Curatorial Lyricism: “Perfect Likeness” at the Hammer
Perfect Likeness at The Hammer Museum
June 20 to September 13, 2015
10899 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, 310 443 7000
“Perfect Likeness,” organized by veteran curator Russell Ferguson, is an intentioned and poignant show, with moments of profound tenderness. It was without question the best exhibition I’ve seen this year. It charts a renewed interest in photographic composition beginning in the 1970s, focusing in particular on the prolific photographers of Europe, Canada and the US working between the 1990s and 2000s. The works flow beautifully without the conventional curatorial buttresses of chronology or conspicuous thematic groupings. Ferguson’s deft arrangement sparkles with the subtle lyricism of a photographer’s series, allowing for moments of affection, irony, and fascination to unfold in front of the viewer.
Ferguson’s introductory wall text presses upon our current condition of image saturation, a point which interested me less than the mid-century break he posits between pictorialism and more candid, even journalistic, photography. The return to the “inauthentic” or arranged image is where “Perfect Likeness” finds its genesis. A gorgeous Robert Mapplethorpe work, Orchid (1982), could have opened the exhibition — it nearly perfectly characterizes the pictorial shift for which Ferguson argues. It was in 1982 that Mapplethorpe found his muse in female body builder Lisa Lyon, and his evocative image of a drooping orchid is anthropomorphized on film, displaying the same elegance, grace and emotion as his expertly staged corporeal forms. While Ferguson could have just as easily chosen a nude to mark Mapplethorpe’s predilection for choreographed imagery, I appreciate the fact that the flower, itself a site of sexual reproduction, was chosen. Roe Ethridge’s work Peas and Pickles (2014) shares a wall with the Mapplethorpe, and serves as both a formal counterpart and self-aware double entendre.
Christopher Williams’ Department of Water and Power General Office Building (Dedicated on June 1, 1965), from 1994, consists of two images taken at slightly different angles in the morning and evening. The subtle change produces vastly different effects: in the first, the building’s vertical lines are emphasized, while in the second it appears wider and more horizontal. One of the aims of “Perfect Likeness” seems to be the unification of painterly technique with that of photography. In Department, Williams draws upon the tradition of Monet, who depicted Rouen Cathedral dozens of times as a means of indicating the subtle distinctions in perception caused by shifting light and shadows.
This understanding of the photographic subject as malleable speaks to the issue of authenticity, a question which photographer Jeff Wall has spent a career examining (and debunking). Wall’s 2011 work, Boxing, features two white teenage boys sparring in what appears to be their childhood home — an elegant high-rise apartment with a Joseph Albers painting hung in the background. The art historian Michael Fried has made much of the quality of absorption present in Wall’s subjects; many times they perform a task or mundane action that suggests they are oblivious to the fact that they are being photographed. This absorptive quality squares with Wall’s pictorial aims: to create an image that appears candid but is in fact painstakingly composed. While two of Wall’s major large-format works are featured in the exhibition, it was his more diminutive 1993 piece Diagonal Composition that was the standout. The quotidian image of a kitchen sink glows with the help of a light box and was so perfect, so complete, and so personal, that I was nearly moved to tears.
Lucas Blalock’s Broken Composition, from 2011, consists of a double image of a broken light bulb. The wall text equates Blalock’s visible method of technical composition to the painter’s brushstroke. Here, both the picture and its subject are broken, adding another layer of ambiguity between the photo’s “truth” and inauthenticity. Stan Douglas’ Hastings Park was another standout in the show, a composite of a photo taken in 1955 and edited using Photoshop in 2008. For the photo, Douglas restages the 1955 scene at a Vancouver horse track using models in period clothing, creating an image composed of 30 separate snapshots.
Sharon Lockhart’s evocative 1997 series The Goshogaoka Girls Basketball Team makes manifest a century-long photographic cliché: with her carefully arranged images Lockhart raises a mundane scene to the level of magnificence. By omitting the ball from the frame, the players appear to gaze up hopefully towards a higher power above. Thomas Ruff’s glossy portraits from the 1980s take up an equal amount of the exhibition’s real estate, though they’re nowhere near as compelling as Lockahart’s scenes. Ruff’s sitters look directly at the camera blankly, as though posing for an identification card. While the enormous format of these images is in itself seductive, they lose their visual punch when displayed in a series. In contrast, Elad Lassry’s Chocolate bars, Eggs, Milk (2013) is deliberately diminutive; apparently his subject of glossy chocolate and smooth eggs is plenty seductive, even at such a small scale.
The poignancy of the images on display is what left me thinking about “Perfect Likeness” weeks later. Catherine Opie’s 2012 portrait of the artist Lawrence Weiner raises him to the level of an old master, equal parts Rembrandt and Hans Holbein. However, Weiner’s soft body and gentle face lay bare a degree of tenderness on Opie’s part — she doesn’t revere Weiner, but cares for him. Equally affectionate were Gillian Wearing’s self portraits dressed as her mother and father from 2003. In these blown-up images, Wearing’s wig, glue, and mask are made visible, though not pronounced. This evidence of the characters’ construction points to the mother and father themselves as constructed figures, reproduced and reimagined in our own memories, often tainted with shades of nostalgia. Rather than recognizing “Perfect Likeness” on a register as broad as the shared human condition (as the wall text suggests), I understand it as a touching time capsule — one that, in my opinion, will mark the set of issues facing photographers today.