During the last decade, art photography has developed a worrisome flair for the dramatic. The stagey human narratives of Kurland and Wall and the sheer monumentality of Gursky and Struth flirt with the same theatrical effects favored by Salon painting a century ago. In the interest of balance, "Urban Pornography," curator Lauri Feinberg’s first exhibition at Artists Space, offers a glimpse at sixteen artists headed in a different direction.
Their shared goal is to make irrelevance relevant, and their strategy is to strip unambitious urban and suburban spaces of all dramatic tropes, including any human actors save for a few fuzzy extras. By bringing the background to the fore, they turn familiar landscapes alien, encouraging a contemplation of the banal that, when it succeeds, speaks eloquently of power relations at work just below the surface.
Catherine Opie’s portraits of interchangeable Bel Air bungalows, for instance, betray their inhabitants’ social ambitions with faux old-world details: the oversize doorknobs and miniature topiary worn on their taciturn facades like costume jewelry.
Opie’s head-on vantage recalls Walker Evans, just as all of the artists owe, in both their style and subject, a considerable debt to various documentary traditions that came before. In the landscapes of Doreen Morrissey, the obvious antecedent is New Topographics.
Her empty American rest stops -- simple picnic benches beneath utilitarian overhangs -- offer little more to the weary traveler than a place to kill twenty minutes before merging back onto the interstate. Even the dismal scenery seems to discourage lingering contemplation.
A similar meditation on transitional space is at work in Jonah Freedman’s In & Out, the exhibition’s lone video piece. Freedman’s hotel hallways and lobbies seem to float in an eternal present of patterned carpets and potted plants, but their hospitality is a moment of falsehood. Like the lobbies’ revolving doors, the primary purpose of this architecture is to hustle people toward someplace else as rapidly as possible. In commercial and civic spaces such as these, the artist seems to ask, is any role available to the individual besides passive compliance? How does this architecture create and deny subjectivity in achieving its own goal, namely, the steady flow of fragmented social atoms?
Oddly enough, these tableaux, drained of all scenic and poetic elements, have begun to bear a poetry of their own. Their uncanny spaces have become a metonym for the lonely lives that daily pass through them, while their shabby mediocrity expresses a distinctly human sense of failure. In some cases, as in Todd Hido’s abandoned domestic interiors, this fetishization of anomie verges on straight sentimentality. Other images, like Lisa Roy’s pink and purple ocean liner casinos, suggest that all we have learned from Las Vegas is the melancholy pleasure of alienation. Who would have guessed something so incidental could be so maudlin?
by Craig Garrett
[originally published in Flash Art no. 222 (Jan/Feb 2002)]
at left: Catherine Opie, House #2 (Bell Air), 1995. C-print, 40 x 50 inches.