute like Yeapanis creates. In this way, Yeapanis reinvigorates the Pop Art tradition by showing that these pop cultural moments have specific personal values to the viewers, though we bring those ourselves.
(top inset image: Curtis Mann. thought, collective (somewhere, Israel). Courtesy of the artist)