photographic memory: art reviews

Equally Artistic: Alec Soth & Brad Zellar Visit Ohio, Upstate New York

   Over at Alec Soth's tumblr The LBM Dispatch, Soth and his Little Brown Mushroom cohort Brad Zellar have been uploading dispatches from what will be their second newspaper, upstate. It is the second edition of a planned volume of four; the fantastic ohio being the first. Both are for sale, as well as a 'special edition' of ohio which comes signed in a hand bound portfolio featuring a tipped-in black-and-white print on the cover and a limited edition Alec Soth print. A subscription to all four special editions may also be purchased.

   Soth is no stranger to newsprint. His first foray The Last Days of W. published in 2008 was a fascinating, if sometimes aimless, attempt to capture a sense of the nation reeling from the presidencies of George W. Bush. Now sold-out, it was a success because it was fun and big, but it was affordable, accessible. It was a nice place for many of Soth's best pictures that didn't have a home anywhere else.

   With the LBM Dispatches, the newspaper idea has been refined and focused. The issues have purpose: documenting areas of describable character, we're able to fully immerse ourselves in what's happening. And unlike many photographic projects, we're not always constantly moving from town-to-town, state-to-state. We're affixed to a geographic region, where the people, while individuals, are all sculpted by the same winds and weathers, the same qualities of home.

   Further pushing the newspaper-ness of the project is Brad Zellar's reportage. The photographs in the LBM Dispatches are accompanied not so much by captions - describing or identifying the individuals and places - but by allegory; excerpts from conversations had and presumably recorded by Zellar, observations and comments are all used to offset the portraits with a glimpse of their actual, rather than preconceived, personalities.

The Special Edition of 'Ohio'   After all, photography is the false documentarian's art form. It records reality, but only what you let it see. One of its strengths is that even when the message is clear, photography leaves you somewhat uneasy, a little un-sure of something which you can't quite put your finger on. The moment hangs, waiting to resolve itself - because after all we are beings which exist through time - but never does.

   I think this is why pairing photography up with writing works so well. It's so universal, it's practically the basis for every newspaper, magazine, or internet story there's ever been (okay, so, I exaggerate). The way which we're able to understand more fully through two senses, compared to one, is more than two-fold. When, in ohio, GARY tells us he's been living inside his GMC van for the past three years or Bob W. from American Legion Post 110 in Toledo explains how his father gave him the lowdown: "Son, you've got four choices and you ain't gonna find the word university in front of or behind any of 'em," we begin to sympathize, put ourselves in their shoes. What's felt by looking at the portraits is stronger after reading their comments, knowing them if even by some infinitesimal degree. And by becoming involved with the subjects we become involved with the work.


Pages 18 - 19 from 'ohio' by: Alec Soth & Brad Zellar; Little Brown Mushroom, 2012. 

   While Zellar memorably becomes inducted into the Clyde Moose Lodge, there is little intrusion upon their world. Ohio is left to be itself, the reportage more communitarian than journalism, which is good - the most unbiased and fair reporting is that least tainted by the one doing the reporting. I think this portrayal without judgement permeates the book like fog, coloring the scenes with memory and questions. All of the images in ohio and upstate are in black-and-white, and I wonder if Soth choose the medium to more properly conform with the idea of what a newspaper is. Like William Eggelston, Soth is known for his color photography and his early black-and-white work lacks the consistency of his color projects. Deftly printed, the images bloom on the newsprint with a rich creamy smoothness. Many of the prints are deep in the blacks, but with a wonderful delineation of values in the highlights. Due to this nature, many of the images fail to resonate online. Before I received my copy of ohio I was slightly disappointed when they appeared in blog form. Something about the nature of computer screens I believe - brightly back lit - leaves hollow what should be full.

   Nearly all of upstate has been posted onto the LBM Dispatch tumblr, but there is still a third of the publication to still go up, so check back for further material. It seems as if almost all of ohio is posted, including several photographs that aren't included in the newspaper. I would expect the same to be true for upstate. For my eye's worth though, check out the published newspapers. The prints are truly a wonder to behold, and stand up much nicer in the 11.5" X 15" format. I, for one, look forward to upstate and to where-ever lies ahead for Mr. Alec Soth and Mr. Brad Zellar.

Photographic Memory: Art Reviews - Oh!No!Doom! - A Walk Through the Dark

Steven Fiche: Silkscreen   The Oh!No!Doom! Gallery on 1800 N Milwaukee Ave in Chicago was seemingly made for a Friday the 13th themed art show. It was little surprise then, that A Walk Through The Dark was such a smashing success. Incorporating art by Jonathan Bergeron, Stephanie Brown, Ego, Steven Fiche, Ben Lyon, Scarecrowoven and Scott Shellhamer, A Walk Through The Dark focused on the dark and the macbre.

   Stephanie Brown's trio ("i" "ii" and "iii") embodied the raw passions and stately beauty that make up the more sinister elements of life - suceeding spectacularly with "ii" where a ghostly maiden succumbs to red guache daggers in a dramatic fall. Brown's handeling between the soft, cold tones of the figure to the harsh flat finish of the guache elements is wonderful to behold, striking a strongly felt figure-ground push-and-pull.

