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Seeing Through Monuments

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Sophie Calle, Anna and Bernhard Blume, Mat Collishaw, and Candida Höfer

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through August 19

Sophie Calle

at Donald Young, through August 25

The Summer Show

at Gallery 312, through August 5

By Fred Camper

Most successful works of art exercise some power or authority over the viewer, sometimes simply by virtue of their monumentality. But Sophie Calle's large photographs in the seven samples from her "Autobiographical Stories" series at the Museum of Contemporary Photography both magnify and question her subjects. Each photo is accompanied by an autobiographical text in a separate panel, but it's hard to know for sure whether the stories are true. A museum text introducing Calle's work says of her autobiographical statements, "It is impossible to ascertain if the memories are true, invented, or a mixture of both," and similar remarks appear in articles on Calle. But because of the stories' specificity and similarities to known facts, I asked her. Her response was that "all of the autobiographical details are true."

One of the reasons that may not be apparent is that the stories can be extreme. There's a kind of self-conscious pathos to them--Calle always seems to be a victim--magnified by her presentation. Autobiographical Stories (The Rival) includes a blowup of a typewritten letter enlarged to human size; the text explains that it was a love letter her lover wrote to another woman, which she altered somewhat to make it seem the letter was to her. Calle's presentation both puts the letter under a microscope and gives it a peculiar monumentality--but there's a certain element of self-parody as well. Presenting snapshots of her life as if they were heroic images of conquest rather than of victimhood, she tweaks the whole idea of monumental art. Substituting the most apparently trivial of personal details for the larger subjects common in wall paintings or modernist photography, she at once underlines the specific and mocks the importance we give our private lives.

Calle's work is also haunted by the idea of absence. The images she gives us are substitutions for what cannot be shown. The wedding chapel photo, the text tells us, was used to cover a hole in the wall made by the objects her husband threw at her, and in a sense all her images function similarly: they "cover" holes in her life, failures of the spirit, even the inability to truly see another. The text in Autobiographical Stories: The Amnesia tells us, "No matter how hard I try, I never remember the color of a man's eyes or the shape and size of his sex. But I decided a wife should know these things." The photo, however, shows a nude man from the chin down with his penis apparently tucked between his legs, invisible. It seems her full autobiography lies in an undepicted, undepictable realm. Yet her apparent sense of herself as a victim who can never really look life in the face could also be a reflection on her medium: documentary images can give us only the surface of a situation, not its essence. And there's a bit of self-aware humor in the failures and tragedies her photographs at once stand for and conceal: though they have real emotional weight, her display of them makes her self-centeredness seem a trifle absurd.

Calle, a French artist of international repute who began exhibiting in 1981, has done other work with similar themes. For the "Birthday Ceremony" series (four samples of which are on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography), she gave herself birthday dinners and invited the same number of guests as her age in years, then mounted--and now displays--the gifts she received in glass cases. In the "Last Seen..." series, five examples of which are at Donald Young, a text describing a recently stolen piece of art is paired with a photo, often of the place where the work used to hang. Three of these document empty, curtain-covered walls at Boston's Gardner Museum, victim of the most devastating unsolved art theft of recent years. The texts often mix description of the objects with personal observations. In Last Seen...(Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee), she tells us that "some of the apostles are looking panicky" and that she first saw a reproduction of the painting on the lid of a candy tin she got for Christmas as a child. As in "Autobiographical Stories," her texts achieve some of their power because they describe things we can only imagine; inverting the famous proverb, Calle suggests that a word is worth a thousand pictures.

Also at Donald Young are 12 works called Untitled (The Graves). Each consists of one to four black-and-white photographs of tombstones and their immediate surroundings, taken in two California cemeteries. Calle chose stones with generic names--"Father," "Mother," "Son"--emphasizing the impersonal aspect of these supposedly personal monuments, the most prominent trace that most of us leave behind. There's humor too in the way the imposingly carved names stare out at us with an excess of solemnity. And by printing these images to all different sizes, from two feet to six feet high, Calle emphasizes the arbitrariness of any means of representation or commemoration. Though these studies of solid textures have some of the same assertive solidity as the stones they depict, their varying sizes undercut the authority of monuments generally.

