Since the turn of the millennium, photography has occupied a major niche in the fine arts. Once relegated to the realms of hobbies and crafts, the medium gained favor in the contemporary art scene of the 1990s with a marked rise in the prevalence of large-scale color photographs that have the force and presence of a painting.
The late 20th century, in fact, was a fertile time for photography as fine art. For the most part, its practitioners could be seen dividing into two groups: those who were strict documentarians, and favored the rigorous objective approach pioneered by German artists August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher; and those who opted for subjective interpretation of reality or pure fiction.
McNay Art Museum Chief Curator René Paul Barilleaux’s latest effort “Telling Tales” introduces San Antonio to the work of 17 artists from the latter school of practice through Jan. 15. While some of the artists focus on the real world and others photograph something they have staged, all are essentially storytellers who create works that pose more questions than they answer. In this regard, the exhibition is a visual goldmine for viewers who like to play “What’s Wrong with this Picture?”
Our task, however, is to figure out “What’s Right with this Picture?”
Upon entering the exhibition, viewers are greeted by Jeff Wall’s In Front of a Nightclub (2006), one of the artist’s last works in a format that he pioneered in the 1970s. He ceased using light boxes in 2007. In 1977, Wall noticed some backlit advertisements in public spaces, and their scale and luminosity reminded him of a movie on a large screen. Wanting to bring a cinematic quality to his photography, he introduced the now common practice of mounting large-scale photographic transparencies in light boxes.
With its dramatically lit, theatrically staged crowd of people, In Front of a Nightclub establishes a perfect tone for the rest of the exhibition. As we peruse the scenario, we may experience a sense of anticipation as to what is going to happen next, or begin to wonder about the various smaller scenes that are enacted within the larger one.
Barilleaux has devoted the first section of the exhibition to well established artists who made their mark in the 1980s and 90s. Included here are works by Tina Barney and Nan Goldin, both of whom pointed their cameras at people who were close to them in their everyday lives. While Barney’s work focuses on upper crust society and reveals disparities between social classes, Goldin’s images shed sympathetic light on the often marginalized lives of the LGBTQIA community, as well as on pimps, hustlers, prostitutes, and drug addicts.
In Barney’s Beverly, Jill, and Polly (1982), there are essentially two narratives. At right, two well-to-do white women, shown saturated in bright light and engaged in the leisurely activities of applying makeup and daydreaming, provide a stark contrast with the subservient black maid who makes the bed in the darker area of the room. Although shot more than 30 years ago, the image is particularly compelling today, considering the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Those familiar with Goldin’s work will likely recognize the woman at the table in Tin Pan Alley, NYC (1983). She is Cookie Mueller, an underground actress who appeared in John Waters’ early films and died of AIDS in 1989.
Goldin believes that photographing someone is a form of coupling, and she photographed her friend Cookie over a period of several years because she finds a person’s development and history more interesting than a single event. In contrast to the formality of Barney’s subjects and style, Goldin has always preferred the informality of snapshot photography because she considers it to be humanizing. Yet, as in Barney’s image, light is an essential component of Goldin’s photos. Characteristically, her subjects are bathed in golden tones that bring warmth to the gritty environments where many of the pictures were taken, and even suggest a spiritual presence.
Other artists in the exhibition who emerged in the 1980s and 90s include Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Gregory Crewdson, Mitch Epstein, Anna Gaskell, Paul Graham, Erwin Olaf, and the artist duo Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler. Like Wall, diCorcia, Crewdson, Olaf, and Hubbard/Birchler are known for carefully staged compositions.
Epstein, on the other hand, occupies a middle ground. Although he photographs already existing situations, he modifies reality by directing subjects’ poses or adding/subtracting objects as he shapes a composition. Epstein’s 1988 photograph Buena Vista, Colorado is especially captivating because it is laden with complexity and confusion.
In this semi-staged composition, two men are shown immersed within a labyrinthine setting that includes an elaborate toy train set and an artificial scenic backdrop. Although the images are photographic and representational, the composition grabs us with the kind of maximalist aesthetic energy that characterized many of the abstract paintings in Barilleaux’s exhibition from 2014, “Beauty Reigns.”
Equally engaging is Hubbard and Birchler’s Falling Down, a series of performative photographs where anonymous actors, with faces hidden from view, are shown dropping objects on the ground or toward the viewer. In one example, a man carrying a suitcase has just arrived somewhere on a Greyhound bus seen in the distance. In the foreground, money falls from his hand in a gesture that seems more intentional than accidental. As viewers, our attention may follow the path of the money, hence we become more cognizant of the space we are standing in. At the same time, the obvious incongruities should impel us to begin speculating about a possible explanation or story.
The artists in the exhibition who are more closely associated with the new millennium include Julie Blackmon, Jessica Todd Harper, Justine Kurland, Lori Nix, Alex Prager, and Alec Soth. While all continue practices established by older generation artists, every one of these artists demonstrates a mastery of the genre, with some of the more memorable imagery found in works by Blackmon, Nix, and Prager.
Like Epstein, Blackmon creates compositions from everyday life but then fictionalizes them through poses and props, some of which are added digitally. One of her standout works in the exhibition is also her most minimal. In Time Out (2005), a young boy wearing nothing other than shorts and a red cape is seated on a bench beneath a mirror with an ornate frame in an all-white interior, with a view into a kitchen at right.
Within this simple framework, Blackmon has provided us with a number of devices for constructing a narrative. For example, what superhero was the boy impersonating, and why is he pouting? Reflections in the mirror and kitchen window draw our attention to the green outdoor landscape, raising questions about the setting, while the time of the domestic drama, as revealed on the kitchen clock, is 4:47 p.m. The mirror and window are also effective in opening up the scenario spatially, since we become conscious of the space that exists both in front of and behind what we are seeing.
Nix’s photographs are purely fictional. Following a methodology that was practiced in the 1980s by photographers such as David Levinthal or Didier Massard, Nix constructs her imagery by first building miniature dioramas and then photographing them. Having grown up in rural Kansas where she witnessed natural disasters, Nix’s subjects include drought, insect infestation, and floods. In Flood (1998), Nix cleverly simulates a residential neighborhood submerged in muddy water, prophetically foreshadowing the news images that would become ubiquitous seven years later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
If there is one image in the exhibition that has exemplary staying power, it is Prager’s staged photograph Hollywood Park (2014). A native of Los Angeles (disclosure: I am too), Prager beautifully captures some of the unique qualities of the L.A. experience, and even clues the viewer in to her subject by including a man with “Los Angeles” printed on his jacket. Although this crowd scene is structurally improbable because the performers seem too close together to be moving in so many different directions, it is convincing as a psychological portrait of the city.
On one hand, the subjects are bonded collectively by occupying a singular space, yet each seems strangely immersed in deep inner thought. With Los Angeles being so geographically expansive, it is not uncommon for residents to feel isolated yet freely independent at the same time. For example, while some may view being stuck in traffic much of the time as alienating, it can also be very liberating – in the sense that the personal space of one’s automobile is a great place for thinking through ideas or listening to favorite music.
In short, “Telling Tales” is rich with images that will delight your visual appetite and stimulate your imagination with stories and ideas. If you view the show with children, encourage them to make up stories while looking at the art.