American ReConstruction kicks off the season of group exhibitions with a collection of work by six young photographers on the amorphous subject of reconstruction. A fair portion of the participants can be singled out for their unique practice, which ultimately questions the authority of the photographic medium itself. Perhaps the most visible artist of the group is Curtin Mann, who is currently featured in The Whitney Biennial with a wall-size photomontage. He begins his process by collating images from Flickr that share a particular political subject matter. At the biennial he focuses on the Israel – Hezbollah war of 2006, while here he presents images of the Golan Heights, a contested region in Northern Israel. Approaching the photograph as a malleable surface, he paints the prints with varnish – leaving targeted areas untreated – and dips them in household bleach. The resulting works reveal the fragments Mann varnished, whereas the portions left untreated are rendered indiscernible. In this new series, Foldings (Guided Tour, Golan Heights) (2010), the bleach marks recalls Rorschach patterns—an attribute that does not seem relevant to the overall intent of the works. Mann’s practice appears as commentary on how desensitized our culture has become to war imagery; Similar to our partial view of his original Flickr images, all we retain nowadays from the surrounding “visual noise” are fragments of violent events.
Perhaps the most striking images in the exhibition are Cara Phillips’ black and white portraits taken with an ultraviolet light that exposes undetectable skin damage like freckles, sunspots or old scars. Although the portraits reveal blemishes that the sitters most likely wish to conceal—in front of Phillips’ camera the individual’s appear glowing and serene. In contrast to Mann, she seeks to depict the hyper-real and raw state of the subject at hand. Also on view are two photographs from Singular Beauty, her spatial portrait series of cosmetic surgery offices, which reveal little beyond their stark interior and obvious references to idyllic beauty. They are an interesting link, however, to the works of Mark Lyon, whose series Landscape for the People humorously documents banal spaces livened up by romantic landscape patterned wallpaper. Fall foliage is a backdrop to spinning bikes in Middletown YMCA, Cycling Studio (2009), floating air balloons surround a laundromat change machine in Emerald Garden Laundromat, Change Machine , and a nail salon is transformed into a tropical oasis in Angel Nails, Portrait (2009). Lyon successfully captures the inherent and amusing contradiction between the mundane purpose of the space and its ornate decoration.
Other works in the exhibition include Matthew Albanese’s Strange Worlds—images of studio models of natural disasters rendered realistic and dramatic with lighting and perspective manipulations. Although compelling, we cannot help but dwell on clues to the model construction, rather than focus on the formal qualities of the photograph. As with Mann’s works, here too we are called to question the authenticity of photography. Jowhara AlSaud etches faceless characters directly onto photographic film in her series Out of Line. She explains her process as a mirroring of Saudi censors, who often destroy public images that reveal a person’s features. While AlSaud’s aim is clear, the resulting images do not posit a convincing commentary on the authorities’ censorship practices, for they are entirely devoid of cultural context. Finally, renowned New York nightlife documenter Jeremy Kost presents three of his Polaroid montages. In contrast to his customary candid snapshots of young clubbers and drag queens, these collages take these characters out of their usual environment and into a domestic setting, such as a trailer and kitchen. In displacing these individuals, while maintaining their persona in all its glory, Kost confuses the straightforward narrative he has constructed over the years. Thus, as a whole, this exhibition introduces interesting insights into new photography, demonstrating an increasingly ambivalent approach to the medium’s traditional role as a lens unto reality.
Images: Mark Lyon, Middletown YMCA, Cycling Studio, 2009, Archival pigment print mounted to poly-metal, 36” x 54”; Curtis Mann, Foldings (guided tour, Golan Heights, #12), 2010, Synthetic polymer on bleached chromogenic prints, 19” x 23” (framed); Cara Phillips, Untitled Ultraviolet #147, 2010, Gelatin silver print, 30” x 24". Courtesy of the artist and Winkleman Gallery, New York.