Global, Local Panoramas: Photography Beyond Illusion
Last summer, I attended the exhibition of Andreas Gursky’s big—and I mean big —photographs at Matthew Marks Gallery. Intending to review the work of this art-world phenom (Mr. Gursky is one of our current crop of art stars), I found myself dumbfounded: His panoramic photos of international locales—pictures that convert human and architectural abundance into sleek and severe abstractions—left me speechless (or rather, wordless). Proffering formalist art for a global age, Mr. Gursky renders the photographs steely and aloof, impermeable to the eye. An adversarial approach to aesthetic experience divulges distaste on the part of the artist for the person who looks at the work. Why would anyone want to acknowledge—let alone write about—art whose defining characteristic is cold condescension?
I was reminded of the Marks exhibition while looking at the recent color photographs of Melville McLean, on view at the Alexandre Gallery. Like Mr. Gursky, Mr. McLean is a meticulous technician, paying diligent, almost compulsive attention to detail. He also works big: The photos are scaled to a size intended to compete with, or at least evoke, painting (each print measures 40 by 50 inches). Predicated on broad fields of shape, the compositions have a strong sense of abstraction. The differences between Mr. Gursky and Mr. McLean emerge in terms of subject: Mr. McLean is drawn to the landscape of Maine and, as such, is local in his focus. More importantly, there’s a divergence in artistic mission. Mr. Gursky coerces a sense of awe from the viewer; Mr. McLean entrances the viewer, oddly enough, by inviting his skepticism.
The pronounced—indeed, unnerving—clarity Mr. McLean brings to the landscape can’t help but prompt the eye to question what it sees. Everything, whether placed near or far, is crystalline and clean: a criss-crossing of dead weeds, a puddle of gray water resting in the hollow of a stone, a field of snow under a sweeping purplish-blue sky—everything. You begin to wonder, in fact, if there’s any way you can take it all in; the photographs seem beyond the purview of sight. At the same time, you’re likely to wonder if you’re seeing too much. Mr. McLean’s all-over concentration of incident would induce migraines (or hallucinations) if it weren’t offset by an encompassing fullness of space and a fetching sense of isolation. His photographs depict a Maine more beautiful than the real thing. That’s an illusion, of course, and Mr. McLean—clear-eyed, driven and stopping shy of the surreal—is just the man to pull it off.
Melville McLean: Recent Photographs is at the Alexandre Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until Oct. 2.
The George Adams Gallery isn’t doing the American artist Joan Brown (1938-1990) any favors—or should I say it’s not doing Joan Brown the painter any favors. If anything, the gallery’s sampling of constructions will lead you to believe that Brown missed her true calling: sculpture. Made from painted cardboard and string, the constructions were a short-lived preoccupation: Brown cobbled them together in the kitchen while her studio was undergoing renovation during the early 1970’s. The pieces benefit from necessity and cut-rate supplies: A lesser investment in materials can lead to an increase in spontaneity, invention and play. That’s the case here.
Brown’s Flight #37, dancers on a party boat, and a self-portrait of the artist smoking a cigarette display the brevity of form and immediacy of tack typical of the Bay Area figurative painters with whom she studied, as well as the funky cartoonish style she subsequently adopted. The pieces distinguish themselves by the happy coupling of a homely, can-do primitivism and a streamlined sophistication. The high point is Swimmers (1974), a Matissean essay on athleticism in which Brown stills time, gracefully holding aloft the title subjects in mid-dive. The other pieces can’t match its lyricism, yet their goofy charms are preferable to the paintings hanging nearby, which are logy in comparison. History didn’t expect Joan Brown the sculptor; if it has any sense, it’ll welcome her with open arms.
Joan Brown: Painted Constructions is at the George Adams Gallery, 41 West 57th Street, until Sept. 25.
In the middle gallery of Marian Goodman’s space on 57th Street, there is a group of five found objects, each of them mounted on an unfinished block of wood and glued to an artfully designed display unit. They were selected by the British sculptor Richard Deacon, who clearly has an appreciative eye for likenesses occurring in unexpected places—or, more accurately, among unexpected things.
A tree root that looks like the head of a duck, a piece of coral resembling a cow, a hunk of cement that doubles as a face—we can relate to Mr. Deacon’s whimsical undertaking: Who hasn’t seen something or other in the grain of a piece of wood or that old standby, the passing cloud? The magic of transformation—the capacity of inert matter to suggest and embody phenomenon other than itself—is Mr. Deacon’s subject. The ability to recognize it might lead you to believe that he imbues his own art with a similar animism. He doesn’t.
Mr. Deacon’s three sizable new pieces, Red Sea Crossing (2003), Individual (2004) and Couple (2004), stand in direct counterpoint to his collection of coincidental sculptures by their absence of vitality. Mr. Deacon bends and twists thick lengths of wood into curvilinear armatures; propelling themselves off this main edifice are ribbons constructed from a series of planks. Within these components nestle small, nubbin-like forms providing sculptural emphasis and (maybe) structural support. As feats of craft, the sculptures are amazing: Making wood appear as pliable as Gumby is Mr. Deacon’s forte.
What’s less amazing is his inability to transcend craft. There’s just no vision to the things; the sculptures exist only as spectacular exercises in form. Any discernible humor or spark (say, in the way the sculptures wobble and wiggle) is vitiated by a self-aggrandizing manipulation of materials. Mr. Deacon is a show-off. Look at the big deal that is made of the metal braces holding the sculptures together—Mr. Deacon wants to make damn sure you know who’s doing what here. There’s no way someone like that is going to let art steal his thunder: hence our awestruck first impression and subsequent disappointment.
Richard Deacon is at the Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th Street, until Oct. 7.