Walker Evans and the Barn, the group exhibition currently installed at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau, takes the iconic American photographer’s late work as its conceptual foundation. Organized by guest curator Jeremiah Day, the show explores documentary art; its practitioners’ overlapping activities of creation, representation, and discovery. The title cites an anecdote in which Evans purchased the contents of a barn filled with old signs and objects, later reinstalling them on a friend’s lawn. De-(or re-)contextualized, these signs were not transformed like Duchampian objects. Instead, Evans’ realist approach represents a practice of active looking rather than passive seeing; the twin processes of framing a photograph and selecting a readymade are at once revelatory and creative.
The exhibition is a flurry of signs (mostly of the semiotic rather than street variety) and referents, in which the distinctions between art, subject, medium, and research are not always clear. The blurring of medium and message is not a new exercise. The exhibition is at its best conflating art and artifact, presenting research and artwork, or perhaps research as artwork. In treating these efforts equally, the project considers both the contingency and creativity of documentary practice. As indexical photographs mingle with or even become their own referents we are no longer assured that This is not a pipe. Our heads spin as we ask instead: Is this a pipe?
The investigation begins with a mini-showcase of Evans’ late work, focusing on a 1971 Yale University Gallery retrospective in which actual signs appeared alongside photographs. The SMBA display includes eight “real” Polaroids, a print of a barn, photo-documentation of found signs (commissioned by Evans), and a series of installation views and wall text from the Yale show. The latter are strictly descriptive, yet in this context they complicate the dialogue. The curator reveals his own research, positing the exhibition itself as a medium for representation and exploration.
The exhibition suggests links between the physical or photographic document and aesthetic decisions in sculpture, performance, installation, painting, and video. Alisa Margolis’ inspirations are images as found-objects. Three small celestial paintings oversee a pile of calendar and magazine pages, photocopies, and internet printouts. Her works transform these pictures of flowers, rock concerts, and outer space into abstracted images of the sublime. The paintings are underwhelming, but the source materials captivate, asking the viewer to consider not only their dazzling content but also the role of the artist as collector and re-presenter.
Mieke Van de Voort’s photo-assemblage combines unique objects (e.g. 4x5” Polaroids), artist prints, research images, and documentation of her making a sculpture. Her recent work considers a colonial legacy. With this exploratory arrangement the artist displays a conceptual loop in which neither photography nor sculpture alone is adequately articulate. Her photographs inform her sculpture which is, in turn, shown here as a photograph. One wonders where her art resides – in the sculpture, its documented image, or in the act/performance of its fabrication?
The exhibition also features an excerpt from Barbara McCullough’s 1980 film Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes. Her genre-defying video is at once experimental artwork and documentary object, recording the artistic practice of an underrepresented community of African American artists in the 1970s. The selected excerpt appropriately documents David Hammons as he deconstructs his own material inspiration, a pile of rubbish, reassembling it into a work of art.
Brandon Lattu’s Mickey Rourke, a large-scale photograph of an empty grey wall does away with indexical signs altogether, referring to its ostensive subject by title alone. Underscoring the proliferation of images in contemporary society, the referent was never Rourke himself, but rather a painted mural of the boxer/actor. Elsewhere in the gallery Lattu provides a leaflet with text and photographs of the original and vandalized murals. This explanatory artifact is central to our understanding of the image as both a found- and a lost-object.
The exhibition, while contemporary in its conflation of art and artifact, is decidedly modern in its conceptualization of the artist. Like the abstract expressionists who left the paint marks of individual experience on their works, Walker Evans and the Barn considers artists in the subjective moments of seeing and making. Their works filter observational experience, leaving traces of a personal journey. The show is not always clever; its stance on photography is almost entirely mired in positivism (the borrowed Yale wall text equates taking a photograph with lifting and redisplaying the actual object). But at its best the exhibition presents a heartfelt inquiry into the artistic processes of finding, making, and showing.
The emphasis on research and discovery occasionally makes it feel like ideas trump work, in which case the distilled exhibition might look something like Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs. Yet this conceptual refinement is not why documentarians make art. They explore what is messy and imperfect, beautiful and curious in the world and represent it back to us with an inquisitive set of eyes. Just as photography freezes moments the eye might have missed, at its very best, documentary art depicts and transforms, telling us something about the world we failed to see.
[Images: Walker Evans in Alabama, 1973, Photographed by William Christenberry; Walker Evans, Exhibition of found signs, Yale University Gallery, 1971, Photo: Jerry L. Thompson; Mieke Van de Voort, Jongen met Vogel, C-Print, 2002; Courtesy of the artists and Stedelijk Museum (Bureau Amsterdam)]