Photography

Robert Rauschenberg: Night Shades and Phantoms

Installation views of Phantoms (all 1991) in the Chapel, the artist’s former studio. Robert Rauschenberg, Night Shades and Phantoms, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, NY, March 14 – July 19, 2019. Photos: Chris Murtha.

Over the past year, I had the opportunity to research, plan, and develop an exhibition at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation with my Hunter College colleagues, Daniela Mayer, Lucy Riley, Joseph Shaikewitz, and Melissa Waldvogel, under the guidance of our distinguished professor, art historian and curator Emily Braun.

The exhibition, which opened on March 14 and will close on July 19, is the first to exclusively focus on Rauschenberg’s Night Shades and Phantoms, two distinct but related series of “metal paintings” from 1991. Produced on brushed and mirrored aluminum panels, these silkscreens are composed exclusively of the artist’s own photographs, which were captured on travels at home and abroad from 1979-1991. Rauschenberg’s photographs replaced those he previously appropriated from mass media print sources, shifting the frame of reference in his paintings from the public realm of current events and popular culture to one more defined by the artist’s personal experiences.

The Night Shades are distinguished by Rauschenberg’s application of Aluma Black, an oxidizing agent that immediately tarnished the aluminum surface, revealing and concealing the artist’s matter-of-fact images. In the spectral Phantoms, the faint screens compete with the transient reflections that enter the frame, which inherently include the viewer. Produced on the heels of three separate retrospective exhibitions, these ethereal works allude to Rauschenberg’s artistic past and, by conjuring the foggy realm of memory, address the difficulties of looking back.

“Photosensitive Rauschenberg,” my essay on the centrality of photography to these works and much of the artist’s creative output, will be included in the forthcoming exhibition catalogue.

Installation view with Vanities (Night Shade), 1991. Robert Rauschenberg, Night Shades and Phantoms, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, NY, March 14 – July 19, 2019. Photo: Chris Murtha.

Recent Reviews for Artforum

I recently wrote two reviews for Artforum.com. The first, on Arlene Shechet’s second exhibition with Sikkema Jenkins & Co, was an absolute honor to write. Though primarily known for her ceramics, Shechet’s work has evolved from one material to another over the course of her career, and here she begins a new chapter with a series of hardwood sculptures.

The second piece reviews Polish artist Honza Zamojski's exhibition in the compact East Village gallery of OSMOS, aphotography journal. Zamojski, whose impressive multidisciplinary practice also includes writing, curating, and publishing, performs a series of subversive interventions with black-and-white photographs of magnet sculptures.

Arlene Shechet
Turn Up the Bass
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
On view through November 12
www.artforum.com/picks/id=64323

Honza Zamojski
Ghostism
OSMOS Address
On view through December 4
www.artforum.com/picks/id=64478

Top and bottom: Installation views, Arlene Shechet, Turn Up the Bass, Sikkema Jenkins & Co.,
October 13 – November 12, 2016; Middle: Installation view, Honza Zamojski, Ghostism, OSMOS Address, October 14 – December 4, 2016. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

What We Look For When We Look At Art: Rachel Harrison’s Perth Amboy

Installation view, Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy, The Museum of Modern Art, March 19 – September 5, 2016.

In Fall 2000, Rachel Harrison set out to document a modern-day pilgrimage to Perth Amboy, NJ. Residents there claimed to have seen an image of the Virgin Mary in their second-story window and people were flocking to this town on the outskirts of New York City to behold Her presence. Harrison’s resulting project, Perth Amboy, is currently being re-staged by MoMA fifteen years after its original presentation at Greene Naftali Gallery.

From early on, Harrison’s work has presciently combined sculpture and photography to explore our relationship to images more concretely. Here, she pairs her own photographs from Perth Amboy with a series of found-object sculptures. With this installation, Harrison questions how we view art and, more specifically, what we look for when we view art. In retrospect, it represents her archetypal project.

