At Presentation House Gallery until March 9
When artists act as curators, they usually bring a new set of perceptual tools to the construction of exhibitions. At the same time, they may give us highly personal insights into the curious business of creativity. Such possibilities are niftily realized in Stephen Waddell’s Dream Location, a show of photographic and photo-referenced works on view at Presentation House Gallery. An acclaimed photographer who, not incidentally, started out as a painter, Waddell has assembled a select group of historical and contemporary images to illustrate his ideas. Dream Location demonstrates the ways artists across a number of disciplines—painting, sculpture, and video, as well as photography—may employ the camera to disrupt and thus expand their established practice. What we see is photography used not so much as a means of making an image but rather as a vehicle for thinking through an image—and emerging on its other side.
The title of the show is borrowed from the text accompanying Unposed Portraits, a photo-essay by Walker Evans shot between 1938 and 1941 but not published until 1962. (One of the greats of documentary-style modernist photography, he was among the first to appropriate commercial photos as a study in the vernacular.) Evans’s assertion was that photographers should leave their studios and seek out an alternative space, a “dream location”, in which to shoot portraits. For him, that location was the New York subway system, where he took photos of anonymous passengers, most of them unaware of his camera.
The subway, Waddell writes in his curatorial essay, enabled Evans to work provisionally, and to think about his medium in a new and experimental way. A small sample of vintage magazines and gelatin silver prints demonstrates the power of his portraits. They’re street photographs, really—although the “street” is underground—in which clothing, accessories, posture, and facial expression convey complex networks of class, ethnicity, and social relations. They have, Waddell points out, a “surreptitious” quality, an element that frees them from everyday editorial demands.
In this show, the “dream location” may be metaphoric rather than physical, as seen in three of Gerhard Richter’s small colour photos, altered with smears, drips, and clots of oil paint. In miniature iteration of Richter’s hugely vaunted painting career, which has seesawed back and forth between abstraction and photo-realism, these images pose yet more questions about the nature of representation, the repurposing of photographs, and the lengthy entanglement between the paintbrush and the camera lens.
The equally entangled relationship between photography and war is one of the themes embedded in Runa Islam’s 2011 film loop Emergence. Projected in bloody, darkroom red, this 35mm work comprises a damaged historic photograph as it is developed in a chemical bath, then as, overdeveloped, it disappears into obscuring darkness. The original image, a glass negative shot in Tehran in the early 1900s following a violent civil war, is of feral dogs eating horse carcasses in an otherwise deserted plaza or parade ground. Its brutality is reiterated by the sharp cracks and breaks in the glass, but it is also oddly mitigated by the alchemical magic by which the image is called forth. Of course, alchemy then destroys the image that it’s summoned, but still, the work is illustrative of the ruptures and revelations that interest Waddell.
Among the most intriguing images here are small black-and-white photographs taken by Ernst-Ludwig Kirschner, one of the great innovators of German expressionism in the early years of the 20th century. Although primarily known for paintings and sculptures, which were strongly influenced by “primitive” folk and pre-industrial art, Kirschner was also an enthusiastic photographer. Models and friends are posed interacting with his sculptures in ways that suggest that his studio is a stage and the art is as alive as the people. Some of the images were taken in Berlin, others in and around his home in Davos, Switzerland. He retreated there in 1917, following what must have been a posttraumatic breakdown caused by his military service during the First World War.
During the 1930s, as with other European avant-garde art of the time, many of Kirschner’s paintings and sculptures were condemned as “degenerate” and destroyed by the Nazi regime. He committed suicide in 1938, a sombre footnote—and tragic disruption—to this visually and intellectually engaging exhibition.