Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Art: Stephen Shore at the ICP

I'm not a maniacal Shore fan, but I like his pictures enough that went to the ICP to see their Biographical Landscape: The Photography of Stephen Shore, 1969-1979. I've never been before, and never heard about anyone going, even though I roll with a museum-fanatic set, so I was surprised to see so many people there. They weren't looking at the Shore pictures, though. The museum has three additional shows up right now: a small, intimate room of magazine cuttings, scrapbook entries, and photographs of Amelia Earhart, another small room of photographs by Magnum's Chim (David Seymour), and the immensely popular Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits.

These are black and white portraits of mostly well-known, and a few lesser-known, African American musicians, athletes, writers and thinkers, freedom fighters and politicians, taken by a variety of photographers, most of them white (the exhibition does not anywhere mention that, only lists each photographer's name for each picture). While most of the photographs are stunning, I must, from a curatorial standpoint, denounce the exhibition, which reads like a fourth-grade primer covered every February (Black History Month). The wall labels, rather than discussing the photograph in any way (where or when or under what circumstance it was taken, its provenance, its composition, the way the photographer got access to the subject, etc.), merely give a biographical summary of the subject of the portrait. Perhaps thanks to those fourth-grade primers, I knew most of this information already. I recognize that others might not; perhaps they attended fourth-grade prior to the institution of Black History Month. Still, this is a museum of photography, and I expect the photography to be discussed. That said, everyone at the museum was looking at these pictures, and the pictures themselves were, on the whole, aesthetically compelling, although for reasons generally inadmissible: the subjects themselves are attractive and/or auratic. Is it then great photography? Better than what we see daily on the cover of US Weekly, but not necessarily better than anything by David La Chapelle. In fact, certainly not.

Onto Shore. The exhibition is a good one, including pictures from his 1970s heydays, large and small, a selection of found images, in particular postcards, that Shore collected, and pages from his scrapbook cataloging his photo-journalistic road trips. The scrapbooks I found particularly interesting, perhaps because I have recently completed a mini-roadtrip in Iceland, which I liveblogged. Shore included rudimentary details, including the number miles driven per day, the location and contents of each meal, and the hotels where he spent the night. He kept receipts, postcards depicting local sights, and in one instance, a parking ticket. Looking at these pages gave me a bit of a shake up as I realized that almost no one under the age of 30 is keeping a paper-based scrapbook today. Rather than launch into a vituperous and nostalgic bent about the loss of analog beauty in our digital age, a lament for generations of children who will no longer be able to eat paste—after all, for all the diaries, journals, and blank books my parents foisted upon me throughout my youth, being artists and writers both, I staunchly refused to use said books and never did any consistent journaling at all until I had my own laptop and later this blog—I will merely remark on the effects of the transition.

The youth of today will grow up and become the artists and writers of tomorrow, and their affects and memoirs will be digital. Therefore, the museums of the day after tomorrow will replace their vitrines with. . . screens? Terminals in which one can click through the dessicated blogger and livejournal pages of Artist2046? It hardly seems appropriate, given that blogger and livejournal are available world-wide in real time. If we can read artists' blogs today, we have no need for an institution like a museum to make public the hidden artifact tomorrow, which dismisses instantaneously not only the institution, but its concomitant trappings: boards of directors, fundraising, hobnobbing. . . curating?! PR, I'm certain, will come even more to the forefront, for fame will still be necessary if only to direct a viewing public toward what, in an ever-increasing panoply of media, it ought to view. Upon more thorough reflection, I don't suggest that all museums and the wealth-driven art market will in any way falter; discrete, physical works of art will continue to be created to fuel the fair beast. But the vitrines, surely, will go.

Back to Shore for a moment—there are questions inherent in his work, rather than merely associated to it, as my little (perhaps a bit vituperous after all) harangue up there. Again, however, the then-versus-now question cannot be ignored. That is, the very style and content of his pictures (giggle, but it's true)—interior decor, packaging, cuisine, fashion, architecture, graphic design, etc.—is inextricably tied to what was merely the quotidian aesthetic. His pictures are beautifully hokey, but that's because the 1970s appear to us today to be beautifully hokey (if you don't believe me, just check out the constant 70s-a-thon at American Apparel). I wonder, then, whether he ought even be considered so much an artist as a mere documentarian, whose pictures are of value now only because of the time elapsed since their processing. To support this proposition: two separate arguments. The first considers the work of Shore's contemporary, William Eggleston, who often made pictures in the same vein as Shore—fonts on sides of buildings, refrigerator interiors, people in goofy outfits. I saw a conversation between the two of them at a symposium last year, but what they said was less interesting than how they looked and the way they interacted with the moderator and the audience. Shore wore stonewashed jeans and a sweater; Eggleston wore a black tuxedo with white gloves (I kid you not). Shore was down-to-earth and discussed his recent exploration with digital cameras; Eggleston was effete, inscrutable, and hard of hearing, and admitted a combination of fear and disgust with digital cameras. Compare, though, this Eggleston picture from the 1991 portfolio to a picture by Shore in a similar vein:

I admit to cheating a bit by choosing a rather boring Shore picture (the one at the top of this post, with the melon and pancakes, is better), but to be fair, for all of its stunning, balanced beauty, the Eggleston picture is far from his best as well. I choose these two because they show a straightforward comparison. We see Eggleston's artistic impulse, which documents in spite of itself, contrasted with Shore's documentary impulse, which comes off as artistic, in spite of itself. Perhaps it's ultimately a personal choice; I've run into the odd person who prefers Shore to Eggleston (low-fi lovin' hipsters, usually), but there is a rich depth in Eggleston that Shore rarely reaches, and that depth is what makes a photographer an artist rather than just a dude with a camera.

So I would argue that if Eggleston and Shore each took a picture of the same hotel room on August 25, 1974, Eggleston's picture would be great on August 25th, 1974, but Shore's wouldn't be any good until August of 1998. What makes this interesting, and which brings me to my second piece of supporting evidence for my anti-Shore (okay, that's a bit harsh, but you know) argument is the inclusion of some newer work in the ICP's show. Shore had admitted to experimenting with digital at that symposium I mentioned, and the fruits of these experiments are on view: Apple iPhoto books, eight of them, on a variety of topics: flowers in the garden, a family outing to the beach, etc. The pictures are dull, dull, dull. Some are better than others, but on the whole, they stink (with the exception of this rad shot, which looks like something of a Gursky-meet-Misrach or Jeff Wall-meet-Ansel Adams rip-off):

It follows my theory, though, that the pictures Shore is taking today aren't any good today. We'll have to wait 20 or 30 years to witness the completion of this proof; will they be good pictures in 2030? Probably, yeah. Which brings us around to another oh-my-God-what-does-this-mean-for-the-future-of-art moment: all of today's visual ephemera will be sexy in 2050.

1 comment:

courtney said...

Why is there no bacon at this breakfast? And who, pray tell, wants to eat that much melon? Ugh!