Harrison’s understated photographs forego documentation of the apparition and focus instead on the moment when visitors touch the window in hopes of gleaning any lingering presence. One photograph eerily captures the faint image of a person’s face, just visible through the glare of reflected sky and the accumulation of handprints. In effect, the handprints form a new image, one that recalls the smudges that initially conjured the Virgin Mary. With an emphasis on contact, Harrison’s photographs transport the image of this holy apparition back into the physical realm.

Installation view, Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy, The Museum of Modern Art, March 19 – September 5, 2016.

The rest of the installation, which fills the entire gallery, is set up as a cardboard maze that limits our mobility and seems to entrap us within the space. The cardboard panels are unaltered except for the folded scores that allow them to stand on their own, somewhat precariously. Situated (and sometimes hidden) among them are seven sculptural arrangements, exhibited on customized bases that include a mirrored pedestal and a Stor-All box. The gallery is so crowded with cardboard that it is difficult to look at more than one of these tableaux at once, and impossible to view them collectively.

Several pairings focus on the act of looking, with one object contemplating another. In one, a ceramic figurine of a Chinese scholar meditates on one of Harrison’s characteristically lumpy cement sculptures. In contrast, a family of porcelain Dalmatians gazes up at a crumpled chipboard envelope as if it were an important monument. Others focus more directly on photography: a Becky doll (Barbie’s disabled friend and coincidentally "the school photographer") views an unspectacular image of a green wall and a miniature bust of a Native American in headdress admires a framed snapshot of a sunset (a remnant from Harrison’s earlier project, Sunset Series*).

Rachel Harrison, detail of Untitled from Perth Amboy, 2001, wood, GatorBoard, cardboard, Becky Friend of Barbie doll, thumbtacks, and chromogenic print, 96 x 38 x 41 inches.

Each pair is a reiteration of the others, a repetition of the gaze (and the projections that accompany it) that is central to the artist’s project. By relating her own pieces to common objects, Harrison may be poking fun at her own work and contemporary art in general, but more likely she’s taking aim at the loaded nature of the gaze, the awkwardness of the exchange between a viewer and an object.

Here, the observed objects signify nothingness, or at least an absence of clear meaning or function: an empty envelope, an abstract sculpture, a generic sunset photograph, and a green screen, which represents digital invisibility. Harrison’s readymade figurines are searching for something in these objects that they may not find, and this, perhaps, is what they share with the people documented in the photographs that line the gallery walls. Still, the effort is admirable.

Harrison may have been drawn to the initial spectacle in Perth Amboy as a skeptic, but she clearly respected the power of the apparition. Unlike the sculptures, there is no mocking tone in her photographs of the faithful. After all, it was the power of an image envisaged from a few smudges on a windowpane that drew crowds of people to an unassuming two-story house in the suburbs. It’s a similar power that transfixes the figures in Perth Amboy and keeps us wandering this cardboard maze.

Installation view, Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy, The Museum of Modern Art, March 19 – September 5, 2016. (All photos: Chris Murtha)

Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy
On view through September 5

The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
www.moma.org


*Harrison’s Sunset Series (2000) featured photographs that employed various analog distortions to create distinct images of the same sunset snapshot.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s Otherworldly Treasures

In King of Lesser Lands, an eclectic but focused exhibition at Andrew Edlin Gallery, we are introduced to the world of self-taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein by a long row of erotic pinup portraits of his wife. As intriguing as they are awkward, these photographs are almost generic compared to the visionary works that follow. Von Bruenchenhein proclaimed that he was of noble descent but also referred to himself as a visitor to this world, theorizing that there was a “First World” that Earth had splintered from during a cataclysmic event. In light of this, many of his works can be interpreted as documents and artifacts of this fantasized world.