Most of the works, almost all made within the last decade, by other artists in the group shows at the Museum of Contemporary Photography and Gallery 312 also undercut the authority that images and objects traditionally have in art. Anna and Bernhard Blume's Metaphysics Is Men's Work, II at the museum consists of nine almost life-size photographic prints, mounted horizontally to cover nearly a whole wall, of the Blumes posing in a forest or of trees and logs. Read left to right, the sequence tells a bizarre, slapstick-surreal tale of disaster: people hanging from trees and falling, logs collapsing in a pile. The Blumes' exaggerated facial expressions suggest intentional self-parody, while the sequence of images is reminiscent of cinema--in the style of Buster Keaton meets Night of the Living Dead.

Candida Höfer's 16 color photos of research libraries, mostly grand reading rooms, are also at the museum. At 24 by 24 inches they're not huge, but they're still impressively large for photographic prints, and her stately compositions--usually devoid of human figures--emphasize the spaces' grandeur, their symmetry and elegance. Still, it's hard to take these as straight affirmative images. There's something strange about the rooms' emptiness and about the pairing of imperious architecture with the inner and immaterial act of reading.

Mat Collishaw's Shrunken Heads approaches the issue of power from a different perspective. He combines a realistic three-dimensional dioramalike old-fashioned village square with a video in which figures can be seen inside "a pub" through a window and then in the street just outside; two are fighting, and one fires a gun. The video monitor is placed at one edge of the town square, and the figures match the scale of the diorama, as if the action were meant to blend seamlessly with the static town--but of course it can't. Both forms of representation are shown to be artificial, but the video figures have a real power; when they exit the first-floor room, it's almost as if they were bursting out of the monitor and into the town.

Throwing together 15 Illinois artists in Gallery 312's "The Summer Show" would not appear to make for any real coherence, but the majority of these mostly young artists do deal with the authority of art, usually giving it a tinge of irony.

Derek Fansler's installation Set Piece parodies TV cop shows. The larger of two monitors (which has chairs facing it) shows a shootout, complete with splattered blood, between men wearing masks: the inverse of the Blumes' exaggerated faces, these masks perform a similar function, questioning the authenticity and power of acting. By providing only action and blood, Fansler reveals the mechanical emptiness of mass-media enterprises. A long shot in this video shows the set where much of the action takes place, a loftlike space many will recognize as a huge room in the University of Illinois at Chicago's art department. Fansler's art-student in-joke, whether intentional or not, adds another layer to his deconstruction of TV narratives.

Sally Alatalo's How We Know Her gives such cultural questioning a feminist slant. She mounts large, nicely framed photographs of businessmen from earlier eras of the gallery neighborhood, then titles them with the names of their wives--of whom she could learn little. The stately prominence of the photos' presentation--in a line high above the floor on a curved balcony--heightens her ironic point. Alan Labb in Girth makes a similar use of space to foreground social attitudes toward fat people. Two large digital prints, jointly 17 feet wide, depict a line of round-bellied men, seen from the chin to just above the penis. The prints are mounted convexly, curving out toward us just as the bellies appear to jut out from the flat paper.

Among my favorites in this exhibit were works by two painters who beat a gentle retreat from the battlefields where issues of power and authority are contested, instead cultivating their own gardens in handmade paintings and drawings rather than appropriated or media-mimicking imagery. Rachel Roske abjures the bold forms and hues common to color field painting in her five gentle, quiet color abstractions. Often her broad swaths of color are accompanied by very narrow bands, yet one feels all are equally important. Reminiscent of John McLaughlin's meditative geometrical abstractions, Roske's paintings, unlike his, are based on actual scenes, as her titles (Still Life With Pop Tarts...) indicate. The broad and narrow bands of gray and white alternating in the wonderfully still Kedzie suggest land, street, and sky but nothing of the roaring cars or exhaust fumes of the actual boulevard.

In his three paintings and 21 untitled drawings, Christopher Patch often both recapitulates and defuses mass culture's aspirations to grandeur. Two drawings of L-shaped sofas emphasize the depth of these elongated forms but also diminish them, partly because of their very small scale and the empty paper around them. Images of an outdoor barbeque or of several shirts drawn on lined paper are delineated with a precision that suggests a love of the smallest features--the colors of the barbeque's fake stones, the shapes of the shirts. Roske and Patch reclaim line and color from their function of glorifying the aristocracy or the personalities of individual artists, using them instead to rediscover the pleasure of looking at ordinary things.

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