There are no faces in Marianne Mueller's photographs. The Swiss artist shoots thighs, arms, breasts, legs, sheets, shoes, poles, and bathtubs, but leaves eyes, noses, and mouths out of the picture. It's a brilliantly simple move.
Every nuance of Mueller's newest exhibition at Kim Light/Lightbox evokes the shape and weight of a body-even images of microphones or piping feel like they're waiting to be filled by a living, breathing figure. Yet without facial expressions to pin down its moods and contextualize its movements, the body that Mueller portrays escapes the cincture of its own image.
The image Mueller evades is frighteningly clear-cut. It dominates fashion photography: female, thin, vulnerable, upper-class, educated, chic and painfully self-conscious.
As soon as I saw Mueller's work, I instinctively recognized its weightiness, not because I'm especially perceptive, but because, like most young Americans, I have the visual language of glossy fashion magazines hard-wired into me. Mueller's aesthetic resonates with the course couture photography has taken over the past decades; the regal beauty championed by Richard Avedon has evolved into the gritty, acerbic approach of Mario Sorrenti and Juergen Teller, an approach that reflexively identifies the illusion of high fashion as a delusion. Nonetheless, it revels in its own delusion.
At the opening of Mueller's show last Saturday, I arrived early. Two men walked in after me and one of them immediately noted what I had been avoiding: "She's the Wolfgang Tillmans of the next generation." The overlap between Mueller and Tillmans is indeed hard to ignore and to get out from under the shadow of Tillmans, whose embrace of banality endeared him to so many of the art world's key players would be a headache for any artist (though whether Mueller, who, like Tillmans, has been exhibiting since the late 1980s, could be of the "next generation" is doubtful). Both artists hang images in clusters like posters, intersperse portrayals of mundane objects with people and places, treat each image as though it has equal importance, invoke a fictitious spontaneity that makes the work look un-composed, and are clearly indebted to the aesthetic of ‘70s and ‘80s underground culture. But these similarities are mainly interesting because of what they say about the differences: unlike Tillmans, who is always leveling the playing field between a diverse array of cultural images, Mueller always tries to liberate the body from the captivity of cultural imagery.
"How can you separate photography's capacity both to trace something real-the event in front of the camera-but also to express the photographer's preconceived ideas and sensibility?" photographer Juergen Teller asked in an interview. Last year, for W Magazine, Teller photographed a fox-haired model in Washington DC (in one shot she stands outside on the National Mall wearing a see-through Rodarte silk gauze and rayon tulle dress, her expression tense). Like Mueller, Teller depends on a faux-rawness; his images pretend to be candid. But the model's face always tells us that the image is staged, even if her pose is convincingly "natural." The context and aura of Teller's image are spelled out in full. We know where she is and what she's wearing, and her face lets us in to how she's feeling (or how the image she's embodying is supposed to feel). Imperfection and mystery are there, but the imperfection is scripted and the imperfection theatrical. "Sometimes, the reason you take photographs is to find out something for yourself," said Teller. "You are really curious to see how something looks in a picture."
Mueller's work seems to be about curiosity. She photographs mundane moments, but cuts out enough of the context that the items in each moment become surprisingly empowered-does she want us to see how much agency a picture can give a body? In one of Mueller's photographs, a woman's torso softly fills half the frame. The satin texture of her bra accentuates her less-lustrous skin. The bra is too high, and the bottom of her breast pops out, a detail that seems disproportionately forceful because of the image's human scale. In another photo, a full-bodied white comforter lies concentrically on a mattress, as if it were a skirt that someone had stepped out of and left behind. It looks like it is still warmed by the body heat of its former occupant.
Mueller holds back. Her subjects are allowed to keep their faces, contexts, and narrative to themselves. All we see is the evidences of their bodily, kinetic fullness. Confident and unconstrained, the fullness becomes seductive.
(All images courtesy Kim Light/LIGHTBOX and the artist)