Von Bruenchenhein’s vision is most fully realized in his paintings—Technicolor skyscrapers and otherworldly landscapes that evoke popular science fiction imagery and Charles Burchfield’s more mystical works. The imaginary vistas and aquatic microcosms depicted in paintings like To The Endless Span of Creation (1954) and Sea Fringe (n°882) (1960) radiate with frenetic energy. To achieve this effect, the artist worked quickly and spontaneously, using his fingers, combs, crumpled paper, and sticks to manipulate the paint—scraping, pushing, and fanning out the oils in vibrating, electric patterns.

Von Bruenchenhein’s sculptures are evocative of unearthed royal treasures: miniature thrones intricately constructed from painted chicken bones, leafy ceramic crowns and vessels, arrowheads fashioned from broken glass (not exhibited here), and large-scale concrete heads that lined his house like spiritual guardians. All of Von Bruenchenhein’s works were made entirely at his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—he even hand-dug the clay for his ceramics and fired them in his coal-burning oven—and they remained there during his lifetime.

Photographs taken of the artist’s home shortly after his death document the overwhelming accumulation of artwork and bric-a-brac. His ramshackle palace was an extension of his art and a kind of museum in its own right: the exterior was a patchwork of color, doors and walls were painted with scenic and abstract imagery, and placards with handwritten poems and theories hung throughout. His paintings and sculptures are presented here in stark contrast to the way that Von Bruenchenhein lived with them and, though that may be unavoidable, some of their power is lost. Nonetheless, we should be thankful to behold such curious and forceful treasures.

Top: Untitled, 1978, Oil on cardboard, 29 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches; Middle: To The Endless Span of Creation (detail), 1954, Oil on board, 24 x 24 inches; Bottom: Installation view, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, King of Lesser Lands, March 24 – May 8, 2016, Andrew Edlin Gallery, NY. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

The Shape of Light: Ellsworth Kelly’s Photography

For this exhibition, which is the first to focus solely on Ellsworth Kelly’s photographs, Matthew Marks Gallery compiled images that were taken over thirty years and printed shortly before the artist’s death this past December. Though Kelly did not use his photographs as direct sources for his paintings, they share a striking emphasis on geometric forms, from simple squares and triangles to skewed diamonds and rhomboids. These images are revelatory not only because we are unfamiliar with Kelly’s extraordinary work in this medium, but they also provide a context for and a contrast to his colorful abstract paintings.

Kelly spent the last forty-five years of his life in rural Upstate New York and the images in this show are a reminder that even though the hard-edged minimalism of his works can seem urban or industrial, he more frequently found inspiration in the pastoral. Two early photographs from 1950—one of curling tendril-like pine branches, the other of re-bar and concrete—call to mind his elegant contour drawings of plants and flowers. These images are outliers though; overwhelmingly, Kelly’s photographs are preoccupied with how mass and volume can be suggested by light and shadow.

Potato Barn, Southampton, 1968, Gelatin silver print, 8 1/2 x 13 inches; Above: Doorway, Belle-Île-en-Mer, 1977, Gelatin silver print, 12 7/8 x 8 1/2 inches. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

Kelly was especially attracted to the simple architecture of barns and the shadows cast by their gabled roofs and large doorways. In Barns, Long Island (1968), one barn abuts another perpendicularly, creating an intricate stacking of linear structures, but the eye is drawn to the starkly white fragment of sky created by the roof’s peak. Often, these negative spaces and shadow forms act as referents for Kelly’s canvases, as in Movie Screen, Waterbury (1982), in which a drive-in screen creates a diamond-shaped white void against the backdrop of dense foliage, or the jewel-like shadow in Doorway Shadow, Spencertown (1977).

With these black-and-white photographs, Kelly—an artist so famous for his use of color—was able to visually compress and distill the three-dimensional world into a flattened space, emphasizing the forms he spent his career examining. When taken collectively—especially as viewed on the gallery’s website (as seen below)—the photographs read as an index of Kelly’s visual vocabulary. Perhaps more importantly, they provide a context for his abstractions, one that is based squarely in his lived experiences.

Screen capture showing thumbnails of Ellsworth Kelly's photographs on Matthew Marks Gallery’s website, www.matthewmarks.com.