   In Oh!No!Doom!'s back room, a tryptich of Steven Fiche's silk-screens lorded down and Ben Lyon's surreal paintings added a a touch of psychodelia to the proceedings. Informed by his many years of making zines and concert posters, Lyon's paintings are a wonderful ramshackle of all kinds of modern madnesses, incorporating collage, cartoon, and some of the most creative painting practices around. Each painting provides endless moments with hypnotizing effects.

   Artists Scott Shellhamer and Scarecrowover also have some richly fulfilling dark works up as well, perfectly demonic. Ego and Jonathan Bergeron fill out the space with some skillfully imagined paintings. Ego paints smaller affairs of characters well realized and aptly executed. Bergeron's worlds are a well connected narrative of symbols and strange situations. Each greatly enjoyable in their complexity.  Stephanie Brown: "ii"

   The Friday the 13th opening was a bash (dare I say, a Monster Mash?) with DJ Paisley Babylon spinning some righteously creepy tunes. Lowdive, part of the Chaos Brewing Club, was there (although I wasn't able to try any of there wares) and the bar was also serving 3 Floyds Zombie Dust, a personal favorite. Even if you missed the Friday the 13th festivities, there's a lot of great work to be seen at Oh!No!Doom! A Walk Through The Dark will be on display until May 10, so make sure to drop on in to their gallery and get your freak on.

Ben Lyon: "Bad Breath Mardi Gras."

The Three Graces At The Art Institute of Chicago

From the collection of Peter J. Cohen; Unknown photographer.   What makes women so special, gives them their je ne c'est quoi? What does it mean to be a woman? What does womanhood mean to women and what does that mean to how they interact with their men? Did you stumble upon a gender studies course? Well, no, but such considerations are near to the heart of human existence and thoroughly explored photographically in The Art Institute of Chicago's show The Three Graces on display until January 22, 2012.

   Using New York collector Peter J. Cohen's archive of snapshots - procured from flea-markets, second-hand stores, other galleries and collectors - the Art Institute has assembled a touching portrait of the Western woman. Comprising 538 unattributed photographs, The Three Graces gives us sly sophistication, pulp sexuality, and sisterhood. Beginning with the 1900s and advancements which led to photography being available to the common person, we are entreated by snapshots of our three graces played by the proverbial girls next door. And because our cast of characters, our photographers, subjects, settings are all anonymous - and therefore somehow more honest - a light glows threw the room. The things portrayed therein happened for the sake of the thing and not for the portrayal itself.

   Art has a problem because it is always aware of itself. You become an artist as soon as you decide to do an action for art's sake and by then you are aware you are doing it. These pictures were never intended to be hung in a gallery and thus more intimate than the images we normally encounter. Granted, many of the erotic pictures (and there are quite a few) were paid sessions usually sold or sent out to small 'clubs.' Yet, even these "amateur" photographs were never intended for mass viewing. They're intimate in a more raw, 'dirty' sense, although highly revealing. Some of the more blatently suggestive pictures will make you blush to see in public, but the reaction they cause is highly rewarding as well. From very young boys snickering in bewilderment to a small group of female "don't call me 'senior' citezens" laughing like disobedient young school girls, people responded to the show. Responded, in part, to the Family Album-like arrangement of salon style photographs, responded, in part, to the sheer vibrancy of intimate reality: this existed, and was important, and then was discarded. This becomes especially interesting when contemplating a more sexually charged photograph, so charged, but how exchanged.The Three Graces: Gallery view.

   While the show is not displayed chronologically, it does seem to be approximately so, enough that most will assume that it is the case. When viewed this way, one interesting trend is exceedingly apparent. The sexuality of the photographs increase signifigantly. While there are many nudes from the earliest pictures in the exhibit, their demeanor is much more artistic. One picture in particular presents three nude women each holding onto the same long chain. There exists a certain sexuality, edging on fetish, but the women are calm and confident. They posess a stoic power. As the years roll by, the pictures become more sexually charged. This is to say, they are not so much more sexual as they are more charged. A series of images present us three women offering us their best, the center figure relishing the chance to own her sexuality almost to the extent where it's pornographic, almost to the edge of absurd. To consider how some of these images align with the feminist movement (and the much earlier photographs to women's sufferage), it's amazing to see how much women have been able to embrace their sexuality but also still be indentured to it.

A few of the 538 amateur photographs.   For the most part, though, the pictures in The Three Graces are particular to their own time and place. They are illuminating, captivating, nostaligic. The prints range from shabby to exquisite, but you'll never notice the difference. You can just imagine an elder relative explaining the signifigance and story behind each and every picture. There is a computer terminal and several copies of the catalog (published by Yale with hundreds of pictures reproduced from the show) in the small gallery after the show that try and piece together the story, inferred at like anthropologists by the few clues included with the photographs or their discovery. The catalog is quite good and somewhat reasonably priced, but the terminal is full of supplimental information and provides links for a comments section and discussion. The program can be viewed online as well, here. Conscise, seductive, alluring, and fun aren't things we always get to find at the art museum, but here we are: The Three Graces - grace, charm, beauty.